"How to Save the World?"
November 12, 2023
My Dear Friend,
I recently exchanged correspondence with Michael G., an old, old American friend. Mike and I went to kindergarten together in the Bronx. We attended each other’s Bar Mitzvah.
Mike is troubled by current events in Israel and Gaza.
Mike expresses the historical perspective that is commonly held by Jews of our generation. For Gaza he blames Hamas. He is angry with the youth and their demonstrations at universities in the United States. He is fearful of the rise of antisemitism.
Mike writes, “It is a shame that in the last years of our lives we must deal with Covid and now antisemitism at a scale larger than anything since World War II. “
In frustration Mike confesses, “I have no answers.”
Despite our different viewpoint on some issues, my old friend still holds me in high regard:
Mike asks, “Jan, what do you think should be done to save our world?”
What do I think? Me, an old Jew from the Bronx? I have no money, no influence, no power. How to save our world?
Yet, I am fortunate. I have traveled the world. And for almost twenty years I have lived in Thailand, twelve time zones away from the city where Mike and I grew up and where he still lives.
Maybe I have learned something from my travels that gives me a different perspective and provides an answer to Mike’s question?
For an answer, let me reflect now on my personal experiences in the Middle East and North Africa:
I admit, I avoided visiting Israel for many years. From the media reports I assumed that Israel is not safe. From my experiences in Boston and Miami, I expected that Israel is populated with less than scrupulous businessmen. As an unobservant Jew, I felt I would be out of place.
How wrong was I.
My second cousins Miryam and Moshe, also unobservant, and everyone else I met in Israel treated me with respect, generosity, warmth, and good humor. And who would feel unsafe when there are security guards at major shops? In the streets, skinny young women and men in loose fitting military fatigues patrol with rifles slung over their shoulders.
On my first visit in 2007 I had two surprises. Normally the only Israeli flag I see is at the front of a synagogue. In Tel Aviv, the Star of David is flying everywhere. I only see a mezuzah on the entrance to my apartment. As I walk down the hallway of my hotel, a mezuzah is affixed to the doorpost of every room.
I had a friendly yet heated discussion with Amir, the owner of the hotel. I don’t remember the subject, but our emotions climb with every statement and rejoinder. Finally in desperation Amir shouts out, “Are you staying at this hotel?!” I parry, “I hope not!” With a smile (and a dollop of respect) Amir admits, “I like that.”
My older Cousin Moshe inherited a farm from his German father who was prevented from practicing medicine in Nazi Germany. He emigrated to Israel and bought land. He also treated sick Serbian Muslim refugees.
Moshe was the Chairman of the Agricultural Council and later the Mayor of Binyamina, a small town in the agricultural region between Tel Aviv and Haifa. One day Moshe invited me to join a bus tour of historic sites in northern Israel. All the elderly passengers are former mayors of Israeli towns.
I am honored to be with this group. I reckon that they had built Israel with their hands. In addition to the sites, we stop three times.
On my own, I visited Masada and Jerusalem and Yad Vashem and the Western Wall. Rosh Hanikra and Caesarea and Acre. Jaffa. The Baháʼí House of Worship in Haifa.
What a beautiful country!
On one special trip I celebrated the wedding of my friend’s daughter in Tzfat. Was the whole town there?
What a wedding!
In other countries in the Middle East and North AfricaI I encounter equally friendly and generous folks.
In northern Morocco I met a group of women in the main square of Moulay Idris, a small town near the Roman ruins of Volubilis. After a cheerful conversation, a middle-aged woman points to a young woman and proposes I marry her. "Is she a good cook?" I ask. My new friend guarantees that the young woman will be an excellent cook and a loyal wife. But when I take off my hat and point to my grey hair, I admit that I might not be able to frequently perform the normal duty of a young husband. We have a big laugh.
In Gezira El Bairat, a small town across the Nile from Luxor, Omar, the owner of my guesthouse invites me to a sumptuous lunch with his large family. Omar also recommends drivers for day trips to the ancient temples.
In Bahariya, an oasis town in the Western Desert of Egypt, I have a brief chat with Amal, a cute twenty-something woman who serves breakfast. A very brief chat. She speaks no English. I speak no Arabic.
Later that morning I take tea with Saleh, owner of the guest house. He tells me that Amal is a worker from Cairo and not his daughter. He also introduces me to Leila, a lovely forty-something widow. Then he inquires, “Mr. Jan, How many wives do you have?” “None at the moment,” I answer. With a generous heart my host announces, “Mr. Jan, if you stay here for another week, I will arrange for you to marry them both!”
What a wedding!!
In Sudan the ecstatically energetic Sufi Priest hugs me like a brother.
In Jordan, after my desert adventure in Wadi Rum, I return to the home of my guide Youssef to find that his sons had washed my car. In Aman, Khaled, a college professor invites me to his home for lunch and takes me on a tour of his farm.
In Oman at a desert highway rest stop, I chat with a truck driver. He insists on paying for my tea.
In Istanbul, a group of businessmen from Dubai (at the next table!) insist on paying for my lunch.
In Iraq I have one moment of panic.
At the reception desk at the hotel in Baghdad I realized that I had left my small backpack in the taxi. My heart sinks when a bystander comments, “Insha’Allah, the taxi driver will return the bag.” Yet just five minutes later the hulking driver returns with the bag. I give him a hug. He refuses any reward and quickly departs.
In Erbil, Kurdistan, a taxi driver and I agree on the fare from the citadel to my hotel. On arrival, he pushes my tip back into my hand. (I also experienced this in Russia in Kazan, a mostly Muslim city.)
In Iran, I cannot count the number of genuinely hospitable encounters.
On two separate occasions, a hotel manager presents me with a book that describes local culture. At a convenience shop off the highway in the middle of the desert, the owner gives me a large box of dates to share with my travel companions. A high school girl pays for a souvenir. Ali, a pistachio farmer, invites me to his home for “a drink.”
And what a drink!
In Kerman I chat with a group of young boys and girls who are students at the local physical therapy academy. Since we are near an ice cream shop, I decide to treat everyone to a soft serve cone. As we pose for a photo a young man thanks me, but adds, “You are our guest. We should buy you a gift.”
I did have one uncomfortable moment while driving in the United Arab Emirates.
In Abu Dhabi I am lost. I knowingly make an improper turn. Flashing blue lights immediately appear in my rear-view mirror. The young policeman comes to the window dressed in his bright and spotless white headdress and gown. He scolds me politely and takes my documents to his patrol car.
In a few minutes he returns with my passport and rental car papers. He recounts my mistake. Then he graciously ends our meeting, “I’ll not give you a summons. Only a warning. Because you remind me of my father.”
Finally the policeman reset my GPS with the proper route to my hotel.
Many, many, many years ago, in Utah one summer morning, after an hour on the road I freaked out. I drove back to the Pancake House where I had breakfast. The waiting waitress cheerfully returned my folder of American Express Travelers Checks.
So Mike, my dear octogenarian friend, let’s try to answer your question, “How do we save the world?”
In the movie Evan Almighty (2007) this conversation takes place:
- G-d: "How do we change the world?"
- Evan Baxter: "One single act of random kindness at a time.”
How to save the world? Mike, may I add my list?
Be generous and kind to everyone you meet.
Kiss and hug your wife, your children, your grandchildren.
Encourage and support your friends.
How to save yourself?
Turn off the screens.
Listen to music.
Tend a garden.
Take a trip.
Walk through the woods and along the beach.
Pray for Peace.
And oh yes:
Be kind and generous to everyone you meet.