Stefanella's Drive Thru

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Going Global August 16, 2009

A few years ago when I was living in San Francisco, I shared an ongoing dilemma with an Israeli friend:

I feel torn between being here and living in Israel,” I told her.  “I don’t know where I should be.”

“Why do you have to decide?” she posed.  “Of course you choose a main locale for residence but as far as I’m concerned, the more comfortable you become inside your own skin the more comfortable you become wherever you are once you’ve lived in different places.  And that’s a great place to be.  You become a citizen of the world and you can find happiness wherever you go.

At the time, I couldn’t wrap my head around that concept.  I felt I should make a decision and declare my loyalty on some level to one place or the other.  No in-between nonsense would do. And the concept of “global citizen” or feeling a sort of neutral happiness wherever I might be was way beyond my comprehension.

But, by jobe, I believe I finally got it.

For numerous reasons I won’t go into here & now, I returned to Israel four years ago after a decade hiatus in San Fran.  Since returning, however, each summer I travel with my son to Cincinnati so he (and I) can maintain ties with my family & he can retain his command of the English language and gain exposure to American culture.

My parents and two of my sibs live in “Nati” &  it’s where I grew up.  But when I left there after college – which included a 2-year overseas stint at Tel Aviv University –  I vowed never to return.  Bloody god forsaken conservative place that indicted its own Contemporary Arts Center for running the Mappelthorpe Exhibit (!) was how I viewed matters.  Not for me. Gateway to the North, indeed.  There would be no containing me THERE, thanks.  I longed for the enchanted promise of Seuss’ Oh The Places You’ll Go.

But here I am, years later, turned completely around & feeling the warm glow of “global.”

This summer my son and I spent time in Cincinnati, took a side trip out to San Francisco and now we’re back in Tel Aviv.  And I can honestly say that in each place I found home.  Home in cultural events that included Opera and a World Piano Competition in Cincinnati, the MOMA in San Fran and upon returning to Tel Aviv, a visit to my local gallery to check out the latest exhibit.

I found home in culinary delights in Cincinnati’s trend spots: Bootsy’s for tapas,  Teller’s for rasberry vinaigrette over greens and goat cheese, my mom’s for home-cooked Indonesian chicken and a dear friend’s for backyard grilled Talapia wrapped in lettuce leaves.

I relaxed back into San Francisco food comfort with frighteningly potent margaritas served up at Puerto Alegre & generous, steaming bowls of traditional Vietnamese Pho.  And upon returning to Holy Land Central (aka Israel) I hit the supermarket on a Friday at 2 p.m. – total cold-water immersion into THIS local food culture.

Home, everywhere, is about the people.  I spent neery an idle moment in Cincy thanks to FB and reconnecting with old friends and loved ones who indulged me with tennis,  poolside lounging, movie outings, dinners, drinks and loads of engaging conversation.   Being back “Home” was an absolute treat and there are, by gosh and golly, wide swaths of WILD in Cincy.

In San Fran, I reconnected with my other sib and visited with friends and local merchants I hadn’t seen in years.  Particularly pleasant was sharing a vacation apartment in the city with friends who had flown in from Australia, Manhattan, Berlin and Serbia to be together. My son benefitted from reconnecting with children from his infant and toddler days.

Back in Tel Aviv less than a week, we’ve received separate invites to go snorkeling, camping, to overnight in the country and spend a weekend at a “mango tree resort”.  I am absolutely blessed.  No doubt about it.

I ran into that old Israeli friend last year.  She’s back in Tel Aviv and super busy with two young children and studies.  But she still has that positive outlook and cheerful disposition.  And she still maintains her status as a global citizen.

I believe I’ve joined her ranks.  Fine by me because feeling at home wherever I might be is a wonderful place to be.  But it’s also painful.  Leaving loved ones and engaging aspects of each culture behind isn’t easy.  But I’ll take it.  Because “living globally” far outweighs the absurd compulsion of having to declare loyalty or choose.

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Call Your Mom May 12, 2008

Yesterday was Mother’s Day in the United States. I almost forgot. Because calendar dates for special events differ here i.e. in Holy Land Central, Mother’s Day falls in winter.

Luckily my calendar is a United States issue.  Because as I sat down to breakfast with my 6-year-old and remarked “Sweetie, we have a week to get something together for Grandma Ruti”, I glanced up at the wall to discover that we didn’t have a week at all.

So I picked up the phone.

This heart-wrenching column by The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman is a day late. But really, it’s none too soon.

Call Your Mother
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Published: May 11, 2008

The ad popped up in my e-mail the way it always has: “1-800-Flowers: Mother’s Day Madness — 30 Tulips + FREE vase for just $39.99!”

I almost clicked on it, forgetting for a moment that those services would not be needed this year. My mother, Margaret Friedman, died last month at the age of 89, and so this is my first Mother’s Day without a mom.

As columnists, we appear before you twice a week on these pages as simple bylines, but, yes, even columnists have mothers. And in my case, much of the outlook that infuses my own writings was bred into me from my mom. So, for once in 13 years, I’d like to share a little bit about her.

My mom was gripped by dementia for much of the last decade, but she never lost the generous “Minnesota nice” demeanor that characterized her in her better days. As my childhood friend Brad Lehrman said to me at her funeral: “She put the mensch in dementia.”

My mom’s life spanned an incredible period. She was born in 1918, just at the close of World War I. She grew up in the Depression, enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, served her country in World War II, bought our first house with a G.I. loan and lived long enough to play bridge on the Internet with someone in Siberia.

For most of my childhood, my mom appeared to be a typical suburban housewife of her generation, although I knew she was anything but typical. She sewed many of my sisters’ clothes, including both of their wedding dresses, and boy’s suits for me. And on the side, she won several national bridge tournaments.

My mom left two indelible marks on me. The first was to never settle for the cards you’re dealt. My dad died suddenly when I was 19. My mom worked for a couple of years. But in 1975, I got a scholarship to go to graduate school in Britain and my mom surprised us all one day by announcing that she was going, too. I called it the “Jewish Mother Junior Year Abroad Program.”

Most of her friends were shocked that she wasn’t just going to play widow. Instead, she sold our house in little St. Louis Park, Minn., and moved to London. But what was most amazing to watch was how she used her world-class bridge skills to build new friendships, including with one couple who flew her to Paris for a bridge game. Yes, our little Margie off to Paris to play bridge. She even came to see me in Beirut once, during the civil war — at age 62.

The picture of her in Beirut makes me think back in amazement at what my mom might have done had she had the money to finish college and pursue her dreams — the way she encouraged me to pursue mine, even when they meant I’d be far away in some crazy place and our only communications would be through my byline. It’s so easy to overlook — your mom had dreams, too.

My mom’s other big influence on me you can read between the lines of virtually every column — and that is a sense of optimism. She was the most uncynical person in the world. I don’t recall her ever uttering a word of cynicism. She was not naïve. She had taken her knocks. But every time life knocked her down, she got up, dusted herself off and kept on marching forward, motivated by the saying that pessimists are usually right, optimists are usually wrong, but most great changes were made by optimists.

Six years ago, I was in Israel at a dinner with the editor of the Haaretz newspaper, which publishes my column in Hebrew. I asked the editor why the newspaper ran my column, and he joked: “Tom, you’re the only optimist we have.” An Israeli general, Uzi Dayan, was seated next to me and as we walked to the table, he said: “Tom, I know why you’re an optimist. It’s because you’re short and you can only see that part of the glass that’s half full.”

Well, the truth is, I am not that short. But my mom was. And she, indeed, could only see that part of the glass that was half full. Read me, read my mom.

Whenever I’ve had the honor of giving a college graduation speech, I always try to end it with this story about the legendary University of Alabama football coach, Bear Bryant. Late in his career, after his mother had died, South Central Bell Telephone Company asked Bear Bryant to do a TV commercial. As best I can piece together, the commercial was supposed to be very simple — just a little music and Coach Bryant saying in his tough voice: “Have you called your mama today?”

On the day of the filming, though, he decided to ad-lib something. He reportedly looked into the camera and said: “Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine.” That was how the commercial ran, and it got a huge response from audiences.

So on this Mother’s Day, if you take one thing away from this column, take this: Call your mother.

I sure wish I could call mine.