I am such an insider to my place of origin that I’m a complete outsider to it. I grew up among a 90,000-strong 90% Jewish community, yet I sometimes wonder if I’m now the only secular Jew under the age of 55 raised to speak Yiddish. While seemingly all four grandparents of everyone I knew became the first in their American families to go to college, two of mine were among the less than 20% of Jews to survive Twentieth Century Europe’s meat grinder. Rather than go to public school, I was raised in small Jewish parochial schools until I was sixteen, where I grew up among a miniature community-within-a-community of extremely like-minded families whose one fervent belief was that the fine line between religion and secularism could be negotiated with no tension. The only non-Jews I ever knew for more than in passing were those with whom I played music, and the Jews I grew up with thought of themselves as being no different than the goyim of the larger world… so why didn’t we ever associate with them?
The milieu in which my compares and I grew up was extremely, perhaps even claustrophobically, small – in which everyone knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses much as they knew their own, and never hesitated for a moment to point them out. What right to privacy was there? We didn’t even have the capacity for privacy. Whether you were a child or a parent, home was a constant barrage where the music or TV had to always be on at deafening volumes lest another relative shatter your five minutes of successful reverie with a random question being yelled over to your room that could have as easily been about some piece of trivia to answer a crossword puzzle question as it could have been about the latest test I failed. And yet regardless of which it was, it absolutely could not wait to be answered until you came out of your room. Whether you were a parent or a child, teacher or student, pack leader or pack follower, to not interrupt everything which you were doing until the demand was met was the most extraordinary breach of etiquette imaginable. And for a kid with learning issues, there was absolutely no hiding behind a false identity, or a different one. To many, America may have been a place for self-reinvention, but in our little corner of Pikesville, Maryland, self-reinvention was something for the Goyim.
As such I suppose I developed a rather extreme example of a dual personality – on the one hand I’ve always been extraordinarily frank and forthright about nearly every thought I’ve ever had as an adult, as though I possess an inner monologue with a megaphone attached to it. Yet on the other hand, I have an extremely private side that requires at least a day in seclusion among music, books, youtube videos, and movies for every day I spend around people – particularly when it’s been an enjoyable day.
Except for family members, there are extremely few people from my pre-college years with whom I keep in close touch. My closest childhood friends don’t live in Baltimore, more than half of them moved to DC after college to pursue better opportunities than our dying childhood metropolis offers. But by the time they moved to DC I’d developed closer friendships than I’d ever had with them, so there wasn’t much need to see them too often. And frankly, there are too many forgettable memories from high school – particularly the second – to keep tabs too close on people from that era. I seem to hear so often of kids I knew from High School #2 that die, or succumb to drugs and depression, or go to prison, that the emotional investment of revisiting relationships from that era is simply too painful to have too often. I know it’s a fool’s errand, but I’m still not quite ready to face up to the fact that that era of my life actually happened.
I often think to myself that my life began around the time I turned 19 or 20 – and everything which happened beforehand was the unfortunate life of some thinner person whose rather painful memories were inexplicably deposited into my brain. There’s a famous quote from Stravinsky in which he declared ‘My childhood was a period of waiting for the moment when I could send everyone connected to it to hell.’ It can’t be denied, there’s something amazingly immature about that sentiment – everyone has their reasons for acting as they do, even if those reasons are unjustifiable to anyone but themselves. No matter how angry you may (still) be about things which are fifteen or twenty years in the past, you're much better served by trying to see things from the point of view of those who made you angry. But I can’t deny that there were all too many moments in my twenties when that was precisely how I felt about everything which happened in my teens, and all too many moments of my twenties when I obsessed over the worry that my teens were going to happen all over again.
My family seems to indulge my incessant grumblings about the problems of my childhood with the acceptance that any family would tolerate in their most entertainingly crotchety relative. Over the years, I’ve had ample occasion to observe that if you have distasteful things to say, you’d damned well better say them with wit lest you go from tolerated dissenter to pariah. I suppose that in this way, I’m now the court jester of the family (seemingly my inevitable role in every social circle), able to say things seemingly in jest which nobody else could ever say in public because everything about me seems otherwise so eccentric that people can rationalize that what’s true for me can’t possibly be true for them. I’m probably still a few years at very least from being the weird uncle, yet the weird relative who gets away with saying the things no family member is supposed to is precisely what I’ve become, even if there won’t be any nieces and nephews for a while.
My closest friends are, almost to a (wo)man, still either people with whom I went to college, or people I met through people with whom I went to college. College was the first time in my life in which I felt like I had breathing room, and I was determined to use it to the best of all advantages. For the first time in my life, I had friendships in which I felt accepted as myself, rather than as some other fantastical self into which I was supposed to fit. Over those four years, I collected a veritable battery of close friends who are still the closest friends I have. It would surprise me greatly if these friends are not still close friends into old age (providing my out-of-shape self makes it anywhere close to that), and the greater technological knowhow of our era provides that even as we move away from each other, long-distance friendships can be kept up to a level impossible in prior ages.
It is therefore both hugely meaningful, and also hugely surprising, to go visit those friends in their places of origin and to see just how different were their formative experiences. My place of origin is so unbelievably specific that I have no one to share it with. On Rosh Hashana and Pesach (never mind Christmas or Easter), I’ve long since no longer had old friends whom I go out of my way to see – and have therefore a decade-long tradition of bringing college friends (as often as not, Gentile college friends) home with whom I can celebrate holidays. Meanwhile, I’ve developed networks of friends-around-friends with whom I’ve celebrated all manner of holidays and simches, I suppose the only word for them is ‘friends-in-law.’
Many of those friends-in-law networks are in places you’d expect – New York, Boston, Houston, Providence, Denver, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Paul, Phoenix, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Chiang Mai, Tokyo, and increasingly as time works its distance, … Washington DC – and I think most people have similar networks of friends-in-law, people whom you may not have seen for a decade, but whom you can use your closer friend as an intermediary for when you’re in a strange city and can usually rely upon them for an evening’s worth of engaging company. But I think it’s far rarer for people to have such extensive networks of friends-in-law as I have in locations as randomly placed as Toms River, New Jersey; Biddeford, Maine; St. Mary’s, Pennsylvania; Westborough, Massachusetts; Cady and Hannover, Texas. I don’t know how many other people have so many networks in remote places for whom one usually plans a weekend’s getaway with your closer friends in such a remote spot once every few years, just so you can see these old friends-in-law and have a catch up conversation. Like any relative of a relative, it would probably be awkward if you talked to many of them for more than a couple hours every other year, but it’s nevertheless reassuring to see them again to remind yourself that that particular part of your life still exists, and had life turned out differently, you all might have been able to grow much closer. And even so, occasionally these friend-in-lawships grow into their own independent friendships whom you’ll visit without the original friend, see just as often, and in two or three instances, even live with. I've had friends-in-law whose friendships grew as strong as the original friendship through which we'd met. I've had friends-in-law who met through me and resulted in long-term relationships (I only demanded they get married under a giant picture of me).
In most of these above remote places, one goes to visit the town because the town is the place of origin for a particularly close friend – and you had occasion to go there for a holiday, or a wedding – usually you’ve already met all the most important people, because they’ve come to visit your friend in the place where they go. And if you haven’t yet met each other, you’ve usually heard all about each other for years.
And when you go to these places of origin, all sorts of things about your friends begin to make more sense. The friend from Toms River, an extravert and political official seemingly comfortable in all social environments, becomes more understandable when you realize that life in central New Jersey is so diverse and carnival-esque that New Jersey life is it’s own non-stop movable feast – close enough to New York to be culturally knowledgeable, far away enough to not be taken in by the more noxious forms of New Yorker intellectual bullshit. A New Jersey resident lives in an America-in-miniature that has every aspect of American life crammed into its small borders, and so tightly packed that no one aspect of its existence can ever be avoided. New Jerseyites have to acclimate to any social milieu within an instant, and to work overtime simply to avoid being submerged by the social demands of the carnival.
The life of a friend from Biddeford, a liberal policy wonk with an inexhaustible reservoir of knowledge and passion for his subjects, becomes more understandable when you realize that everything around his town breathes through two lungs – the right lung being the national political figures who vacation near the home where he grew up, the left lung being the seemingly inescapable Catholicism of his area and its attendant passion for good works. With a backdrop like that, it’s possible to speculate that a Mainer (along with a New Hampshireite) stands less opportunity becoming cynical about the political process than any other American would.
My friend from St. Mary’s is a resolute introvert whose reluctance to be loquacious conceals a capacity for unfathomably deep contemplation, the results of which comes out only to those with the patience to wait for them. In order to understand him, all one has to do is to go to look out through his front yard into the wide open spaces of Pennsylvania mountain country, where a person could dwell within the space of his thoughts for weeks at a time should he so choose.
Life continues at its own pace. I suppose such a weird melting pot of social networks is only possible because I no longer have hometown friendships about which are much worth remaking. I neither have children nor am I married, and it will frankly surprise if I’m either married or a father at any point in the next twenty years. I have a not particularly stressful job, and a no doubt too endless reservoir of leisure time. The time in my day which I have for building friendships is probably too numerous for any kind of healthy lifestyle, yet all the same, the rewards which such a life has given me are rather remarkable.
As my thirties begin to take shape in Baltimore, the beginnings of a new collection of friends are manifesting themselves. It will be a long time before any of them can equal what came before them, but last week, I had a Channukah party where the inevitable work of introducing one group to the other began. Sooner or later, these Baltimore friends will become friends-in-law to my DC/college friends, some of them will forge friendships independently of me, and perhaps understand me in all sorts of ways I can’t anticipate, both good and bad.