A Friend in Need

My friends like me because of what I represent, and not because of the meat I barbecued. Then the thought crossed my mind: What do I actually represent?

"Tell me," I asked my wife on another boring Friday evening at home, "how did we run out of Ashkenazi friends?"

"You really don't know?" she replied. I tried to think for a minute about why the number of our white friends had constantly fallen off since we moved to the new building, to the point where now there were none. It wasn't like that in the past. We were always invited, or we had people over for dinner on every weekend that we stayed in Jerusalem. And now, nothing. Every Friday I wait for the phone to ring and some friend to invite us over, like in the good times. At first I myself made a few calls to invite friends over, but for some reason they are always at their parents' for the Sabbath-eve meal.

illustration - Amos Biderman - January 7 2011
Amos Biderman

Something in our friends' family ties with their parents had strengthened since we moved to a Jewish neighborhood. Don't get me wrong - I greatly respect tradition. In fact, it's the Sabbath-eve tradition that has been getting us down lately. Every Friday evening I see the building's parking lot start to fill up as the neighbors' guests arrive. Through the peephole I watch the visitors going up the stairs - children, friends, smiling relatives, happy, sometimes carrying pots or trays that give off good smells. Then the clinking of cutlery and dishes, occasional bursts of laughter, singing, table talk. We are the only ones who are stuck here, not talking, watching the weekly newsmagazine.

"No," I said to my wife, "I don't know what has changed."

"It's because of you," she said in a calm, confident, authoritative tone of voice.

"Me?" I cried from the sofa. "Why? Did I change in some way? What?"

"No," she continued in that laid-back tone, trying not to remove her gaze from Amnon Abramovich, "you haven't changed. You are still the same crummy person I met 15 years ago."

"So what's the problem?"

"You don't barbecue anymore," she said. "That's why."

What? What is she talking about? What does that have to do with abandonment by the Ashkenazim? It's true that once upon a time, in the village, when we had a yard, I would always, but always, make a barbecue when friends came over, and that since we moved here more than two years ago I haven't come close to a fire - but that could hardly be the reason that friends were ostracizing us. But my wife, she was always like that, it's hard for her to be complimentary, she thinks everything in life is vested interests. But she's wrong, she's always wrong, and she is wrong again now with this absurd claim about grilled meat.

"You're at liberty to believe whatever you want," she said, "but now be quiet, I can't hear what the head of the Police Investigations Branch is saying."

"Lechayim," I heard from the neighbors' place, and, hurt and friendless, I felt alone in Jerusalem and took Hans Fallada to bed with me. I don't accept what she says; there's no way it contains even a grain of truth. My friends, the ones I once had, were never like that. My friends like me because of what I represent, and not because of the meat I barbecued. Then the thought crossed my mind: What do I actually represent? But I immediately got rid of it with a vigorous shake of the head - I mustn't even think about that.

I tried to bring to mind those wonderful times when I was surrounded by friends, but the only thing I conjured up was the groans of pleasure with every bite my friends, their wives and their children took of the grilled meat. "Hhhhmmmmm, Sayed, this is just wonderful," I kept hearing. "What is it, mutton? Wow, Meni, it's mutton, just taste that rib. Where do you buy mutton, anyway?" And, like an idiot, I would boast about the local butcher shop, explain to them how I chose the cuts from the refrigerator there and how I asked the butcher to mix lamb with the mutton and add mint when he ground the meat into kebabs. Like an idiot, now I see myself smiling at them with all my heart when they visited us at home, even as I slaved and sweated over the barbecue I had prepared in advance. With a towel draped over one shoulder, tongs in hand and smoke in my eyes, I spiced the meat, turned it over and served it in a pot at the table, then ran back to turn over the skewers, chase away the cats and make sure the guests had everything they needed at the table. It was always a barbecue.

But after we moved, what did I make the friends when they visited? Goulash. That's the only thing I know how to make - goulash. They must have grown tired of it, they probably know how to make it themselves. Sure, there's no lack of shoulder cuts in the Tiv Taam chain. But no, no no. It's not true, I know it, that's not the reason that Roni, Asaf and Shira don't come here anymore. They are going through a rough time, or maybe a good time, with their families. Friday is sacred to them, I know. I tried to escape into Fallada's Berlin, focus on the text and concentrate on the doings of the German couple who wanted to topple Hitler by means of protest postcards.

"Your phone is flashing," my wife shouted over the TV. "Can you see what it says on the screen?" I shouted back.

"'Asaf,'" she said, and I jumped out of the bed.

"Asaf," I answered with a smile that reminded me of the barbecue era and made my wife sneer in contempt. "What, you're at the parents place? Ah? I knew it. How are they?"

"Tomorrow?" I said when Asaf asked me what we were doing the next day, and I looked straight into my wife's eyes as I said to her, "Asaf wants to know if we're busy tomorrow, because they are inviting us over to their place for lunch."

"We're not busy," she said, shaking her head.

"We'll be delighted to see you tomorrow," I told him. "Wallah, we missed you, too," I echoed my friend's comment, all the time hurling accusatory looks at my wife, looks that said: You have a problem, you have a problem of inferiority, you think you're smarter than everyone else, with people like you there's no way to make peace here, because of people like you there is no trust between the two nations. Please, here is a true friend who is inviting me to his place tomorrow, and no, it's not because of the barbecues that he likes me.

"Great, one o'clock is excellent," I answered happily. "Do you want us to bring anything?" I asked out of courtesy before hanging up.

"If you wouldn't mind going through Beit Safafa to your butcher shop," Asaf said, while my wife gave me inquisitive looks, wondering why I was nodding and not hanging up. "I could buy here, you know, but I have the feeling that it's better at your guy's, and if they have mutton that would be great." He went on, "There's bread here, but maybe you could bring a package of pitas. Do they also have good hummus there? Or would you rather go through Abu Ghosh? I just bought a barbecue this morning and put it in the garden, and I bought this American coal that's self-igniting - is that good? Okay, I'm relying on you to lend a hand with that."

"No, sorry, I can't, no," I replied, trying to ensure that the expression on my face did not give away the character of the conversation. "Yes, too bad. I have something tomorrow, too, at - work. Never mind. Another time. Bye."

"What nerve," I informed my wife immediately, as she looked at me with curiosity and waited for an explanation of the surprising cancelation. "Where am I supposed to get him apple strudel now?"