The other night I had occasion to share a story about oppositional neighbors that I had once heard and that has stayed with me. It brought this story back to my mind and I want to share it on the blog. (I apologize for not blogging yesterday, we got back late from an out-of-town overnight.) I originally heard this story at a Bar-Mitzvah about 10 years ago. The young man included it in his teaching that he wrote about his Torah portion. The synagogue was a liberal lefty synagogue, so I would guess that most of those present were of a similar left-leaning political persuasion as this young man and his family.
A few years earlier, the boy’s family had moved into a new house. Next door to them was a crotchety old man who had Republican political signs on his front lawn. The boy’s parents referred to him as “the conservative neighbor” and the boy and his family were careful not to engage the old guy or his ailing wife in conversation. They felt it would not go well for them since they had such different politics.
The boy had a younger brother and they were playing with a ball in the back yard soon after moving into their house. The ball went over the fence into the conservative neighbor’s yard. Taking their lives in their hands, the boys timidly knocked on the neighbor’s door and politely asked if they could retrieve the ball. Their neighbor (who had no way of knowing that they were lefty liberals, by-the-way) growled at them about the ball and told them to keep their toys on their side of the fence. He informed them that any balls that wound up in his yard belonged to him and they would not see them again.
After that unfortunate encounter, the boys were as careful as possible about keeping their balls and Frisbees on their side of the fence. But even as careful as they could be, they lost many a ball and Frisbee to the conservative neighbor’s yard over the course of the next two years. During that time the Republican’s wife passed away so he was on his own next door, but just as mean-spirited as ever, glaring at them from his porch. The boys’ parents speculated that he didn’t like children.
Then one evening the boys were playing with a brand new ball and it went over the fence. They told their dad about it and he said, “Enough already. That was an expensive ball and we are going next door to get it back.” The dad and his two sons went to the conservative neighbor’s house and knocked on the door. The dad explained politely why they had come and the neighbor gruffly invited them to follow him through the house to the back yard to retrieve the ball. They had never been inside his house before. As they began to walk through, one of the boys stopped at a picture and asked the old man about it. The old man said it was himself with his wife when they were young. One question led to another and before long the ball was forgotten and the conservative neighbor was showing them old photographs and talking about his younger years and his departed wife, whom he missed very much. He invited them to have a cup of tea, which they accepted, and it was a couple of hours before the boys and their father left with their ball.
In the two years that they had lived next door to one another, these two families had never gotten to know one another. They had both, for their own reasons, assumed they did not like each other, or that at the very least they did not have any common ground on which to meet.
On the morning after their long visit with the conservative neighbor, the boys looked out the window into their back yard and there on the grass were all the balls and Frisbees that had flown over the fence for the past two years. The neighbor had tossed them back into the boys’ yard. After that the boys visited the old man regularly and developed a friendship with him. No politics spoken.