Acquire a friend for yourself

I received two interesting emails last week that took years — make that decades — off my biological age, mentally at least.

The first was from a friend of almost 60 years. We met as high school sophomores in September 1961, hit it off right away, were high school and college roommates, and notwithstanding his family’s aliyah and our sometimes differing ways of viewing the world (Jewish and not), we’ve been very close friends ever since — the type of friendship that morphs into family. We can go months with no contact, but on those occasions, pre-covid, when we were able to get together (more often on my side of the Atlantic than his), we could share stories and memories and laughs and ideas and disagreements in ways that only 60 years of friendship allow.

There were other, newer friends on the email thread; that is, guys I met in college, so I know them for only about 56 years, one of whom is also in that special category of friends cum family. While we’re all grandfathers (and some great-grandfathers) now, sometimes we revert to just a bunch of YU guys enjoying each other’s company.

The topic of the email and the ensuing thread was a memory from our college days, an evening we spent in a Village club listening to David Steinberg before he was the David Steinberg of Smothers Brothers, Johnny Carson, and television director fame. The David Steinberg we heard was just an aspiring comic telling Bible stories as only he could tell them. This is why a bunch of yeshiva boys (and we were boys) ended up in the Bitter End, listening to the son of a Canadian Orthodox rabbi telling stories about God and Moses that were not quite the God-Moses stories we heard at home and learned in school

The second was also a group email among friends who’ve known each other even longer. Some of us go back more than 68 years, to the beginning of our elementary school days at the Hebrew Institute of Long Island (HILI), and who, amazingly, still feel a special closeness engendered by being part of a most special class — a group that has actually had “class tables” at some weddings of our children.

This thread also dealt with a specific memory, one about our moving on from elementary to high school, and various options that some were grappling with then. But that specific memory led to others, and names of people and institutions were brought up that haven’t crossed my mind for many decades. Once these reminiscences hit the (virtual) page, however, my brain started shooting off sparks, and memories and pictures of faces and places started flooding in.

Some things, though, didn’t need a jump start. One friend dropped another’s name (I’ll call him Moishy though that’s not his name), adding, almost in passing, that Moishy’s bar mitzvah parsha was Bo (last week’s Torah reading). I responded:

“I think one of the most amazing things about this email discussion is not only that you know that Moishy’s bar mitzvah parsha is Bo but that I also knew it before you wrote. It was 61 years ago, and if you had asked me last month what Moishy’s bar mitzvah parsha was I would have known the answer immediately! The name of the guy I was chatting with at the vaccination center last week? Who knows? But Moishy’s bar mitzvah parsha? Bo, of course.”

In the ensuing discussions in both email threads, our reactions varied. Some remembered nothing, and of those who did remember, there was disagreement about the details. Some relished the memory, while others felt a bit uncomfortable. But the fact that we were able to share these recollections and joint history many decades later brought a special sweetness into an otherwise difficult time of pandemic, worries over vaccinations, loss of loved ones, and political divisiveness. We could take our minds off those dreary topics for a few moments and enjoy arguing about what exactly David Steinberg, known to his friends as Dudi, said to our group (to which he directed his entire performance, one yeshiva boy to others, while ignoring the rest of the audience), and what precisely went on with the possibility of starting that new Far Rockaway yeshiva high school that never got off the ground.

It’s these shared memories that make this type of friendship especially warm and comforting. We remember each other’s bar mitzvah parshas, evenings out together, and 60-year old telephone numbers; we remember our third-grade teachers and our Shabbat oneg leaders (indeed, one of our elementary school group is still in touch with an oneg leader and they’re trying to arrange — you guessed it — an oneg). We remember how we spent carefree summer days before Jewish kids living 10 blocks from the beach began going to sleepaway camps, and where we were and who we were with while watching Elvis, and then the Beatles, debut on Ed Sullivan. We remember driving down to Ratner’s at 3 a.m. for an early breakfast and lots of onion rolls to take back to the dorm, and watching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — then Lew Alcindor — play for Power Memorial against a Dean Meminger led Rice team. (Power won. You can see highlights on YouTube but we were there.)

More sadly, we remember departed classmates and teachers, school buildings turned to rubble, and where we were when JFK was shot and how some of us spent that weekend together, sharing the trauma and further cementing our bond.

Perhaps most poignantly, we vividly remember our friends’ siblings and parents and, for many, even grandparents. Remembering grandparents who weren’t yours form a tie, establishes a relationship, fortifies a link, that the passing of decades often enhances rather than diminishes.

Simon and Garfunkel sang in “Old Friends,” “Sat on a park bench like bookends. Can you imagine us years from today/Sharing a park bench quietly?/How terribly strange to be 70. Old friends, memory brushes the same years/Silently sharing the same fears.”

I don’t have to imagine being 70. It’s not strange; it’s simply life for those of us so blessed. We may share email and WhatsApp rather than a park bench, and talk, rather than be silent, about our fears. But the bookends metaphor resonates. Like bookends which hold together books containing stories, we old friends also hold together stories — the stories of our youth, of our past, of our growing up, of our special and ordinary times together, of our families, and of those no longer with us. And that makes the memories that brush our years together so very special.

Avot (1:5) teaches “acquire for yourself a friend.” We understand, though, that people don’t acquire friends, as they do a car or a house, with the payment of money. Rather, the type of friends in my email groups was acquired by the payment of decades of building what became a common history, a mutual past, a collection of shared memories. When acquired thusly, old friends become, as the Chinese Confucian philosopher Mencius said, “the siblings God never gave us.” A true Godly gift.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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