COLUMBUS, Ohio (JTA) – The High Holidays are a time for self-assessment, for looking back and preparing for the future.
A trip to Ohio this summer gave me the opportunity to look back over nearly a lifetime and consider some of the pathways that have brought me to the present.
The catalyst came near Columbus, when a distinguished-looking university professor greeted me at the door of his neat, Tudor-style house. He had metal-framed glasses, a salt-and-pepper moustache and still dark but thinning hair. Had I come across him anywhere else, he would have registered as a stranger.
But this was my old friend Richard, a high school classmate and Hebrew school companion – the boy, in fact, who had taken me to the senior prom.
We hadn’t seen each other in 40 years. Until a brief e-mail exchange two or three years ago, we hadn’t even been in touch during that time.
Such, however, is the enduring fascination of the road not taken that I made it a point to stop and reconnect between a lecture I gave at the American Jewish Committee in Cincinnati and a weekend with relatives in Akron.
We baby boomers sometimes seem obsessed with getting in touch with our past, or at least with reminders of our past. Just think of the oldies radio stations, the movie remakes of the TV shows of our childhood and the popularity of Web sites such as classmates.com.
I moved away from my childhood neighborhood in suburban Philadelphia soon after high school, and since then I’ve scarcely had contact with any of my classmates. Moving to Europe after college made the break even more complete.
Still, I’ve always been more curious about how my high school friends turned out than about what happened to people I knew in college.
Partly, I think, this is because we were all so unformed in high school. We weren’t quite blank slates, but we were utterly poised to go in any direction.
Richard ushered me in and introduced me to his wife of 30 years. Conveniently, she had a meeting to attend and left us to catch up. We did what one does in such reunions: First we adjusted visually to our middle-aged selves, adding and subtracting pounds, hair, wrinkles and other telltale signs of life experience, then we settled down to talk.
We filled each other in on the decades of our adulthood, and we reminisced about our teenage years.
Richard occasionally made a gesture that leaped so vividly across the decades that I almost saw the boy, not the man.
Then, as one does now, we logged on to Google; we spent several hours searching for our old friends. One had taken over his father’s company and became president of his synagogue. Several run their own businesses. One performs in a local rock band. One is a professor at New York University.
They live scattered across the United States and in more than one foreign country. A few, we knew, had passed away. Some, we were surprised to see, had no Web presence at all.
We took out the high school yearbook and there we all were: the boys in their white shirts and ties, the girls in their dark sweaters and pearls – yes, pearls.
It was the first time I had looked at the yearbook for a long time. We were the Class of ’67, and we went to school in heady times – the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the Summer of Love – but amazingly, none of this was reflected in the book’s pictures or text.
What’s more, our high school graduation coincided almost exactly with the Six-Day War.
I kept a daily diary back then, and I pulled it out when I returned from Ohio to my home in Italy.
In my entries for that week, brief comments on the war are overshadowed by much more detailed news of final exams, graduation events, visits with friends and teenage romantic musings about boys named Dave and Greg.
“Well, chalk one up for the intelligence of the world – there is war in the Middle East,” I wrote on June 5. That day, according to my diary, there was a power blackout in parts of New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania. When it was over, I reported, our principal came on the PA system to assure the school that it had had “nothing to do with the Middle East situation.”
The next day, after school, I spent hours watching on TV the U.N. Security Council debate on the crisis and the council’s vote on a cease-fire resolution.
“The Israelis made great advances, and the Arab losses [led to] the USSR agreement to cease-fire,” I wrote.
But that seems to have been my last comment on the situation.
June 10, the day the war ended, was a Saturday. I went to a music lesson and later that day, a friend gave me a present – “a pair of sandals and a groovy peasant-style embroidered skirt.”
I didn’t mention the cease-fire – but I still have the skirt.
Richard and I, and our classmates, are graying. And lasting, secure peace in the Middle East remains an elusive dream.
(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” “Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere), and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.”