October 20, 2005
Things started to go bad quickly.
The United Airlines agent informed us our flight from Denver to Aspen was over sold -- not everyone with a valid ticket was going to get on board.
Dozens of passengers were trying to be the ones past the gate.
Among them, lots of Jews.
We were flying in to join The Conversation: A Project of The Jewish Week -- a novel, never-done-before two-day conference on the Jewish future.
The idea was the brainchild of Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week in New York. What would happen, he wondered, if a group of people concerned with the future of Jewish life meet in an unstructured, relaxed, off-the-record atmosphere, trading ideas, analyses and solutions.
It was to be the Jewish equivalent of those Renaissance weekends the Clintons and their gang made famous -- minus the touch football and the gentiles. Gary got funding from major private philanthropies, secured a location in Aspen and invited about 70 people from across the country.
And even in the Denver airport waiting area, it was shaping up to be a heady experience. Journalists, scholars, rabbis, activists and filmmakers were deep in conversation.
The rest of the passengers in the busy hub seemed positively sedate compared to our animated group. It was a combination of class reunion and high-octane graduate seminar, getting to wrestle big problems with people passionate about the same things.
But first we had to wrestle with getting to our destination.
When the ticket agent pleaded for people to give up seats for a later flight, one of the Conversation participants called out a pledge.
"If some of us don't go," he said. "none of us will go. Can we agree on that?"
Evidently we couldn't: Not three minutes later, when the final boarding call was made, the same man disappeared onto the airplane.
Within an hour, the storm worsened. The next flight was cancelled.
Rather than wait for a 6 p.m. flight to be scrubbed as well, 20 of us opted to arrange for two separate vans. A film producer worked his cellphone and in an instant made the arrangements.
"That's what I do," he shrugged, "I produce."
So off we went. Strangers mostly, but all familiar with one another's work or world: In our van were my wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy (spouses were not welcome at the Conversation, Naomi and I received separate invitations); the president of a national Jewish organization; a distinguished professor; a film director and producer, and a nonfiction author. I'm not mentioning their names because the rule was that even our participation would be off-the-record.
Ray, our driver, turned out to be a Muslim from Tehran. He asked what we were all doing in Aspen.
"There's a conference for Jewish academics, thinkers, leaders, rabbis," someone said.
"Just Jewish people?" Ray asked.
I had to wonder if he'd seen the new documentary on the "Protocols of Zion," which debunks the notion that Jews met late in the 19th century to plot their takeover of the world (see article on Page 31). I made a mental note to send him a copy.
Just before we got to the Eisenhower Tunnel, an organizer at the conference called. The event had begun in Aspen with a facilitator asking the group to come up with discussion ideas. Dozens had been narrowed to six.
At this point, with the president of the Jewish organization relaying information over the phone, we tried to take part. She listed the potential discussion issues.
"No. 1: Helping people choose Judaism. No. 2: Congregations of Torah, tzedakah and chesed. No. 3: Using television and movies to strengthen Judaism. No. 4: How can Jews contribute to creating positive images of Israel? No. 5: Gender and Judaism, why do boys fall out of Jewish life, and why do girls feel excluded? No. 6: Why be Jewish?"
We jumped into the discussion, already on a first-name basis. We had four hours to go, and no one was shy.
The professor, a researcher with a deep and fluent knowledge of the state of Jewish practice, went first. One fact of Jewish life, he pointed out, is that women call the shots. In an intermarried couple, it is the woman who decides the faith. It is the woman who keeps Judaism alive in the home. Boys and men, he said, are opting out of Jewish practice after their bar mitzvahs, and few return.
We debated this, bringing our experiences and anecdotes to flesh out the data. The discussion deepened over several miles.
In the background, the car radio was tuned to the Phillies game for Ray's amusement. Outside, snow whipped through the transcendent pine forest. I was in a special place, among remarkable individuals. I felt fortunate to be on this journey.
Then Ray stopped.
He had no choice. Traffic had slowed to a standstill. Somewhere up ahead, a big rig without chains had jackknifed. Not only weren't we flying to Aspen, it began to look doubtful that we would be driving there either.
We pulled off the road in Silverthorne for a restroom. The snow was coming down in globs. I stepped out of the van into six inches of frozen slush; ice water filled my shoes.
Moments later, Ray re-started the van and quickly realized the defroster didn't work. He dove under the dashboard, fiddled a bit. No go.
The windshield turned opaque.
"I think we just hit the trifecta," said the president.
The other van went ahead. Ray couldn't raise a traffic report on the radio; there were no police or emergency workers in sight. After a month of hurricane and earthquake news, we were all hyperaware of how easily social order can spin into chaos.
The professor suggested we check for rooms at nearby hotels: "It's not pessimism," he said. "It's precaution."
We crossed the frozen highway, the author wiping down the windshield as Ray inched along. But the hotel that appeared just ahead of us was pitch black. There was a regional power outage, which was expected to last until morning. No one was allowed to check in, and the lobby full of stranded travelers looked like a Red Cross shelter.
The idea we all clung to -- of eventually laughing this all off over drinks by an Aspen fireplace -- gave way to the image of eight people shivering in a van under a snowdrift, a Jewish Donner Party.
"Years from now," said the producer, "people will ask why this is called 'Conversation Pass.'"
Ray banged the dashboard, flipped a switch -- and the defroster kicked in.
Van 2 called back to say they were stuck in traffic, but after a group vote we decided to push on. We sailed up the interstate. Ray, our driver, broke the silence.
"Really," he said, "I find what you are saying so interesting."
Ray said he'd come from Tehran 11 years ago. He'd married a Christian woman, and no longer practiced his Muslim faith. His four children were being raised Christian.
"That's my point," said the professor, "the woman decides."
"I say, every man finds his way to God in his way," Ray said. "My children, whatever they choose is OK with me."
The Conversation started up again, spurred by the Muslim in the driver's seat. We traded life and work stories. We drove about three miles -- and then hit bottom: an unbroken, miles-long line of snarled 18-wheelers, SUVs, pickups and sedans.
We were going nowhere, ever -- if ever meant Aspen.
I asked the professor what book he's writing. Maybe we wouldn't get to talk all night in a room in Aspen, but we could just as well talk in a van all night on the way.
The professor launched into a lucid, compelling distillation of his series of lectures he gave at Yale University about the future of Zionism. We pitched in with questions and our own experiences. But carsickness and despair had taken over a couple of us. The Conversation wound down.
Some of us wanted to head back to Denver. Others wanted to forge ahead. I was in the latter group, for a while. I had romantic visions of dealing with these multiplying dilemmas the way we knew best, the same way Rosenblatt assumed we could tackle some of the Jewish world's thorny issues: by talking. I figured we'd sit in traffic and talk through the night, and the hours would pass quickly in stimulating debate, and by 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., things would be moving.
Finally, Ray was able to tune into a traffic report: The highway was closed indefinitely with continuous wrecks. Van 2 called to say they had turned back. Our adventure was becoming less "Gilligan's Island" and more "Lifeboat."
We caved. Not pessimism, pragmatism. There are some situations, I guess, you just can't converse your way out of.
Ray somehow maneuvered the van into the opposite lanes. There were a few gasps.
"Believe me, I have four kids," Ray said, "and I want to see them."
The road back to Denver was clear. A phone call from Aspen informed us that the handful of people who chose -- we thought foolishly -- to wait in the airport all day for the evening flight had arrived safely at the conference. Our van grew quiet for several more miles.
"So what's the moral of the story?" my wife the rabbi asked. "What's the life lesson?"
"You're better off in the airport than you are on the road," the director said.
"Until," the producer added, "you're better off on the road than you are in the airport."
Naomi and I headed back to Los Angeles the next morning. We had little alternative. An even bigger storm had come in, and, in any case, all flights to Aspen were booked.
The Conversation, I heard, was a great success. The problems of the Jewish people were kicked around, hashed out, pondered, debated. Nothing got solved -- that's not the purpose of these things. But there is a certain magic in intense discussions, among caring people, in closed quarters.
The film director from our ill-fated van put it this way, somewhere along mile Marker 221, eastbound on Highway 70: "I have faith in our journey, and we will arrive at the place we need to be."
Or, conversely, we won't.