A long time ago, in a kibbutz far away . . .
Yoav was my kibbutz brother, secular and an ardent Zionist. He had an encyclopedic mind that could recite in detail kibbutz history, lore and socialist ideology. Today, Yoav is an equally intense, knowledgeable and ideological Charedi guy living in the Midwest. He recently offered to pay me money for introducing him to the woman he married more than 25 years ago.
I refused to accept it.
Our friendship dates back to the summer of 1970, when I was 19 years old. He was 17. It was my first trip to Israel.
I was standing in the chaotic Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, with no idea where I was going. While deciphering the schedules, I met some other American students, who told me they were spending the summer on a kibbutz where there were plenty of extra beds, a beautiful pool, free food and lots of beautiful German volunteers. I remembered my mother’s last admonishment before I got on the plane in Los Angeles: “Don’t end up on one of those communist kibbutzes and become a socialist having nonstop sex with all the other communists who want to live communally.”
There was no way I was going to resist this kibbutz invitation.
A few hours later when we arrived at our destination, I asked my American hosts many questions about the place. They said, “Let’s introduce you to Yoav. He loves to tell the Americans about the kibbutz.”
As Yoav led me through the grounds, we bonded instantly. He was a brilliant, deep, complicated thinker. That afternoon he invited me to his parents’ house for the 4 p.m. tea, where I met his entire family.
They became my Israeli family. I returned to the kibbutz for several summers. His parents were like my own parents, quenching and stimulating the thirst I had for understanding Israel and the Jewish people. They embraced me and scolded me. Yoav and I spent hours, late into the night, in ideological discussions, challenging one another’s views. When I returned to Los Angeles, we wrote long letters continuing on the summer’s debates.
Two years after he went into the army, he evaporated. He stopped writing. My last summer at the kibbutz, he never appeared. His parents did not know what to tell me.
I married. I began a profession. Five, maybe six years later, I received a phone call one day in Los Angeles. “This is Yoav.”
During our first meeting, he was icy cold. We met again, and he warmed up a bit. We met a third time, and the ice melted and the river began to rush with explanations and admissions. His army years were terrible. He was now questioning the legitimacy of kibbutz life and the entire Zionist enterprise. He was angry and cynical. He hated anything having to do with Judaism.
He knew two people in Los Angeles — me and a young lady named Suzie, who had lived on the kibbutz for several years. Suzie and I were both in advertising and sometimes did business together. She had an employee, a young Jewish woman who had moved to Los Angeles from a small town in the Midwest. We determined to fix her up with Yoav.
They eventually married. I was the best man at their wedding.
They began their married life in Los Angeles. Yoav left his cynicism behind and in Torah and Jewish learning found a path to funnel his questioning and his depth. The couple moved to a big city in the Midwest, near the town where they got married. I went once to visit, and then he again disappeared — into a world of yeshiva life, with little time to see me.
My wife and I had three children. We began to take regular trips to Israel. On each trip, we made certain to go to the kibbutz. Yoav’s family embraced me, my wife and our children as part of their family. We have remained very close until this day. Yoav’s ultra-orthodoxy has not been easy for them.
Over the last 16 years, since my visit to see Yoav, he and I have spoken about three times, mainly in my phone calls when his father died.
I’ve waited to tell this story, because I didn’t know what its ending would be.
Two years ago, my assistant announced, “There’s a guy named Yoav on the phone. He said he must speak with you.”
I picked up.
“Gary, can you tell me the story of how you introduced me to Cheryl?” No small talk. No exchange of pleasantries.
I decided to go with the flow. “Yoav, is it your 25th anniversary, or something?”
“Yes,” he answered tentatively.
I began to jog my memory, jumping into the conversation as if it was natural. I didn’t want to do anything to make it difficult.
“Were you the actual person who introduced us, or was it Suzie? I need to know the exact details.”
As I began to think back, something about the question did not feel right. I asked, “Yoav, what is this really about?”
He hesitated. “It is not really about our anniversary. It’s time for us to find a shiddach for our son, and my rabbi asked if I had paid the shadchan who set up my marriage to Cheryl. When I told him that I didn’t, he said I must, otherwise our son’s shiddach may be visited with some unfortunate circumstances. And I am pretty sure that you, Gary, not Suzie, were the actual shadchan.”
I was taken aback, understanding he wanted to pay me for an act of friendship that happened 25 years ago. But, I thought quickly. “Yoav, is the payment only to be in the form of money?”
“What?” he asked, equally taken aback by my question.
I repeated the question.
“My rabbi said I have to pay the shadchan. I am sure it must be in the form of money.”
“Did he actually mention money, or did he just mention ‘payment’?”
He fumbled his words. We went back and forth. We were once again into the ideological discussion rhythm that we had established for ourselves 30 years before. It was familiar, and it was frustrating. Yet, there was none of the warmth that used to lace every volley.
As men in our 50s, we were getting nowhere with the discussion. Finally, I stopped the bouncing ball.
“Yoav, why am I asking you this question?”
“I know, Gary, why you are asking me this question.”
“Why, Yoav? Why did I introduce you to Cheryl?” I wasn’t going to let it slide.
He hesitated for a long time. I could feel his angst. But I didn’t intervene to create any comfort. “Because you were my very good friend. You saw I was lonely. You loved me like a brother.”
I could tell he hated to have to admit it. But I know this man. He had no choice, when it came to his soul, but to tell the truth.
“And 25 years later, you’re now going to offer to pay me money for that act?”
“I did not mean to offend you. I am not trying to insult you. That is not my intention. It is what we do in my community.”
“I don’t believe you are trying to insult me at all. But if you must pay because of your community’s belief system, I suggest that money is the wrong payment in exchange for being a good friend and loving you like a brother. There is something wrong with this equation, Yoav. If this is now a business conversation, what if the ‘seller of the service’ is saying that money is the wrong payment?”
I heard him take a deep breath. “Gary, our lives are very different from one another.”
“How would you know anything about my life and that it may be different from yours? How do you know what I believe and think, what my experiences have been and what my Jewish involvements are?”
He again hesitated. “You are right. I don’t know.”
I waited. There was a very long silence. “Gary, I think there needs to be some more conversation between us at another point.”
Two months later, I received a kiddush cup in the mail. It’s now been two years. I’ve never heard from him.
Gary Wexler is founder and president of Los Angeles-based Passion Marketing, consulting with Jewish and general nonprofit organizations throughout the world.