For those of a certain generation, the “Cheers” and “Friends” sitcoms were the gold standard of a television age that transformed often implausible set-ups — regulars in a bar where everyone knows your name? Friends gathering in two oversize Manhattan apartments that they certainly can’t afford, and in a coffee bar with chairs as oversized as the apartments? — into entertainment that consistently produced belly laughs.
But this column has nothing to do with those shows; it’s not an analysis of the relationships between Sam and Diane, Coach and Carla, Norm and Cliff, and Woody and Frasier, or Ross and Rachel, Monica and Chandler, and Joey and Phoebe. (I don’t know whether to be proud or embarrassed — or both — that I was able to come up with all those names without resorting to Google.) Rather, it’s a look at more personal and real relationships, or, as the title suggests, it’s cheers — in the sense of a toast over a glass of an intoxicating beverage (or in my case a Diet Coke, since fine wines and expensive single malts are wasted on my palate) — to friends; that is, to those who, unlike family, we choose or are chosen by to make life more memorable, exciting, sweet, consequential, and meaningful.
There’s a section in the New York Times Book Review called “By the Book,” where an editor conducts a short interview with an author every week. One often-asked question is how the authors organize their books at home. My answer would be a classically Jewish one: it depends. Some are organized by topic (e.g., all books by or about the Rav are in one location; mysteries, including my complete Agatha Christie collection, in another), others by Jewish holiday (i.e., dozens of haggadot take up an entire shelf plus), some by size, and yet still others are simply an amalgam of random books that have found no other home.
But there are two stacks of books that are carefully curated and have special, prominent locations: one written by friends (and family) and another written by a single friend who remains in our lives in memory only. And here’s my toast to them.
What strikes me most about the books by our friends is their eclectic nature: a history of the Eichmann trial by a soon-to-be United States ambassador; a sex manual for Jewish newlyweds (make that “physical intimacy,” the term used in the title, because, as the author explained to me, Jewish bookstores won’t carry a book with “sex” in its title); a history of Jewish ceremonies for newborn girls (which cites a number of times my very first published article, “An Orthodox Simchat Bat”); an analysis of Jewish ethical values; a scholarly examination of holding and psychoanalysis (by a dear friend who’s written, among numerous scholarly articles, seminal papers on the psychological underpinning of Jewish mourning rituals); an autobiography in Hebrew by one of Sharon’s childhood friends who became a basketball announcer on Israeli television; legal essays by a highly respected American jurist; a compilation of weekly columns by a leading Jewish journalist (“leading” should make it clear that the journalist’s not me); a history of a 1960s-70s Jewish college organization called Yavneh; and a children’s book about a sukkah (by an elementary school friend with whom I go back, in some ways, the longest, since we share a birthday).
This eclecticism is one of the things that makes friendships so enriching for me. In our age of rampant social media and hundreds of cable channels, we too often live in echo chambers, in silos where our own thoughts, interests, and opinions have little interference from outside or conflicting ones. We’re sure we’re right because everybody agrees with, or thinks like, us.
They don’t, and my friends remind me of that important fact.
Recently, I was taking a Zoom class moderated by a prominent local Jewish educator whom I’ve known since we were kids. I logged on a few minutes early to chat and he said, excitedly, “I learned something about you this week that I never knew.” Surprised, I asked “What?” and he replied with a smile, “I didn’t know you had many conservative friends. I thought I was the only one.” Well he isn’t (see “Caryn Elaine Johnson,” which he obviously did; hence his comment). And that’s a good thing, both for me and, I hope, for those misguided, though wonderful, conservatives who may still see the light one day. (If this were a text or Facebook post I’d add a number of smiley face emojis to the end of this last sentence.)
So when a friend criticizes a column because it was too far left, I’m happy he’s read it and we’re friendly enough that he can very politely point out where I went wrong. And he might even be correct (though in this case he wasn’t — cue up that emoji again). And when Sharon and I have a multi-hour Zoom catch-up visit with a couple whose friendship is so deep that it feels like family, and with whom we were able to discuss, often but not always in agreement, the important issues of the day, both Jewish and world-wide, what’s doing in our personal lives (mainly, but not exclusively, grandkids), with a dollop or two (oh hell, lots more) of giggling and gossip, I was able to look over at that stack, see his book there, and be happy that he’s on my shelf and they’re in our lives.
That other stack of books, though, a stack that includes the most successful business book of the last decade, brings both joy that the author was once such a real presence in our lives and sadness that when we think, as we sometimes still do, “I wonder what Michael would say about that,” we can no longer ask him. Or laugh at his jokes and be awed (and often overwhelmed) by his brilliance while being warmed by his generous spirit.
I could go on and, in fact, I did in a piece written shortly after his death called “My Friend, My Brother.” While it never appeared in print, it was published in the online edition of The Jewish Week. Unfortunately, it no longer appears anywhere on the web that I can find. (Everlasting thanks to any reader who can find it and provide me with a link.)
So let me try to touch on just a snippet of our friendship highlighted in my favorite story that I told in that remembrance. On our last visit to his summer house in the Berkshires just before he died, we were discussing Joseph Welch of McCarthy hearing fame around the Shabbat table. “I have a trivia question for you,” Michael announced; “what . . . .” I needed no more as I interrupted with the answer: “Anatomy of a Murder.” You surely know that was the movie in which Welch had a cameo role as the judge. You don’t? Well, neither did our wives, Sharon and Phyllis, who marveled that I knew not only the answer but also the question before it was asked.
Of course that’s what Michael was thinking; what else could it be? We would finish each other’s sentences and answer unasked questions.
Ours was friendship at its deepest. But even so, we didn’t always agree; far from it. But in agreement or disagreement, in seeing eye-to-eye or being at loggerheads, in voting for the same candidate or opponents, in leaning left or tilting right, we heard each other, learned from each other, understood each other, loved each other.
So when I look at these two stacks of books in my living room, my friendship books, I’m reminded that “the greatest gift of life is friendship, and I have received it” (Hubert Humphrey), and that “friends are the siblings God never gave us” (Mencius). And that the still present pain of the loss of a beloved friend helps me appreciate the blessings I have from those friends who still surround me in books and in life.