Monday, December 6, 2010

Loved to Death

Sitting at my desk at my Jewish communal day job, I took a nice juicy bite of an apple. Too big a bite, my mother would say. A small bit of it evaded the search-and-smash mission of my teeth and headed down my windpipe.

Spastic coughing began, and, within seconds two well-meaning Jewish women raced toward my cubicle.

The first woman held water in one hand and held the other hand aloft, asking if I needed a good back-pounding.

The second woman insisted that what I needed was a chest-pounding. She also advised me to stand up.

No, insisted the first. Stay seated and accept the back-pounding.

On the contrary, said the first, being seated isn’t helping. If I can’t stand, then I should at least put my head between my knees (while still, somehow, getting blows to the chest).

While the two women debated the best way to prop me up and pummel me, the tiny bit of apple worked its way back up. I swallowed it, down the right pipe this time, thanked both women and smiled.

Like a modern-day Sir Isaac Newton, that apple gave me radical insight into forces greater than people had previously understood: Jews, I realized at that moment, are extremely annoying.

If you don’t get the immediate import of this discovery, allow me to elaborate: By always being up in each other’s grill, by answering everyone else’s sneeze with a tissue and a bowl of soup, by constantly pushing phone numbers into the hands of unmarried acquaintances, we terrifically, magnificently annoying Jews have neurotically ensure the survival of our people.
“Oh, absolutely,” said a rabbi friend of my mine when I bounced this revelation off him. “Torah actually commands us to be up in each other’s business.”

In other faiths, you’ll find people professing a personal relationship with G-d. Jews not only have a communal relationship with HaShem, we have a communal relationship with everything, in all aspects of our lives, he said. He explained how even the Talmud is a bit of a knitting circle, with scholars separated by centuries weighing in on each other’s interpretations. Two Jews, three opinions – and all of them will be voiced.

He then gave me a list of resources, experts and examples that I might use to further strengthen my point in this column. I don’t remember asking for any of them.

It’s a strange and slightly marvelous thing to think that it takes a virtual minyan to get anything done as a Jew. We don’t choose doctors, cars or restaurants without receiving at least 10 opinions.

Before there was Yelp! there were yentas. What does all this meddling yield? A strong, cohesive people who have never known a fatal apple chunk. Or, for that matter, a moment of peace.

I recently had a small medical procedure, and Hubby was aghast at how many people knew about it, weighed in on it and inserted themselves – in ways large and small – into the process. We received calls, chocolates, casseroles and lots and lots of advice.

“Why do all these people have to be involved?” he asked. I squinted at him, as if narrowing my eyes would somehow widen my ears, so that I could catch all the nuances of this strange, foreign sentence.

Right! I finally realized, I forgot that Hubby wasn’t born Jewish. I gave him a sympathetic nod, but there wasn’t much else I could say. Anyway, at that point, Zev had wandered into the kitchen and wanted to tell us about who is playing with whom in the sandbox and which friend stopped talking to another. L’dor v’dor.

A few days later, while I was recuperating, a friend emailed me, amused, to say that she briefly mentioned her husband’s back troubles to an acquaintance – only to return home to find her email inbox filled.

“Half the synagogue gave me recommendations for specialists,” she wrote. Then, without so much as a new paragraph – or an acknowledgement of the irony – she asked when she could drop off food, coffee or anything else to my house.

“I’m thinking about you,” she said.

I didn’t doubt it.

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