November 18, 2004
Flee to Be Me
What is a friend? When I was a kid, the requirements were none too stringent. Is he in my class? Can I ride my bicycle to his house? Do his parents have any insane "not too much candy before dinner" rules?
As I got older, other factors became more important. Do we root for the same team? Are we willing to lie to our parents for each other? Does he have a bong?
Now that I'm one half of a couple (actually, 49 percent when it comes to decision making, 51 percent when it comes to heavy lifting) friendship is trickier. Are our children the same age? Do our families have comparable incomes? Do they have a bong?
I have come to realize that not everyone I hang around with is a friend. Some of them are acquaintances, sidekicks, chums and cronies. At this point in my life, there is only one criterion that determines if someone is a true friend: Would he hide me from Hitler?
I am, of course, referring to the metaphorical Hitler. The actual Hitler is dead. Or is he? (That was for the paranoid among you. You know who you are. And we know who you are. OK, I'll stop now.)
It says a lot about Jewish history that I would even entertain this line of thought, but it's hard to refute the fact that people are, with alarming regularity, trying to wipe Jews off the face of the earth (unless you happen to belong to one of the many groups who are, with alarming regularity, trying to wipe Jews off the face of the earth, in which case it's easy to refute the fact that people are, with alarming regularity, trying to wipe Jews off the face of the earth). And, with anti-Semitism at its highest level since ... minutes ago (let's face it, hating Jews is kind of like chronic pain -- even on days when it doesn't seem so bad you know it's still there) it's a necessary way to think. Non-Jews don't have to think this way. There is no Scandinavian word for "pogrom."
That's why, to me, the ideal friend is a non-Jew (in the event of another Hitler, Jews are no good to me -- even the blonde ones) who likes baseball, has an 11-year-old boy who plays computer games the way fish swim, has a wife who loves to talk on the phone -- and has built a large, hidden shelter under the floorboards of his living room.
I come by this way of thinking honestly. My grandparents fled Poland in the early 1930s. Before that, you can trace my family back to Spain, where we fled the Inquisition. And, although I have no proof, I'm pretty sure that we've also fled the Egyptians, Babylonians and Canaanites. My family has a long history of fleeing.
We're also proof of Darwinism. At 5-foot-8-inches tall (if you can use the word "tall" following 5-foot-8), I would play center on the Nemetz Family basketball team, a relative giant among Nemetzes. We are an example of survival of the shortest. My family was bred for hiding -- in a crawl space, behind a sofa, under an ottoman -- we fit anywhere.
Unfortunately, it's a skill that may come in handy sooner rather than later. When I see the passage of The Patriot Act, which broadens the scope of the government's powers while limiting the rights of certain individuals; when I see people voting in record numbers, partly to implement a ban on gay marriage, it sets off alarm bells on my "flee-dar." Because if history teaches us anything (and if you had some of my history teachers, it didn't) it teaches us that whenever a group of people exhibits any kind of intolerance toward another group of people, the intolerant group will eventually turn on the Jews.
You may think this a touch paranoid. However, my family has outlasted both the Roman and Greek empires. You don't run into a lot of Mesopotamians or Assyrians at the mall. But you may see some Nemetzes (most likely my wife, buying shoes). We're still here because, when it comes to the "fight or flight" instinct, we're not so good at fight but we're Hall of Famers when it comes to flight.
So next Saturday while you're in shul, I'll be at The Home Depot. They're giving a class on how to build a shelter, and I'm going to buddy up to the teacher.
Howard Nemetz is almost as good looking as his picture.