Living in Houston for the first three years upon coming to the US introduced me to two strange phenomenon:
(1) Everyone was “friendly” because – after all, everyone said “Howdy”; or asked, “How y’all doing?” whether I knew them or not; and
(2) People tried to convert me!
Being greeted by a total stranger was completely foreign to me. No one in Israel would greet you if they didn’t know you … not even a smile! In Israel, you’d greet who you know, and pass by the rest like they’re weren’t even there. Of course, you’d look at what they wearing, and make a mental note – but that’s about it.
So, you can imagine my surprise when strangers started greeting me with big familiar smiles.
At first, I thought they mistook me for someone they knew, but then I realized it couldn’t be true because there were too many of them. Later on I started struggling with responding to them. After all, just because they were being weird didn’t mean I needed to partake in this strange habit. But, after a while, I decided not to push against this friendly gesture, and I tried to accept that everyone was just nice and friendly, so I responded back and quickly realized that the greeting was just that – a greeting. Unfortunately, it didn’t assure friendliness, but it was just a polite way of relating.
I got used to it, of course, but I still remember my mom visiting and asking me how come people seem so happy here, because they all smiled at her, and greeted her – even as she looked at them so bewilderedly.
More difficult to adjust to, was the fact that people who got to know me would try to convert me, which happened more than once.
One particular encounter comes to mind:
An older couple (neighbors) introduced themselves to me as we sat by our pool at my first apartment building. We became good friends, and soon I was impressing them with vast knowledge of the Old Testament. (Immodest, but altogether true!)
They would invite me for dinner from time to time, and through them I was introduced to the Jell-O mold, and macaroni-and-cheese, which resulted in gaining 10 lbs. They also introduced me to Barbara Walters on TV, while whispering to me that her origins were similar to mine. I wasn’t sure what they meant because I knew nothing about Barbara Walters. However, from watching her periodically I did conclude she had an annoying voice.
As our friendship deepened they started to let me know they were worried about my soul. I had no idea what they’re talking about, and I assured them that my soul was just fine – thank you very much.
Being born in Israel, I had a very strong Jewish-Israeli identity, but I was not at all Jewish-religious, as could also be said of my family and most close friends. As a matter of fact most Israelis are secular and not religious. There was a two year period when I struggled to find a belief in God, but after attending some philosophy classes at the university, I concluded that I was a heathen, and there’s not much to be done about it. Honest, I really tried. I made a concerted effort to believe in Something, but to no avail.
Back to Bob and Linda, and the Evening of Tears …
Bob and Linda didn’t relent, and then came the evening when they were in tears, telling me that they were so fond of me that they just could not let me die and go to hell! To say that I was shocked would be an understatement.
Despite all my protestations, and my assurances that (A) I didn’t believe in hell and (B) that even if hell existed, I was too young to go because I hadn’t done that many bad things yet … still, they beseeched me to consider conversion to Christianity, since they were positive I would end up in hell. And, I still remember my amazement at their descriptions of Christ as loving and forgiving, while at the same time foretelling my fate of fire and brimstone.
I was(?) both stubborn and comfortably agnostic, so after a while they gave up on me. We remained good friends until I moved to LA and there was the year when I received a card from Linda telling me that Bob had died.
I felt sad, and I had a moment of regret for not assuring him that I would eventually become a Christian. Not because I ever intended to, but because it would have made him happy to believe I would be saved and we would meet in heaven.
What I also didn’t tell them then, because I was young and thoughtless, was that their concern for me touched me deeply. They were my first friends in the US, and they made me feel that there’s heaven on earth.