It was in Paris, two weeks ago, when I had a remarkable encounter with a man in Chassidic attire. He recognized my Dutch license plate and asked if I was familiar with the Vondelpark in Amsterdam. Curious about his story, I listened attentively as he shared his memory.
In the ’80s, he was a hippie, searching for adventure and meaning. This led him to the Vondelpark, a central park in Amsterdam, with a sign in front of him that read: “Looking for a Volkswagen van.” A tourist who saw him started laughing and took a photo of the adventurer with his Polaroid camera, which he then showed to the hippie. What turned out to be? Right next to him sat another hippie with a sign that said: “Volkswagen van for sale.” The deal was quickly sealed, and the hippie departed, with his hippie-van, to a flower-power festival in Groningen.
The photo and the incident made him think: The solution had been right beside him for four days, unnoticed. His presumed open view of life as a hippie hadn’t shown him where he truly was. He was unable – due to his limited vision – to help his neighbor and thus, himself.
After three weeks of contemplation, he decided to sell his Volkswagen van (without a loss, he proudly told me) and returned to the United States. There, he delved into his Jewish identity, which he had initially resisted, and found the important answers he was seeking. He married, started a family, and as he told me his life story, he participated in the Chuppah, the Jewish wedding, of his grandchild.
The cliché “the solution is sometimes closer than you think” is familiar, but sometimes we also need a tourist with a Polaroid camera, whether smiling or not, to show us that image. An image that tells us how we can serve our community and individual interests more efficiently and purposefully.
I am still searching for that tourist, that person who points out what we might be overlooking. Perhaps it’s not one specific person, but we can all be that tourist for each other. Perhaps we can listen to each other’s stories and be open to new perspectives. Maybe together, we can discover and realize that the solutions to our challenges are hidden in the most unexpected places, ready to be uncovered, as long as there’s a willingness to look. Even without a Polaroid camera.
This Column is a translation of a previously published column in Dutch for the Netherlands Jewish Weekly NIW.
The author can be reached through www.chabadoncampus.nl