Education Through Friendship: One Man’s Story (Part 4)

Parts 1, 2, and 3 trace the arc of my close friendship with a small group of Pittsburghers beginning in the late-1940s. Far beyond the schooling I have had, my friendship with these “buddies” of mine has educated me and made possible my living a full life.

Turning Points in the Group’s History

Moving from a bunch of teenage boys in high school and college who had learned over years to accept both strengths and flaws in each other to a group of husbands and wives coming together monthly was a huge leap. Most adolescent friendships that survive college, I would guess, founder as couples form and marriages occur.   

In our group, many wives did not know one another well before they married into the group. It was a Pittsburgh Jewish community divided into Oakland, East Liberty, and Squirrel Hill where different B’nai Brith youth groups straddled neighborhoods so some wives had met and knew of one another but not as close friends. Surely, many of us knew the wives when they were dating one of the guys especially as dating evolved into engagements and then marriage. Our annual New Year’s Eve parties brought the women we dated together. For example, I brought Barbara to her first New Year’s Eve party in 1957, a year before we got married.

Wives expand group. Why did the group of close pals accept wives as integral members of the group and make it a joint venture in forming the book club in 1960. Had this move not occurred, I believe, the group of Victory buddies would have slid into the familiar obscurity of teenage friendships remembered in holiday cards, birthdays, and funerals. Once part of the group, women took active roles in nourishing the crew’s identity and pride.

I do not know why this group of young men accepted wives as integral members of the group. It would be self-serving to slip into the cliché about how accepting the men were or how hard the wives worked at overlooking issues that would divide us. At that time in our marriages with kids arriving, I would guess, the idea of the ex-Victory guys getting together for a night out from their wives went against the grain and getting of us together sounded like a worthwhile idea to try out.  Beyond that guess, I simply don’t know. But it did occur.

Of course, tensions surfaced periodically as our group doubled at parties and other annual gatherings.  One wife or husband found another wife or husband in the group awful, i.e., too loud or too quiet; too assertive, too reticent; too picky, too careless, and on and on. Over the years, such differences submerged or were ignored or were accepted as, well, that is who so-so is. And, of course, genuine friendships arose between the wives as they discussed books, shared recipes, and pursued professional jobs.

Why conflicts didn’t split the group, I just don’t know. Perhaps it was because at some level individuals knew that dragging politics or personal peeves into discussions would ultimately destroy the group. Perhaps the terms of the unwritten social compact and the trust at its foundation that we had worked out informally avoided such confrontations. Or perhaps it was because each couple had networks of friends and family and did not solely depend upon the group for closeness. What I do know is that had those differences continued to surface and had they gotten rubbed raw, they would fragmented the group. That did not happen then and has not occurred since. But there were close calls.

Tensions surfaced over the book club, for example. Each discussion over a book was accompanied by a full meal in the early years—venues changed monthly among the group as each couple took its turn at hosting—but in later years the group scaled back to desserts and coffee. Some couples took responsibility to read a book, do background reading, and make sure they were prepared for the monthly discussion. Others felt more relaxed about the obligation; if they could read the book, they did; if they could not finish it in time, they would still come and contribute or keep quiet. Often, for some couples, the social time together over eating became the primary reason for getting together.

This see-sawing between those that valued highly the intellectual side of the monthly get-together and those who prized the social interaction rose and fell in intensity until the mid-1970s when a few couples dropped out of the club. Book discussions stopped for a number of months. The group still gathered for picnics and the annual New Year’s Eve party yet strains, while mild, were just below the surface.

After almost a year, a few couples who had liked the intellectual exchange decided to reconstitute the monthly book discussions. They also decided to invite other couples, a few years younger and not part of the original group. The book discussions again flourished and the new couples began to attend picnics and other parties.

By broadening the original group beyond the men to include wives, constructing a social framework for interactions, and, later, adding new couples, the group demonstrated, I believe, a solid core of inner strength, self-confidence, and mutual trust to continue the strong network they had created over previous decades..

Retreats. In the late -1970s and for the next two decades, the Pittsburgh group started having weekend Fall retreats in West Virginia. Begun with an exchange of phone calls, the plan grew into a search for a moderately priced place, the right dates for as many that wanted to come and detailed plans for who should bring food and wine for meals through Friday evening and Sunday morning, pull together the Shabbat dinner, lead discussions (not about books but built around topics we chose), conduct the Saturday morning service, and plan the entertainment for Saturday evening. 

At the first retreat in a state park, seven couples from Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. (where Barbara and I lived at the time) traveled to a state park to spend a sunny, mild October weekend. Without children, 14 adults gathered Friday evening in one of the four-bedroom cabins for services to welcome the Shabbat. Followed by a dinner punctuated by jokes, spirited conversation, and laughter over a stubborn fire that almost smoked us out. The evening ended with a quiet moonlight walk.

The next day, a morning service was followed by long hikes in woods filled with rich autumn colors. Some couples tramped paths just to search out quiet spots to either talk with a friend or be alone. In the early evening, a service brought the Shabbat to a close and then dinner. In the evening, by a fire that flamed slowly and evenly this time, a group discussion took place. Spirited and intense, the group wrestled with the strengths and weaknesses of Jews as an ethnic group assimilated into a larger Christian culture and the centrality of religion or lack of it in modern American Jewish life. Lasting a few hours, afterwards we took a midnight walk.

The next morning, there was another breakfast with much laughter and camaraderie and then sightseeing elsewhere in the state park. By early afternoon, everyone had departed. The retreat was over.

We found mutually agreeable dates over the years and different couples drove to the hills of West Virginia to be together as Fall colors bloomed. While the California contingent made a few of the retreats, it was the Pittsburghers who did all of the heavy lifting insofar as food and planning. At each retreat, we hiked, talked to one another, shared meals, played board games, and renewed connections.

I have gone on at length about these retreats to convey, if only a fragment, the whirl of activities, the time to be alone with a partner or friend, the warmth that flowed from long friendships and the confidence of a group that springs from self-direction. We needed no Rabbi to lead services. We needed no expert to guide our discussions. We needed no social director to organize the retreat. Pride in many years of friendship spurs these statements, not arrogance.

Yet this brief summary cannot capture the renewal of ties that have bound us together for many years. The easily tapped laughter flowing from recall of old times that prefaced deeper exploration about parenting adolescents, what being a Jew meant in a Christian world, career goals, death and a host of issues that harried middle-aged men and women seldom have a chance to share, much less think about with anyone back home. Within the womb of close friends, things can get said that would, in other company, be swallowed. There is little fear of that cocktail party repartee that jabs or clutches at the jugular. Or fear of revealing something that will return as stinging criticism. The teasing that does occur comes from the acceptance of human flaws and not from probing for weaknesses.

That first of many retreats was refreshing, a moment of renewal in the daily grind of events. It brought to those of us who were there a deeper sense of friendship and intimacy. For the group, self-confidence grew in knowing that we have ties to one another that gained in strength as years pass. Such ties are a gift from each of us to one another.

The retreats lasted into the late 1990s. Growing children, the appearance of grand-children, the large amount of work that it took, mostly by wives who had to do the buying and preparing of food and other reasons diminished the size of group each year and finally it was no more. But oh ,what a run it was for our still unnamed group of ex-Victory “buddies” and there wives.

Continuing, however, were the monthly book club discussions, New Year’s Eve parties (now with septuagenarians making decisions a group decision to shift the party from New Year’s Eve to a New Year’s Day brunch), and picnics, theater and symphony dates, and the like. The group still exists.

This history of Victory when Sam, Yus, Dave, and I joined in the late-1940s and its evolving into a social network of close friends and wives meeting decade after decade is one that I have constructed—others could recall different details and offer other interpretations–give the background for four of us becoming intimate friends over the years with periodic reunions on the east and west coasts.

The final part of this series on friendship’s power to educate me is next.

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