Friday, November 16, 2007

The Book Tour II – Adventures at Jewish Community Centers Across America

Richmond - “Who are you here for?” I asked the driver of the stretch limo outside my Miami hotel.

“Orbach.” The 40-something driver replied, as he gave me the once over – New Balance sneakers, worn jeans, and a button down shirt with a wingy collar.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, Orbach. Is that you?”

“Yes it is,” I said with a big smile as I handed him my bag and stepped up to the glory.

My Miami-Fort Lauderdale limo ride might have been the highlight of my Jewish Community Center book tour. It’s too bad I fell asleep during the ride; that shining moment could have lasted longer. Or I guess the moment would have lasted the same amount of time, but I would have been awake for more of it.

Whatever. I’m exhausted.

Last night wrapped up my Jewish Book Council tour. I visited five cities in five days and shared with mostly Jewish audiences my experience of living the American-Arab relationship 24-hours-a-day for a year following the 9/11 attacks.

When people hear that you are on a book tour, they think of limo rides and top-shelf hotels -- like the Jefferson in Richmond, the beautiful 5-star hotel where my very kind hosts put me up last night. But there are a lot of airport security, frozen Lender’s bagels, and dirty-sock-detection moments, too. There is also the “expectations of a grand performance” aspect. I guess you eventually adjust to it, but there were a couple of nights that had me wishing I could juggle or tap dance.

It probably isn’t the same for all authors on the Jewish Book Council tour, but my topic is a little different, especially given the audience. For example, in Richmond the night before I arrived, EllyAnne Geisel presented “The Apron Book: Making, Wearing, and Sharing a Bit of Cloth and Comfort.” In Deal, NJ, I was part 2 of a doubleheader with the very funny AJ Jacobs, author of “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” That was a tough act to follow.

I speak about the diversity that I found traveling to different places in the Arab World, the conversations I had with young men about their future, the daily struggles that “bus riders,” i.e. the common man faces in Egypt, Jordan and other places, and – most important to me – the popular opinions that people hold of America and Americans. From Cherry Hill to Miami, I received some excellent questions about the difference between the opinions of young people and older generations; the status of women in each Arab country; and popular views on terrorism in general, and the 9/11 attacks in particular. In a couple of places, I stayed 30 or 45 minutes after the talk ended to answer the bubbling questions of curious readers. So, I found that there was definitely some interest in what I had to say, but there was also some hostility.

For some vocal book-talk goers, my message and experience missed their desired mark. My shades of gray in explaining the anti-Semitism that I found, and the differences I sketched between places with a history of Jewish life and places where Jew = the Israeli army (in the minds of locals) were more exacerbating than satisfying. In almost every setting, there was a request for me to explain what I mean by the word “Palestine.” I was also asked in almost every stop about Arab countries’ education curricula, popularly viewed (here) as dehumanizing Jews and demonizing Israel.

I took away two main things from these book discussions with American Jewish communities. First, from the post-talk comments and the follow-on emails that I’ve received, there is an interest and a skeptical hope for better interactions with the people of the Arab World. Second, the everyday people in Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria have a long way to go in creating a more positive impression of their communities among Jewish communities in the United States.

Just as Mark Twain, Mariah Carey, and the Matrix make it to the Middle East, the information flows this way too. Egyptian newspaper cartoons, various countries’ textbooks, and stories of honor crimes are common knowledge on suburban Jewish Main Street. I’ve written a lot about the role unofficial American ambassadors should play in the Middle East. It is clear that there is a role for unofficial Arab ambassadors to be playing here, too.


For those wondering, my limo riding etiquette is terrible. When the driver sneezed, I said, “Bless you.” He didn’t hear me, so I yelled it, not wanting him to think that I was too good for such niceties. Except, when I yelled it, he just looked at me funny, like I was some kind of religious freak doling out the goods. Worse, perhaps, when we pulled up to the hotel in Lauderdale, I didn’t wait for him to open the door. I just hopped out, like a jack-in-the-box. The hotel doorman, from the look on his face, thought I was going to attack him.

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