Losing old friends

Joseph Epstein’s ruminations on friendship, or more accurately the loss thereof, in the July-August Commentary (“Friendship among the Intellectuals”) touched a subject close to my heart.

I am someone who feels a strong need to retain a connection to the past. On trips back to Chicago, I inevitably take my children to visit the house in which I grew up, as well as old campus haunts, only to be surprised by how little interest they exhibit in these places. As a little boy, I spent a lot of time wondering whether my future wife was yet born and what she was doing at that moment; half a century later, I often find myself wondering what old friends are doing now.

If asked, Epstein observes, most people would deny that one should give up friends because of differences over politics or ideas. And yet that happens all the time, particularly among those who take ideas seriously. Norman Podhoretz managed to get an entire book, Ex-Friends, out of the friendships broken as he moved from the Left to the Right of the political spectrum.

Every friendship is an investment, and most of us are reticent about acknowledging an investment gone sour. But there is another price to be paid for jettisoning one’s friends as one’s politics change: the danger of becoming a narrow partisan. Certainly one can never earn Conor Cruise O’Brien’s description of an intellectual “as someone who is prepared to admit when another has made a point in a debate” if one never exposes oneself to opposing ideas. Those of us who care about ideas should prefer to see our own tested in the crucible of debate.

In modern society, few of us live out our lives in one place, and as a consequence of our peregrinations we must constantly make new friendships and note the withering of old ones. Most friendships turn out to be largely a matter of happenstance – of being in the same place at the same time. Few are the lifetime friends, the soul mates described by Montaigne in his lament over his deceased friend Etienne La Boetie: “If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I.” But even the less intense friendships are important markers of time past.

AS A consequence of becoming religiously observant midway down the pike, my wife and I had to make a whole set of new friends – many of them those who went through the process of becoming religious together with us. But even so, we tried to maintain our former friendships, even when they could not be preserved at the same level of intensity. To the extent that one’s life centers on a particular set of beliefs and around a particular community, it becomes less and less likely that one’s best friends will be found outside that community or not share those beliefs.

Ironically, as our lives became more Jewishly-centered, it was easier to preserve friendships with Christian friends than with Jewish ones. The former did not feel threatened by the changes in our lives in the same way as the latter. Apart from expressing amazement at the number of our progeny, our Jewish friends (by far the majority) could find little to ask about in our lives once they had ascertained that my wife does not shave her hair. Christian friends, by contrast, were more eager to explore the core of our lives. An Irish law school friend pointed out that we have both embarked on a spiritual journey – hers, unfortunately, via Alcoholics Anonymous.

ULTIMATELY, however, it turned out to be politics, not religion, that made the possibility of maintaining numerous old friendships, even in an attenuated state, impossible. I would gladly forgive my former friends many things. But wishing me and all those closest to me dead is not one of them.

And that would be the effect, if not intent, as Lawrence Summers might put it, of the positions adopted so casually by many old classmates. Among the chattering classes, with whom I once swum, references to Israel as a “mistake” (Richard Cohen) or an “anachronism” (Tony Judt) are increasingly common. (Interestingly Judt does not find all the Muslim states in which Sharia is the law of the land and non-Muslims barred from citizenship to be equally anachronistic in a post-nationalistic world.)

Worse, many intellectuals are prepared to assist, either passively or actively, in reversing the historical mistake of Israel’s creation. Israel is routinely denied the right to defend herself, as the Lebanon war and the continuing missile attacks from Gaza demonstrate. The latter are invariably referred to as pinpricks, without any acknowledgment that no country in the world would tolerate missile attacks (occasionally lethal) from across its internationally recognized border.

Every Israeli attempt to respond to terror attacks on its citizens (75 percent of the children in Sderot suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of Palestinian “pinpricks”), the kidnapping of its soldiers and rocket attacks on its cities is labeled disproportionate or a war crime. Yet our critics never provide any guidance as to what Israel is permitted to do to protect its citizens – other than return to negotiations with the Palestinians and offer further territorial concessions, despite the proven failure of that approach to secure peace.

Ruling out of court every possible Israeli response to attacks upon its citizenry effectively denies Israel the right to defend itself. In our rough neighborhood, nations that do not vigorously defend themselves will not long survive.

I can no longer be friends with those incapable of acknowledging that simple truth.

Originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post, October 25, 2006.

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1 Response

  1. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Few are the lifetime friends, the soul mates described by Montaigne in his lament over his deceased friend Etienne La Boetie: “If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I.” But even the less intense friendships are important markers of time past.”

    Montaigne seems to be describing a situation of ahavah sh’ena teluyah b’davar. In the less intense cases of friendships, however, friendships may also survive because mutual efforts were made to overcome differences. I know of one family that will accommodate their religious relatives at family functions without hassle: paper plates, takeout food, etc. That is because the former doesn’t feel threatened by their newly observant relatives.

    Interestingly, I have experienced the opposite type of occurrence: when a former friend or acquaintance becomes irreligious, or less observant. Then the question becomes if the two parties can maintain their original connection.

    One Z’man, I studied with a chavrusa who happened to be chassidish. A few years later, I met him on the subway without a yarmulka. Evidently, he had some complications in his life that lead to that point, but it was rather shocking.

    I decided to act normally, and we conversed for the duration of the ride. It was not as if I was ever a close friend, but I think that if one has any type of a relationship, then one person should see in the other person the previous relationship, no matter what vicissitudes occur subsequently in either parties’ lifetime.

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