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The Odd Couple

May 9, 2009 | by Richard Rabkin

I used to think that Jewish unity meant all of us being the same. Naphtali showed me otherwise.

Something exciting always happens to me when I go to the mall, and this past Sunday was no exception.

I made my usual rounds to all of my favorite spots. I first went to the pet store to look at the animals that my roommate won't let me buy because he pretends that he is allergic to them. (I am becoming more and more skeptical of his claims since he recently started sneezing after he picked up one of my stuffed animals.)

Next, I went to pick up a non-fat frozen yogurt doused with non-fat hot fudge, which I am sure could not have contributed to the non-fat 5 pounds that I gained shortly thereafter.

Just as I was about to begin the Radio Shack portion of the tour, I spotted something unusual: a large Chassidic man, in full regalia, standing outside of Radio Shack was trying to get my attention. He was sporting his black hat, beard, peot (sidelocks), stockings and long black coat, while I was sporting my mask of hot fudge which had developed as I missed my mouth during my fro-yo eating frenzy.

Once I was within earshot, the Jolly Frum Giant smiled at me uncomfortably and asked, "Yiddish?"

This was my big chance to try and use some of the Yiddish that my grandmother had taught me, but all I could muster up was, "Shluf gezunte hate," which translates roughly as "have a nice sleep."

My friend looked at me awkwardly and I responded with a shrug, which was my way of saying in mime, "Sorry, buddy, but that's all the Yiddish I've got." It looked like we were at an impasse.

In what appeared to be an act of desperation, he then asked me, "Ivrit?" (Hebrew?)

My Hebrew isn't flawless but I can certainly convey more than just the sentiment that I would like to tuck him in.

Hebrew? Now we're talking! My Hebrew isn't flawless but I can certainly convey more than just the sentiment that I would like to tuck him in.

He introduced himself to me as Naphtali. He explained that he lived in the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem and was visiting Toronto for a wedding. This trip was only the second time in his life that he had ever left Israel. Before his return the next day, he wanted to purchase a camera from Radio Shack but since he couldn't speak English, he was having trouble communicating with the salespeople in the store, whom I soon found out could hardly speak English either.

He asked me if I could inquire about the Canon P-80, his model of choice. The salespeople told me that they no longer carried it, but the Radio Shack at the nearby Yorkdale Mall was sure to have some in stock.

In my best Hebrew I conveyed the message to Naphtali, who seemed slightly disappointed but still resolute in his search for the elusive P-80, as he was now going to walk to the Yorkdale Mall via the 401 Highway. The thought of Naphtali's sidelocks swinging uncontrollably as he trekked along Canada's busiest highway made me fear for his safety, and the safety of Toronto's drivers. I told him that I had to pick up a few groceries, but if he could wait about 15 minutes then I would drive him to the mall myself. He agreed, and the greatest odd couple since Felix and Oscar was born.


As Naphtali and I were strolling through the mall, his eyes became transfixed on a stretch limousine-SUV that was on display outside of Banana Republic. Confused, Napthali asked me, "Is this car a sherut (a large taxi shuttle)?"

"No," I chuckled, "this is a special car for wealthy individuals."

"Oh! So this car is for wealthy people with big families? But I thought that people in Canada didn't have big families like they do in Israel?"

This time my laugh was more audible. "No, this isn't a family car, Naphtali. It's for very wealthy people who like big expensive cars."

I still don't think he understood, but judging by my reaction, Naphtali could tell that his question probably sounded a little strange to me, so he smiled and we both had a good laugh.

We finally reached Radio Shack and indeed they had the Canon P-80 in stock. The price tag was $59. Naphtali asked me to convey his desire to purchase two cameras, but first he asked me quietly, as if our friendly Punjabi salesman understood Hebrew, "Do you think if I get two cameras I can get them for $50 each?"

I laughed again. I was beginning to really enjoy Naphtali's antics.

"Sorry, Naphtali, but you can't really bargain at Radio Shack the way you bargain at the stores in Israel."

I told the salesman that my friend was going to get two cameras. After a few seconds I paused and asked, "Why do you need two cameras"?

Smiling, Naphtali explained, "Before I left Israel, my mother gave me some money for a camera. But do you really think that I would come back from my trip to Canada with a present for my mother and nothing for my wife? So, I am bringing back a camera for my wife too."

Naphtali put the cameras in his bag and said in a respectable English "Thank you." I told him that he was starting to become a real Canadian because he was very politely thanking everyone. We had another good laugh.

Naphtali and I were cruisin' the mall like we were old college buddies! But how could this be?

As we walked through the mall back to my car, I realized that something strange was happening. I was no longer helping an out of town visitor run some errands -- I was having a good time! Naphtali and I were cruisin' the mall like we were old college buddies!

But how could this be? We had very little in common -- we didn't look the same way, we didn't think the same way, and we hardly even spoke the same language. I decided to get Naphtali's take on the situation.

"Naphtali, don't you find it strange that although the two of us are so different, here we are joking around and telling each other stories like we are old friends?"

"I don't find it strange at all, "Naphtali responded immediately. "Just because I have a long beard and peot and you don't doesn't mean that we don't have things in common. In fact, we have a special bond between us. We are united by the fact that we are both Jewish and it is this unity that keeps the Jewish people together. I know that the two of us are very different. I saw the way people were looking at us in the mall wondering what we were doing together. Maybe if the two of us were walking together in my neighborhood in Jerusalem they might wonder the same thing. But the unity of the Jewish people goes beyond the way we look. Being united doesn't mean that we all look and act the same. It means that we care about each other and we respect the common bond between us."

I dropped Naphtali off at the house where he was staying, all the while trying to digest the message that he had imparted to me. I used to think that the only way the Jewish people would truly become unified was if we were all the same. But Naphtali showed me otherwise. We aren't all the same, and we're not supposed to be. The Jewish people are made up of different tribes, but most importantly, we all share in the same goal.

It took someone who is so different than me to teach me how similar we really are.

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