REMARKABLE REPLIES

Occasionally in my experience, the normalcy of a conversation has been shattered by a reply so unexpected, so extraordinary, that it has remained imprinted upon my memory. At the first moment, such replies may have seemed comical because they were so insanely irrelevant. On reflection, however, they often assumed a surprising significance, because they seemed to have leaped over the procedures of routine logic, to reach a weirdly perceptive conclusion.


1. Occasions when I tried to convey ordinary common-sense statements. I should have known that I was wasting my breath.

I was seven years old when the first Superman comic book was published. I thirsted to own a copy, but my mother felt that it would be immoral to waste a dime on a comic book. A neighbor's boy owned one, and graciously agreed to read it aloud to me as if I were illiterate. Worse yet, he regularly misread "Superman" as "The Superman." When I pointed out his mistake, he indignantly replied: "Whose comic book is it, yours or mine?" and walked away. (My first encounter with the fact that he who pays the piper calls the tune.)

My mother believed implicitly in the validity of the Jewish dietary laws. She was convinced that if you mixed milk with meat, or (God forbid!) ate pork, it would make you sick. When I dared to argue with her, I pointed out that the vast majority of mankind are non-Jews who eat non-kosher food, and yet the whole world is not sick. She replied: "Just wait! Some day you will have children of your own, and then you'll see what it's like."

One night, I was on guard duty at my kibbutz with a young man from Poland. Terrible experiences during the Holocaust had left him emotionally scarred, and he had hardly had any formal education. It was a clear moonless night, and the sky was bright with stars. His innocent questions about the sky made it obvious to me that he knew nothing of astronomy. I held forth, describing stars, nebulae, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and the unimaginable vastness of the universe. When I stopped for breath, he replied: "I suppose what you say must be true -- but I don't like it one bit."


2. Occasions when I asked an innocent question, in the hope of receiving a common-sense answer. I should have known that I was wasting my breath.

I saw, in the sheep enclosure in a kibbutz, a ram running around among the ewes. I asked the man in charge what was happening. He said he was using the ram to prepare for artificial insemination. A ewe on which the ram jumped must be in heat, so he removed her to a separate enclosure. Merely out of curiosity, I asked him how the ram ascertained which ewes were in heat. He looked at me disdainfully and replied: "If I were to put you in a room with 200 women, wouldn't you be able to tell which ones are in heat?"

At London University, a female official handed me a printed schedule showing when and where each of my examinations would be held. Merely out of curiosity, I asked her, what if any of these times or places happened to be inconvenient for me? She looked at me disdainfully and replied: "If you can present documentary proof that you are prevented from attending because you are dead, I might take the matter under consideration; but if you are among the living, you will attend at the appointed times and places."


3. Replies that led me to suspect that the speakers understood me better than I understand myself.

I told a young lady friend that I always found the news upsetting and depressing. She replied: "You must not take the news personally. Think of it as a bad movie."

I bought a window shade on a roller first thing in the morning. Knowing in advance that I would have to carry it around all day, I had brought with me a plastic bag, rubber bands, and a plastic handle, to make it into a manageable parcel. The storekeeper, watching me packing it neatly, asked me if I am so meticulous and methodical in everything. I said yes. He replied compassionately: "You must have a hard life."

Riding in a taxi, I was conversing with the driver. He asked me to repeat something I said, explaining: "You pronounce the words perfectly correctly, and therefore it is difficult to understand what you say."

On reserve duty in the army, I was riding in a jeep with an uneducated farmer. Obviously he considered this a golden opportunity to learn something about the elite, and he commenced an interrogation. Was it true that I was a professor at a university? I admitted that it was true. What did I teach? I said that I teach about music. Skeptically he asked, what is there about music that needs to be taught? I said that there is a great deal, a whole world of things. He replied: "That is not so. There is nothing to learn about. You turn it on, and it plays."

The ultimate remarkable reply came from the mouth of the cleaning lady. She asked me why the faucet on my kitchen sink is fitted with a short length of flexible plastic tubing. I explained that it makes it possible to direct the stream of water to the corners of the sink. With a heartfelt look of admiration, she replied: "You are very wise, even though you don't believe in God."