Saturday, April 14, 2012

This is what we do now?

When I was a kid growing up in Washington, PA we sometimes had strangers around the dinner table for Shabbat and for Jewish holidays.  You see, Washington, PA among other things was a college town and our synagogue extended a hand to Jewish students living away from home.  For those that wanted it, they put them in contact with local Jewish families to give them a touch of home while away.  

And when I first moved to Israel, I spent 6 months in a program with other immigrants, learning Hebrew local families offered to "adopt" us, have us around for meals, be a sort of home base, be there to answer questions and provide a modicum of support for us while we adapted to life in new surroundings. 

When I settled in Tel Aviv, I lived for about 2 months with my cousin.  Many colleagues, acquaintances and friends of friends similarly adopted me.  My cousin took me a couple of times to Shabbat lunch at close friends of hers and I was told, nearly before I even had a chance to wipe my feet, that I was welcome anytime and that I should just show up.  Even her cleaning lady, a lovely woman of Yemenite descent invited us for lunch during Sukkot.  They had a beautiful, huge Sukkah, and while my Hebrew was still pretty much non-existent and she and her family didn't speak a lick of English, we had an amazing time seeing the Yemenite Jewish traditions up close.  And by the end of the meal the mother, the matriarch of the family shoved a slip of paper with their phone number and told me in very broken English, you want again, welcome.  

Nearly every weekend when I lived in Israel, I had invites from colleagues, friends of friends, or acquaintances.  Even my landlord, who lived in the same building often invited me for dinner and I spent a couple holidays with them as well, including one particular Pesach where the singing went on until well after 2 AM.  

In Hebrew a good deed is called a mitzvah.  To me, extending a hand to someone who is alone, is one of the best things you can do.  

And of course extending a hand to someone is not exclusive just to Jews.  People do this kind of stuff all the time.  

I have always tried to emulate this as well.  I try to pass on the kindnesses that people have passed onto me.  I still am an immigrant, but I have a family and life of my own, I am not alone anymore so when someone tells me a friend of a friend, cousin of a friend or someone else with some kind of 7 degrees of separation is going to be around, I invite them.  Sometimes it is one evening and sometimes it is a lifetime as is with my friend R, who was a good friend of a friend of mine, B, that lived in Atlanta. R was moving to Pittsburgh to study while I still lived in Pittsburgh.  B called me up and told me about R and that she doesn't know anyone in Pittsburgh.  He told me that R and I were very different and probably there wouldn't be much of a click, but could I still do him a favor and meet her for lunch or coffee a couple of times so there would be someone for her and she would feel better about having to pull up stakes and go to a strange city where she didn't know anyone.  Of course, I said and we met for the obligatory lunch, so I could do my duty and tell B I met her.  And B was absolutely right, we were very different, night and day different.  But we also clicked like nobody's business.  That one obligatory lunch turned into countless lunches, dinners, sleepovers, study dates, coffee talks, working together and a near 20 year friendship that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world.  

So, I have had dinners, drinks and coffee with many a strangers, sisters in law, distant cousins, friends of friends, and one particular older couple, clients of my 2nd cousin who were in Amsterdam to visit and really wanted to meet an Amsterdam Jewish family.  Not me, of course but Leo.  Their 2 day visit ended up being a week as they got stuck here during the ash cloud, so I met them several times and tried to give them a sense of home and calm in an uncertain situation.  

Now of course they all don't work out like that, and that's okay.  
So a while back the mom of one of my friends contacted me and said a childhood friend of her kids was being transferred to Amsterdam for work and was here already but wouldn't be joined by his family until the end of the school year.  She thought that I might know him since we were members of the same youth group as kids.  I didn't immediately remember him but of course it is possible.  But I told her that if he needed anything or ever wanted to come around for dinner or whatever, we're around.  She then sent me his mailing address and email.  So I sent him a mail, I don't think we know each other, blah, blah, I got your details from Mrs. Smith, etc.  If you need anything while you are here, etc., etc.  

Turns out he did need something.  He needed another LinkedIn contact.  

My email was answered about 15 minutes later with an invite to connect on LinkedIn and nothing else.  The standard invitation, not even adding a few words.  Not even a polite thanks, but no thanks.  No return email.  Or even a I do remember you from youth group and you were an obnoxious bi*ch and I wouldn't want to set foot in your house  if I was on fire and you were a big bucket of water.  

Now, one could argue that using this for blog material ranks right up there with answering a personal email with a LinkedIn request.  And it's true.  If I were a true class act, I wouldn't mention it.  But (a) I never claimed to be that classy and (b) I am not upset about this at all.  I don't know this guy and the point I am trying to make is not about this guy.  

I think it is interesting in terms of where we are as a society.  Has social networking replaced genuine human contact?  

The electronic age has certainly redefined communication, has it redefined actual relationships and human contact?  Many say yes to this but I have always maintained that social networking is a tool for human contact.  Sure, it has it's obvious down sides but I have always firmly believed that for the most part, it helps you to interact more than being the social networking equivalent of a microwave oven, giving you something similar to hot food but not quite the same thing as putting it in the oven for 15 minutes at 350.

Apparently it is.  Social networking is the microwave oven of human contact.  Put it in, push a button and in less than 2 minutes you can grow your number of contacts.  

To be honest, I've been at tons of courses, symposiums or professional events where you meet someone for two minutes, exchange business cards and before you can get into the front door of your house and kick off your shoes, you have a bunch of LinkedIn invitations.  That's how it works.   

Maybe this really isn't any different.  Apparently I am the one that doesn't get it.  

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