Vol. 53: American dreams, Middle East nightmares
Jews, Palestinians, my marriage, and yours
It’s an old Yiddish folk tale from 18th-Century Poland: A farmer lives in a small house with his wife and children. One day he learns that his wife’s parents will be moving in. The farmer fears his house can’t accommodate so many occupants. He asks the rabbi what to do.
“Let them come,” the rabbi says.
So, the grandparents move in and, sure enough, the house becomes so crowded and noisy that the farmer fears he’ll go crazy.
When the farmer complains to the rabbi, the rabbi tells him to bring his chickens to live in the house as well. Ditto for his goats and sheep.
Since the rabbi is very wise, the farmer heeds his advice. But of course, the farmer’s situation goes from bad to worse.
“Rabbi,” the farmer now moans, “I have followed your advice. I have done everything you said. Now my in-laws have no place to sleep because the chickens are laying eggs in their bed. The goats are baa-ing and butting their heads, and the sheep are breaking things. The house smells like a barn.”
The rabbi replies: “This is what you do. Take the sheep and the goats back to the barn. Take the chickens back to their coop.”
The farmer runs home and follows the rabbi’s instructions. As he removes the animals from his house, his children and wife and in-laws begin to tidy up the rooms. By the time the last chicken is settled in her coop, the house looks quite nice. And it’s quiet. Now everyone in the family agrees that their house is the most spacious, peaceful, and comfortable home imaginable anywhere.
Our Philadelphia townhouse
Much like that Polish farmer, Barbara and I have spent the past 41 years in a cozy 16-foot-wide townhouse in downtown Philadelphia. No chickens, sheep, or goats, but our close quarters have forced the two of us to get along, since there’s no avoiding each other. Besides, ever since our two daughters moved out more than 30 years ago, we’ve felt like we’re living in a mansion.
We also feel that way because our home is the widest of all the little townhouses clustered together on our narrow street. This proximity forces us to coexist not only with each other but also with our neighbors, some of whom are more neighborly than others. Our snug house and our snug community have helped keep our marriage together for— golly— 60 years this month.
Of course, our narrow house on a narrow street is the antithesis of the cherished post-World War II “American dream”: a spacious suburban home surrounded by lawns and trees. As Americans grew more affluent in the ’50s, they fled the allegedly crowded and mean streets of big cities in a quest for more privacy and space. In 1960, fewer Americans lived in suburbs than in central cities or the countryside. By 1970, the suburbs had overtaken both. By 2000, the suburbs contained more people than the cities and countryside put together. In those atomized suburbs, everyone theoretically gets what they want— except, I would argue, a community— and everyone wonders why they’re unhappy.
Harry Belafonte’s marriage
Of course, even in the city, too much space can doom a marriage. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, when I was growing up on New York’s Upper West Side, we Rottenbergs were neighbors and close friends of the singer Harry Belafonte, who lived five floors below us. Our big old building was 13 stories high, each floor with two 11-room apartments. At some point, Harry and his wife Julie bought the apartment opposite theirs and combined the two into a 21-room apartment, complete with a recording studio, library, poolroom, and bedrooms and meeting rooms that Harry put at the disposal of the Civil Rights movement, hosting Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy when they came to New York.
The Belafontes were married for 47 years, but as Harry tells it in his memoir (My Song, 2012), during the last few years “Julie and I had basically led separate lives in our vast, U-shaped apartment, with a whole wing for each of us. Nightly, I saw the fog of inebriation settle over us, and hated being enveloped by it. … Inevitably, we’d fall to arguing, and then retreat to our separate wings, bitter and befuddled… Since each side had originally been a separate apartment with its own elevator line, we didn’t need to see each other at all.” The luxury of all that space had spared them any need to kiss and make up before going to sleep.
Greeks and Turks, happy at last
Why am I telling you this now? This month, two members of Israel’s cabinet advocated the mass relocation of Palestinians from Gaza— voluntarily, if possible, by force if necessary. It’s only a fringe idea so far, but it’s gaining traction within Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. These Talmudic dunces hear the Yiddish folk tale about the farmer’s crowded house and equate the Palestinians with the animals, not the grandparents.
They remind me of a German visionary of the ’30s— his name escapes me at this late date— who insisted that Germans would be much happier if they got rid of their Jews; also, that they could solve their need for lebensraum (living space) by invading Poland and Russia. Since I’m having a senior moment here, can some reader remind me how that policy worked out for the Germans? Did they live happily ever after, or what?
Here’s the good news: After World War II, Holocaust survivors got together to create a state dedicated to assuring that what had been done to them would never again be done to anyone. Now, if only they could move those pesky Palestinians somewhere….
Where was I? Oh yes. Two weeks ago, after I posted a satirical column suggesting chants that Philadelphia’s Jews and Palestinians could recite at each other, I heard from Joe DiStefano, the longtime business columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, with a parable that’s entirely true:
Years ago, Greek immigrants to Greater Philadelphia and South Jersey worked hard at operating diners so that they could afford to send their kids to college. But their college-educated kids expressed no interest in managing diners, so the parents sold their diners to more recent immigrants from Turkey and Armenia. The Armenian-American lawyer who brokered these diner sales from old Greeks to young Turks would gather everyone together for the closing and chuckle, “In the old country, we’d be killing each other. Here, we all get what we want! Isn’t America great?”
Sooner or later, Jews and Arabs in Israel/Palestine will learn that lesson. If they’re smart, they’ll do it sooner.
Enjoy Dan Rottenberg’s new memoir, The Education of a Journalist: My Seventy Years on the Frontiers of Free Speech. You can also visit his website at www.danrottenberg.com
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