It was the kind of relationship I'd expected to come to a crashing halt at any moment; our differences were too great, the similarities too few. Yet there I was, leaving my two young children, boarding an airplane to fly nearly 6,000 miles to visit a woman 15 years my senior and a world apart.
Nava Bin Noon is Jewish; I'm evangelical Christian. She has grown children; mine are in diapers. She grew up in Israel and has survived multiple conflicts, including the First Gulf War when Iraqi missiles rained on her home in Tel Aviv; I grew up in the United States knowing war only in theory. Despite these differences, Nava is one of my dearest friends.
What I Couldn't Share
We met when Nava temporarily relocated to the suburban American south. At the time I worked for an educational company, teaching esl (English as a Second Language) and American culture. Her family had moved during the summer, and her teenage daughters were slated to begin school in a few weeks, so they hired me to provide language and tutoring support to ease the transition.
When Nava walked through my office door, the first thing I noticed was her unusual beauty. Dark eyes, smooth olive skin, long, straight, thick black hair—she lived up to her name, which means "lovely." But she seemed nervous, quiet, almost shy. Near the end of that first meeting, she tentatively asked if her daughters would encounter prejudice because they were Jewish. I assured her she needn't worry, although I was puzzled she would ask. In halting English she explained that another cross-cultural trainer had warned her they would be viewed as devils. I was surprised by that comment, but didn't ask about it.
Over the next few months, I became Nava's bridge to a new world. And slowly the line between work and friendship blurred. English conversation classes morphed from textbooks to philosophical discourses to geopolitical analysis to counseling sessions. Nava soon mastered gtfl (Girl Talk in a Foreign Language), and we never could quite decide who was cuter—Sean Connery or George Clooney. Together our families celebrated Chanukah, birthdays, and the arrival of my first child.
Although our personalities clicked, our world views did not. Nava was decidedly liberal in her approach to sexuality, reproductive rights, and the place of God in public life. For her, religion was a necessary evil—something that brought order and structure to society but best handled at a distance. Having grown up in Israel, she'd found "religion" more often expressed in hate and violence than in love and acceptance. So while she understood and celebrated many aspects of Judaism, she never seemed comfortable with personal faith.
For me, faith was an all-consuming lifestyle that informed everything from how I spent my Sunday mornings to how I voted. And my belief in Jesus as the Son of God was the lynchpin. This prompted more than one awkward discussion between us. At the end of one such conversation, Nava remarked that in her opinion the Jewish religious leaders had simply made a mountain out of a molehill. "If they'd just ignored Jesus, instead of crucifying him," she said, "Christianity today would simply be another subset of Judaism."
Given these deep differences, I worried frequently that our friendship wouldn't survive. My fears escalated when my husband accepted a 10-month position as an interim missionary in New Zealand. My life was now devoted to evangelical church ministry, to the cultivation and propagation of personal faith.
During this time, Nava and I e-mailed once a month, commiserating about the adjustments of living in a foreign country, the challenges of raising children cross-culturally, and the difficulty of being far from family. Unfortunately my fears about what Nava would think kept me from revealing the deeper parts of my experience—the challenges of being a minister's wife and the joy of watching people find purpose and meaning through faith. Thankfully our friendship survived, but my family and I returned to the States only in time to say good-bye as Nava and her family returned to Israel.
Though we promised to e-mail, call, and perhaps even visit, I wondered if this separation would prove too great a challenge. I'd had friends before with whom I'd vowed to keep in touch, but the busyness of life got in the way, and we lost track of each other. Nava was returning to her life and family in Israel; my husband and I were soon to begin a rural pastorate where I'd grown up. Both of us were coming full circle, and I expected our friendship would go the way of so many others: neatly packaged for a specific time in our lives but eventually becoming no more than a wistful memory.God—and my husband—had other plans.
On Her Turf
Seeing how much I missed connecting with Nava over the next 18 months, my husband arranged for me to visit her in Israel. I watched with a cynical eye. Though I missed my friend, in my mind there were just too many obstacles. My children were young. We'd just taken on the responsibility of a church and were trying to make ends meet on a limited salary. And to top it all, the American media gushed with stories of Israel's political and social unrest against Palestine.
But soon my husband booked my tickets for Israel. Nava was thrilled at the chance to show me her homeland. She even postponed starting a new job in order to tour with me. But as we marked off the days until my visit, I became a bundle of anxiety. Though my desire to see Nava was tremendous, our entire relationship had flourished in my comfort zone, in cultural surroundings I understood, through a language I'd grown up speaking. Traveling to Israel meant getting to know her on her turf.
What if we really didn't get along as well as I'd remembered or we'd already grown apart? I'd be stuck in an unfamiliar country without a car, waiting days to return home. Worse, I'd have settled the question of whether such an unusual friendship could survive.
On a Thursday afternoon, I boarded a flight to Tel Aviv. I looked around at the other passengers. This little girl from rural Pennsylvania where everybody attended Sunday school and knew the Pledge of Allegiance by heart was surrounded by Orthodox Jews. The men dressed in dark suits, had long curly beards, and covered their heads with black wool hats. Their wives and daughters walked demurely behind them, wearing long skirts and multi-colored headscarves. Before and during the flight, they kept a rigorous prayer schedule, even tramping to the back of the plane at 5:00 a.m. in order to pray facing Jerusalem.
Finally the plane touched down at Ben Gurion International Airport, where we were herded through security checkpoints, questioned about our travel plans, and ultimately allowed to wander into the terminal's main hall.
Standing there, with a huge smile on her face, was Nava.
In that instant, the last few years came full circle. Now I was the exotic beauty, my blue eyes and blonde hair completely out of place in a sea of olive faces. I was the shy one, nervous and apprehensive about a new place, unsure of my reception. And this time Nava was to become my bridge to a new and thrilling world.
Over the next eight days, she led me through the ancient alleyways of Jaffa, across the bleak deserts of the Negev, along the walls of Old Jerusalem, and up the pastoral hillsides of the Golan Heights. We shared plates of hummus, piles of warm pita, cool Jordanian cucumbers, and too many dishes of salatim (colorful salads and relishes that accompany pita) to count. I learned things about her that I could never have known had I not watched her barter with a short Arab man in Jerusalem; and she learned things about me she never could have known had she not watched me pray and cry on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
Such experiences bridged the gulf of faith that had impacted our friendship. Neither of us could escape the reality that even though Israel is her homeland, it's my spiritual homeland, the birthplace of my faith. A faith not built of shrines and rituals, but of spirit and truth. A faith that teaches me to love God supremely and my neighbor as myself—a concept shared by Jewish tradition. A faith very different from the organized religion that Nava had seen practiced, bought and sold, and battled over every day in Israel.
One evening, after a particularly emotionally exhausting day, I was struggling to explain all this when Nava interrupted, "I understand. And listen, I'm not looking to convert—but if I were, this is what I would convert to."
What Binds Us Together
In that conversation, we extended to each other the greatest gifts God gives in human relationships—transparency and acceptance, the willingness to reveal oneself and the willingness to understand what another person has to say. When I shared my spiritual experiences with Nava, I was, in essence, giving her all of myself. And what Nava gave in return was not blind agreement—we still hold vastly differing views—but the security that when I do expose the deepest parts of me, I'll find acceptance.
This signaled a turning point in our relationship. For too long, I'd let fear keep me from fully committing to Nava. I was afraid that if I revealed what was truly happening in my heart and soul, she'd reject me and our friendship would be over. Ironically it was when I finally let down my guard and gave over the most personal part of myself that our friendship flourished.
On the last morning of my trip, I wept as Nava and I said goodbye. Uncertain of when we would see each other again, I couldn't help but feel that I was leaving part of myself behind. And even today, though thousands of miles apart, I feel that part of my soul is still with her every time I have the courage to share what's really going on inside me.
We often assume a relationship will endure if it's based on similarities. We make friends with people who have similar backgrounds, join clubs to be around people who like the things we do, and employ internet dating sites to find the perfect match for our interests and personality. But we can unknowingly allow this idea to become a source of anxiety and fear in our relationships, as I did with Nava. Instead of finding comfort in the fact that we had a friendship despite the differences, I focused on the differences. Ultimately that worry could have limited God's work in both our lives.
Amazingly, it's often the complicated relationships that most mirror God's relationship with us. Of all relationships destined to failure, his must top the list. He's so different from us, so wholly other, yet he reaches down to us in transparency and acceptance. And all he desires in return is that we do the same. It's this simple trust that binds us to him and him to us.
As I discovered 6,000 miles from home, it's simple trust, not similarities, that binds two souls together and ultimately undergirds my friendship with Nava. It's a friendship built on honesty and love, a friendship richer for the differences and complexities, a friendship strong enough to last this lifetime and, I pray, a friendship that will one day extend into eternity.
Hannah R. Anderson is a freelance writer who lives in Pennsylvania.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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