Flee to Be Me

What is a friend? When I was a kid, the requirements were none too stringent. Is he in my class? Can I ride my bicycle to his house? Do his parents have any insane “not too much candy before dinner” rules?

As I got older, other factors became more important. Do we root for the same team? Are we willing to lie to our parents for each other? Does he have a bong?

Now that I’m one half of a couple (actually, 49 percent when it comes to decision making, 51 percent when it comes to heavy lifting) friendship is trickier. Are our children the same age? Do our families have comparable incomes? Do they have a bong?

I have come to realize that not everyone I hang around with is a friend. Some of them are acquaintances, sidekicks, chums and cronies. At this point in my life, there is only one criterion that determines if someone is a true friend: Would he hide me from Hitler?

I am, of course, referring to the metaphorical Hitler. The actual Hitler is dead. Or is he? (That was for the paranoid among you. You know who you are. And we know who you are. OK, I’ll stop now.)

It says a lot about Jewish history that I would even entertain this line of thought, but it’s hard to refute the fact that people are, with alarming regularity, trying to wipe Jews off the face of the earth (unless you happen to belong to one of the many groups who are, with alarming regularity, trying to wipe Jews off the face of the earth, in which case it’s easy to refute the fact that people are, with alarming regularity, trying to wipe Jews off the face of the earth). And, with anti-Semitism at its highest level since … minutes ago (let’s face it, hating Jews is kind of like chronic pain — even on days when it doesn’t seem so bad you know it’s still there) it’s a necessary way to think. Non-Jews don’t have to think this way. There is no Scandinavian word for “pogrom.”

That’s why, to me, the ideal friend is a non-Jew (in the event of another Hitler, Jews are no good to me — even the blonde ones) who likes baseball, has an 11-year-old boy who plays computer games the way fish swim, has a wife who loves to talk on the phone — and has built a large, hidden shelter under the floorboards of his living room.

I come by this way of thinking honestly. My grandparents fled Poland in the early 1930s. Before that, you can trace my family back to Spain, where we fled the Inquisition. And, although I have no proof, I’m pretty sure that we’ve also fled the Egyptians, Babylonians and Canaanites. My family has a long history of fleeing.

We’re also proof of Darwinism. At 5-foot-8-inches tall (if you can use the word “tall” following 5-foot-8), I would play center on the Nemetz Family basketball team, a relative giant among Nemetzes. We are an example of survival of the shortest. My family was bred for hiding — in a crawl space, behind a sofa, under an ottoman — we fit anywhere.

Unfortunately, it’s a skill that may come in handy sooner rather than later. When I see the passage of The Patriot Act, which broadens the scope of the government’s powers while limiting the rights of certain individuals; when I see people voting in record numbers, partly to implement a ban on gay marriage, it sets off alarm bells on my “flee-dar.” Because if history teaches us anything (and if you had some of my history teachers, it didn’t) it teaches us that whenever a group of people exhibits any kind of intolerance toward another group of people, the intolerant group will eventually turn on the Jews.

You may think this a touch paranoid. However, my family has outlasted both the Roman and Greek empires. You don’t run into a lot of Mesopotamians or Assyrians at the mall. But you may see some Nemetzes (most likely my wife, buying shoes). We’re still here because, when it comes to the “fight or flight” instinct, we’re not so good at fight but we’re Hall of Famers when it comes to flight.

So next Saturday while you’re in shul, I’ll be at The Home Depot. They’re giving a class on how to build a shelter, and I’m going to buddy up to the teacher.

Howard Nemetz is almost as good looking as his picture.

He Said: Ready for Second Time Around

I spent months planning our weekend trip to Las Vegas: from an indulgent massage at Mandara day spa and dinner at Mon Ami Gabi to "Mamma Mia" at the Mandalay Bay. Wendy was having a fabulous time.

But when I suggested we go to the top of the Eiffel Tower replica at Paris, where we were staying, my Francophile stopped me cold at the elevator.

"We need to talk," she said.

My heart sank as I tapped nervously on the ring box in my pocket. She knew what was coming next and suggested we find someplace to talk over dessert. The momentum of the evening was lost.

Part of me wished that she would have stepped into that elevator with me and not looked back, but we’re both seasoned veterans. Young and impetuous didn’t work too well for our first marriages. We knew that taking that ride up would change our lives in ways that required some deeper introspection. Instead, we kept our feet on the ground.

We talked the rest of the night and into most of the next day about her marriage fears and mine. We wrestled with our anxieties as we strolled through the Venetian and the Bellagio’s botanical gardens. Was I ready to become a stepfather? Were we ready to marry again? What would we do differently to keep a marriage together?

Ending a marriage is painful, and difficult to recover from; the term "civil divorce" seems an oxymoron. But like a forest after a wildfire, love inevitably sprouts again from scorched earth. The trick is to keep from getting burned again.

According to the Stepfamily Association of America, 75 percent of divorced people will remarry, but 60 percent of those marriages end in divorce — it’s a statistic that guided much of our discussion. Divorce was hard on both of us the first time around. The last thing we wanted was a sequel.

In her book "Starter Marriage," journalist Pamela Paul interviewed more than 60 GenX couples that divorced after a few years of marriage. She found that many of them were children of divorced parents who still held marriage up as their ideal. However, they lacked a realistic expectation of what marriage can and cannot offer.

We both took our first marriages as far as they were going to go, but that doesn’t mean that they were failures. According to relationship expert Dr. Barbara De Angelis, if we had stayed in a failed relationship that would have been a failure on our part. Instead, we look back on our first marriages as learning experiences that teach us how to improve ourselves and our relationships.

Compatibility is key. Wendy and I refer to each other as our "evil twin," but I prefer to think that we bring out the best in each other. It doesn’t hurt that we want the same things in life or that I love her kids. We’re active listeners and open with our feelings, and we’ve both been down the same road, so we know what the bumps and the potholes look like.

Our relationship on many levels is so beshert that Wendy once gave me a long look and said, "I waited for you. What took you so long?"

When checkout time came and went, I was left to wonder what the future would hold for us as a couple. As we waited for our bags and our ride to McCarran airport, Wendy turned to me and said, "You should do it now."

Assuming she meant that our bags were ready, I started walking over to one of the attendants.

"No," she yelled, motioning for me to come back to her. "Ask me the question."

I know that when Wendy and I sign the ketubah and exchange our vows and rings, it probably won’t go as smoothly as we’d hoped. According to the the Yiddish aphorism: Man plans, God laughs. The cake could arrive late, someone might end up in the pool during the reception or — please, no — it could rain.

Things so rarely go according to plan. But if our wedding is anything like our engagement, it will still be perfect to us.