For more than two decades, my husband and I have maintained homes in New Jersey and Herzliya. Normally our lives are pretty routine, but a few weeks ago we decided to have our Israeli living room painted. That’s when we met Assad.
Assad is really more of a laborer than a painter. And he’s certainly no artist. But the formerly graying walls did not resist the new white paint and are now clean and bright.
Assad was not the typical person visiting our home; we usually spend time with English-speaking friends and family. But as our day together progressed, we broke bread and chatted in some version of language — not English, not Arabic, but the infamous Ivrit kala, easy Hebrew. And so I learned that he supports a huge family on his very minimal, and often unreliable, income. No work, no money. But lots of kids. And I learned that he’s a nice and gentle man.
I had an idea that involved figuring out how to get my good-natured husband to finally get rid of the ancient television set that had long since been replaced by two flat-screen, high-definition models. We would ask Assad if he wanted the old clunker, doing ourselves a favor while doing a mitzvah for Assad. My husband generally sees no reason to throw out anything that still works — but if he can help a fellow human being, he’s the go-to guy.
Assad expressed his thanks for the offer, but told us that he came to our house by taking a series of buses and taxis, and there was no way to get the bulky 80-pound television set home. Without any thought I volunteered to drive him. He accepted the offer and soon enough we were in our car heading east, rather far east — though the area is known as the West Bank. Thus began our serendipitous adventure.
We left Herzliya and zipped along Israel’s modern divided highways, bypassing Raanana and Kfar Saba until the road narrowed and the presence of Israeli cars was reduced to a trickle. Most of the license plates we saw were the blue Palestine plates, and we passed a sprinkling of Israeli settlements. We were in the territories.
“I’m not naive. I don’t think that our experience is the road to peace between Israel and our neighbors. But I do think that first we need to understand each other.”
As the winding road continued, we passed small Arab villages and many acres of gnarled ancient olive trees and fragrant orange orchards. The road was hilly and opened upon beautiful panoramas. There were vast areas of unoccupied land. We were suddenly tourists less than an hour from home. Finally, about 40 minutes east of Kfar Saba, we turned left into the center of Assad’s home town of Haja. It was crowded and busy and we did not go unnoticed in our Israeli car driven by an ancient Jewish woman: me.
We arrived at Assad’s home. It was of typical Arab construction with the living area up a steep flight of stairs and a black water heater on the roof. We prepared to say our farewells when Assad invited us to come up; we demurred, he firmly insisted, and we finally agreed.
The house was filled with children who were very intrigued by their guests. We had no language to share at all but the warm hospitality was palpable. We were showered with gifts: succulent olives, hand-pressed extra virgin olive oil, freshly baked pitot, the famous spice blend known as za’atar, all wrapped up for us, and all absolutely delicious. After partaking of cold drinks we were ready to leave.
I had made an instant observation when we first entered his living room. On the wall was a huge flat-screen TV, much better than anything we own. As he was accompanying us to our car I asked Assad why he had wanted our old TV when he obviously had no need for it. His answer is the reason I relate this tale. “I didn’t want to embarrass you,” he said.
I’m not naive. I don’t think that our experience is the road to peace between Israel and our neighbors. But I do think that first we need to understand each other. Often our different cultures make that challenging indeed.
Rosanne Skopp is a frequent blogger for The Times of Israel. She lives in West Orange, N.J., and Herzliya. This essay first appeared in The New Jersey Jewish News.