The Chemistry of Friendship: My Lunches With Norman


"I was unprepared for my friendship with Dr. Norman Wall," writes longtime religion reporter Mark Pinsky (seated). Credit: Sarah M. Brown.

There’s no accounting for the chemistry of friendship. Sometimes it’s the shared experience of being young together, or military service, or a function of family — the coincidence of neighborhood or parenthood. It’s often common interests like work, sports, music, or alcohol. Most of the close friends I have today I met in high school and college in the 1960s, and I haven’t made many more since. So I was unprepared for my friendship with Dr. Norman Wall, which began when the retired cardiologist was in his mid-nineties, more than thirty years my senior. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Despite the decades that separate us, we have a great deal in common, beginning with the fact that we are both Jewish Democrats, of a leftish mien, with a strong, enduring commitment to social justice.

Still, the beginning was not especially auspicious. We first connected through Rabbi Steven Engel of Orlando’s Congregation of Reform Judaism, who introduced us above the din of a reception following an evening service. “I think you’ll like him,” Steve told me. I got recommendations like that a lot when I was covering religion for the Orlando Sentinel, and often they didn’t pan out. But this one did. The man I encountered looked closer to seventy-three than ninety-three, fit, lean, and compact, with a full head of white hair, impeccably dressed and obviously vital. As impressive as his physical appearance was, it is the life of his mind that has proved so striking. When he called and suggested we get together for lunch, I agreed.

Over the past three years, the invitations have come the same way. My cell phone rings, I answer, and there is a short pause. Then a gravelly voice says, “Mark? Norm. How about Wednesday at one?” My answer is usually yes, and I look forward to another midday meeting with this remarkable man. Sometimes it’s just the two of us, but often three or more men get the same call or email.

My lunches with Norm have become more regular and intimate, especially after I was laid off by the Sentinel in the summer of 2008. I have plenty of free time and am usually available on short notice for leisurely midday meals, sometimes twice a week. Increasingly, it’s just Norman and me. More than anything, he wants to talk about books, ideas, history, public policy, and philosophy. His interests range from Middle East politics to health care reform to the origins of World War I. We exchange newspaper and magazine clips and recommend and loan books to each other, often upper-middle-brow fiction with Jewish themes and authors. I introduced him to Dara Horn and Alan Furst, and Janet Malcolm’s takes on murder. Going high-brow (and flattering me), he once pressed on me a collection of Primo Levi interviews and lectures. Other times it was a book about Emile Zola and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s We Jews. His latest was Harry Bernstein’s The Invisible Wall, which he delighted in telling me was published when the author was ninety-five. His favorites are Jewish history and biography; he’s always delving into hard-to-find books that the local library — which by now should have a reading room named in his honor — finds for him.

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Mark I. Pinsky, longtime religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel and the Los Angeles Times, is author of A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).

Source Citation

Pinsky, Mark I. 2011. The Chemistry of Friendship: My Lunches With Norman. Tikkun 26(3).

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