I first met Jay in the early '60s. I was in the fourth grade, and he, a smart, funny Jewish kid, was bumped up to my class by skipping a grade.
We hit it off immediately, and became good friends. Together with our friend, Eddie, we formed a club -- "Rat Finks Anonymous" -- complete with a secret handshake that I can still perform on demand.
After elementary school, we went to separate junior highs, then reconnected in high school. By then, Jay was an athlete, an honor student, a talented musician and active in student government. We were in United Synagogue Youth (USY) together, where he was a mover and shaker; I was along mainly for the parties.
After high school, we both packed off to UCLA. We weren't close friends anymore, but we did run into each other often. Again, he was a leader in the campus Hillel group, where I sometimes showed up looking for girls and something to do on Friday night. It was like high school, but with more hair. Jay grew his into a massive woolly 'do that he called his "Hebrew natural."
After college I saw Jay at a few weddings of mutual friends. By 1980, I had lost track of him. I heard from a friend of a friend that he had moved to Israel.
The next I heard of him was in early 2002. Surfing the Web, I came across a series of articles featuring Jay -- now going by his Hebrew name, Yaacov -- in an Arab periodical, Al-Ahram Weekly, and the Christian Science Monitor. According to these journals, Yaacov is now a settler in one of the controversial Israeli outposts located in the West Bank near Nablus, on land Israel acquired in the 1967 war. The Monitor describes him as a "luxuriantly bearded American-born resident" of a "hard-line settlement." Unlike most of us, Jay seems to have acquired even more hair since college. They also mention the pistol strapped to his hip.
The Al-Ahram story presents Yaacov as an example of Jewish settlers who come from far-flung locales like California to claim their "right of return" to territory inhabited by Palestinian Arabs just a few years ago. With more than a little sarcasm, they claim he "just dropped in from Disneyland" to "dispossess the Arabs of their historic land."
Despite the editorial slant, the stories contain some direct quotes from Yaacov. "There comes a time when you say that if I want to live in peace, I have to make war," he says. "We cannot live with the Arabs.... In the next war, we will have to do what we did not do in 1967, drive them out, including the Israeli Arabs" who live within Israel's borders.
The only sign of militancy I ever saw in Jay was when he played a pistol-packin', black-Stetson-wearin' Haman in our USY Wild West Purim play. Now he's taken on another unpopular persona: the armed settler who advocates war and looks forward to the day the last Arab is expelled from the country.
I sometimes wonder how it came to be that Jay and I, who once had almost everything in common, took such different paths. My life is much the same as my parents; I live in a comfortable SoCal suburb, and my priorities are family and career, which is more than challenging enough for me. Jay's passionate beliefs brought him to a life of hardship, confrontation and danger. Most of the world, and even much of Israel, is critical of the settlements that he defiantly defends. I read in another newspaper story that Jay's niece was killed in the Sbarro bombing in Jerusalem. It can't be a happy life.
Growing up, I always considered Jay one of our "best and brightest." I can't help wondering what contributions he could have made in a more peaceful time. Eventually the situation in Israel and the territories will stabilize; as events unfold, I hope Jay will be, as we used to say in the '60s, part of the solution rather than part of the problem. I hope he'll be sensible, compassionate and careful. I'd like nothing more than to reconnect with him someday, and do the old Rat Fink handshake one more time.