November 17, 2018

A Lesson in Friendship

I had met Reuven on a midnight coach in London, traveling from Gatwick to Heathrow Airport. We were the only two people on the bus. It would have been strange not to sit together, having both just flown on the same plane from Tel Aviv to London. In Jerusalem, where he lived and I had just been, chances are we would have never met. Reuven wore a black hat, coat and payot. He was nondistinctive to me, just like thousands of other ultra-Orthodox Jews who were infiltrating every nook and cranny of Jerusalem.To him, I am certain I appeared like the basic secular, American Jew. We approached each other gingerly in our conversation, asking polite questions back and forth. He was on his way for his brother-in-law’s wedding. I was returning from a business trip, having just completed a marketing campaign for Peace Now.Even though we had flown the same route, our paths couldn’t have been more different. Yet, there came a point during that hour when the floodgates gave way and we talked and talked.

When we reached Heathrow, I sat with him until his plane took off for New York. As he rose to board, he wrote down his phone number. “Next time you are in Jerusalem, Gary, please call.”

Six months later, the first thing I did when I arrived in Israel was to phone Reuven.

As he came on the other end, amidst the tumult of what sounded like a thousand kids, there were at first no words. I could hear him breathing. “I never thought I’d hear from you.”

“You are the first phone call I’ve made.”

“I’ve told everyone I know about you,” he now shouted above the noise.

“And so have I.” We both laughed.

“You’ll come and spend Shabbos?”

“No.” I knew I could be honest. I wanted to check out the whole scene before I committed to living in it, even just for 24 hours. “What if I come just for Shabbat afternoon?”

“Wonderful. I’ll meet you at Kikar Shabbos in Mea Shearim at 4 o’clock. I’ll explain how to get there.””I have a question, first,” I said. “What don’t you want me to do?”

He paused. “Thank you for asking. Please don’t have money on you, and please,” he hesitated with a bit of discomfort, “walk all the way.”

I could never have imagined the journey which lay ahead. On Shabbat, I walked through downtown, secular Jerusalem. I crossed the normally teeming Jaffa Road into a quiet, eerie no-man’s land, a block that hung in the balance between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. A minute later, I approached the traffic road blocks at the Street of the Prophets. As I stepped over into Reuven’s world, the atmosphere abruptly changed.

Thousands of people were parading down open streets devoid of vehicular traffic. They were in their Sabbath best – women in long dresses and wigs, men in striped robes with furry hats on their heads. There were thousands of baby strollers, thousands of little kids trailing behind them. People talking, people praying… I fully expected at any second a director would appear shouting, “Cut. Let’s start the scene over.”I met Reuven. First we shook hands. Then there was a spontaneous hug between us.

We began to walk and talk. Throughout the area, people would stop and greet him with great respect for such a young man. He was about 35 years old. A few minutes later, he abruptly halted. “I must tell you something.”

I waited.

“We live in a ghetto.”

I peered around me incredulously. “I think I figured that out.”

“No, Gary. You don’t understand. I live in a ghetto. It’s called the Lithuanian Chawtzer (Lithuanian Court).”

Twenty minutes later when we arrived, my mouth visibly dropped open. “You’re right, Reuven. I didn’t understand.”

In front of me were long rows of massive apartment blocks. There was a crude cement roadway between them where about 500 charedi (ultra-Orthodox) girls were jumping rope. It was Shabbos everywhere. I was the only non-charedi person in the neighborhood. At that moment, I realized I had not seen any other non-charedi as we walked.

As we approached his building, he again halted. “I need to tell you something else.”

Again, I stood waiting. “My family has never met anyone like you.”

At that moment, I began to wonder, knowing the closed structures of the ultra-Orthodox and the way they protect their environment and families against outsiders, how it was that he was bringing me into his home. I wondered how he would so publicly walk with me through the streets of his world.

When we arrived at his apartment and he opened the door, his pregnant wife and seven children almost fell across the threshold, having stood in the hallway anticipating this strange visitor from another planet.

The apartment was tiny, sparsely furnished with photos of rebbes on the walls. His wife was talkative and polite. The kids, after being introduced, remained wide-eyed and quiet.

We sat down for shala shudes, the third Sabbath meal. I could sense an unease with this strange visitor at the table. Then Reuven and his kids began to sing zmirot (Shabbat tunes). I waited a minute and joined in. When I started to sing, they all turned to me. I could see the shock and relief on their faces that suddenly, I was one of them.

We continued to sing and challenge one another with melodies. The kids opened up and told me excitedly about their studies.

Then Reuven stood and announced he was going to shul. “You don’t have to come,” he told me.”No. No. I’m here. I’m coming.” Five minutes later, we entered into what could best be described as Minyanville. It was a musty hall crowded with endless book shelves of Torah texts, as well as men all in black and white. There were about 20 distinct groups of these men engaged in prayer taking place among the din. As one minyan would end, another group would immediately take its place. By the time ours ended, there were 19 new ones.

As we finished, Reuven took me off to the side asking very carefully, “Do you remember in London you told me that whenever you study Gemara it never touches you?”

“You have an excellent memory,” I told him. The biblical exegesis of the Talmudic rabbis hardly ever inspired me.

“I’ve prepared a Gemara to study with you. But only if you want.”

I didn’t hesitate for a minute. We sat down across from one another as the minyanim continued on the other side. Now Reuven was my teacher. His teaching touched me deeply. He was a brilliant, sensitive guide. He knew when and how to push me and when to stand back. He threw continual interpretive challenges. He knew when to use Hebrew and when to use English. After two hours, as the time slid by quickly, he also knew when to stop. Then he leaned over and said, “I’ve invited some people to the house to meet you.”When we returned, his tiny apartment was filled with people. Everyone was friendly, asking questions about my life, my wife, my kids, my shul, the day school. They were very curious. At a few minutes to midnight, Reuven announced he was going to Slichot services. It was few nights before Rosh Hashanah. Once again, he said I didn’t have to come.

And once again, I went. We walked into his kollel (study institution). Reuven was immediately thronged by yeshiva bochers. I felt a tapping on my shoulder. I turned and was faced by about 20 young men.

“Are you with Reb Reuven?”


“Do you know who he is?” one of them asked excitedly.

“I think I’m beginning to figure it out.”

“He’s one of the iluyim of Jerusalem,” he said, using the term for the most venerated of Torah scholars.

Now I understood why Reuven was able to bring me into the neighborhood, into his home, into his shul, invite people to meet me, and then into his yeshiva. No one would question the actions of an ilui. I further understood his ability to teach me, to move so adroitly into the issues of my world and professional endeavors while we were in London.

My relationship with Reuven has continued to grow through further visits, meals with my wife and his wife, and through study. He has brought me as his study partner into all the gr
eat yeshivas of Jerusalem. He wants me to see them all.

There have been moments of tension between our two lives – our two very different forms of Judaism. There was one instant where I thought the relationship could not hold the tension and would self-destruct. A year and a half ago, the charedim of Jerusalem demonstrated against the Israeli Supreme Court in favor of Jewish law over democratic rule. I called him the night after to ask if he was there.

“Of course I was there,” he told me proudly, “and I brought all my students.”

I said that I believed his actions were a grave error for the future of Israel and the Jewish people.

He was silent. “Is this okay, Reuven?” I asked. Again, silence. Then finally, he said, “So far, so good.”

A minute later I hung up the phone. It was 3 p.m. in L.A., 1 a.m. in Jerusalem. Ten minutes later, I called him back. “Reuven,” I said.

“I knew it was you, Gary.”

“I’m very bothered. Here is what ‘so far, so good,’ means. You have all your charedi borders, all the frameworks of your life. ‘So far,’ I haven’t tapped on any of them. But when and if I do, it might not be ‘so good.’ And then this friendship might be over. Here is my question to you, the man who is always asking me questions. What level of holiness do you put upon friendship and what level do you put upon your charedi borders? I am not invading your borders. I am only asking questions.”

There was total silence on the line. About 20 seconds later, he said almost inaudibly, “I have never had anyone like you in my life. I have to get off the phone now.”

A moment later I sat looking at the phone, believing we had had our last conversation.

The next morning when I came to work, I was faced with a 10-page fax. It began, “I cannot sleep because of your question. The only way I know how to deal with it and find an answer is through Torah. He began to cite sources.

He added his own commentary. He debated with the sources and with himself. On the last page, he closed with the line, “You are right. Friendship is holy. Thank you for being my teacher.”