I entered college in the Fall of ’98. Back then, I was a secular Jew and very proud of my Jewish identity. Keeping Shabbat, kashrut, praying three times daily, etc. meant very little to me; I understood those Jewish traditions only vaguely.
It so happened that my university had a very small Jewish population; and I was moved, therefore, to represent my people. While I knew next to nothing (compared to now) about Judaism, I had a positive association with wearing a kippah because I had worn one at Hebrew school in the afternoons at my synagogue. To me, the kippah was a symbol of my Jewish identity; for me, at that time, it had nothing to do with religion. That first semester, I committed myself to wearing my kippah all day, every day – I wanted everyone on campus to know that there was a Jew among them.
Wearing a kippah came to change the course of my life dramatically, but that’s a story for another time. Right now, I want to focus upon an unexpected friendship that came about because of that decision.
* * *
Freshman year, I took a chemistry course that was required for engineering students, and I saw a young man sitting in the middle of the huge auditorium, wearing a black velvet kippah. Excitedly, I plopped myself down in the seat next to him. Hi, my name is David, and I just started wearing a kippah every day!
The young man gave me an odd look, and that moment led to a truly wonderful college friendship.
* * *
2½ years ago, I published a blog post on The Times of Israel: ‘Speak to me in Arabic’
At that point, I was entering my fourth semester of spoken Arabic at the Polis Institute here in Jerusalem. Most of my classmates were Europeans and Americans who had come to Israel to work at embassies, consulates, the UN, and various NGO’s, and they all had Arab coworkers and/or Arab clients. They had people to practice with at work.
For those few of us students who were Jewish Israelis, we all agreed that outside of our Polis classroom, we had very few opportunities to speak Arabic in our daily lives. I knew that once I left my Arabic studies, my language would begin to deteriorate for lack of use. My 5th semester of spoken Arabic was my last – I had signed up for it before Papa died, but I really should have dropped it because I could barely focus in the wake of his death.
And so it was. I left my spoken Arabic studies, and my language skills began to deteriorate. I continued attempting to speak in simple Arabic to taxi drivers, pharmacists, etc., but obviously that’s not nearly enough to maintain one’s language skills.
* * *
Yesterday evening, our daughter and I went out with friends to a park and then to a pizzeria; and it so happened that our waiter was an Arab. As I always do, I haltingly told him that I speak a bit of Arabic – that I had studied at the Polis Institute. The conversation grew from there (in three different languages), and the waiter suggested that we exchange phone numbers. His name is Nasser (he writes ‘Nsser’).
Nasser and I now have plans to get together for coffee, and once my daughter returns to preschool in September and my schedule opens up, we’ll get together again to help one another with our language skills. English in exchange for Arabic 🎉🎊
As I told Nasser, this is the first time that an Arab has offered me his friendship.
To be fair, I did befriend an American from the Polis Institute whose husband is an Arab from Jerusalem, and we’ve had them over for Shabbat meals several times in the past couple of years. They’re a sweet, kindly couple, and our daughter has grown to love them in particular… but our interactions have all been in English because that is the most natural language for the five of us when we’re together.
For the first time in my 10+ years in Israel, I now have a friend to speak with in Arabic; and I am hoping that this new relationship will be a lasting one.