I dare you to find me someone who genuinely enjoys playing “Jewish geography.” Maybe those people aren’t that rare. Maybe I’m merely projecting my own sensibilities.
In high school, I wrote a diatribe making the case against small talk. Granted, it was supposed to be satire, but these things always are grounded in truth. It’s what made it work as satire, the way it was an idea I believe in to an extent, but exaggerated ad nauseum. I argued that instead of beginning all conversations with the usual battery of personal trivia- hometown, academic major, general life landmarks- people should merely wear a sign with these pieces of information, so that this barrier to real engagement with one’s fellow humans could be surmounted. So that we could all cut to the chase and discuss the Meaning of Life Itself. So that we could get down to business and determine it might not be worth it to talk to strangers or acquaintances at all. Utilitarian much? Indeed.
Of course, relationships would not function without the existence of small talk. You simply cannot dive into a trusting, deep exchange without opening introductions. Before I hear your life story, I do want to know where you’re from, what you’re studying, and so forth. Everything begins with some iteration of “Oh, Teaneck? Cool, do you know [Jew from summer camp]?” or “computer science, that’s…fascinating”, regardless of how little I actually care about that girl from my sixth-grade bunk or the foundations of coding. It’s just a law, like gravity or loving your neighbor as yourself.
So mostly I just believe in small talk as a necessary evil. At best, it’s a passageway to something else, perhaps something transcendent. At worst, it’s an obstacle, each comment on the weather paving a foggier distance between two parties. Because small talk acknowledges an expectation for connection, and stages a theoretical execution of it, but barely believably. Both sides go along with the pantomime, because they know they “should”. But both sides walk away feeling, at best, no different, and at worst, more alone.
But then…there’s something else. Something I’m having a hard time reconciling.
This girl my age just died in a fluke bus accident on the way back home from a medical service trip in another country. This girl my age lived her life according to what she heard G-d calling upon her to do. This girl my age prayed every day at the prescribed times, and made acts of loving-kindness and humility her life’s duty.
And while multitudes of my community on campus shared anecdotes from growing up with Daniella, displaying collages of photographs from childhood outings and twenty-first birthday parties (careful not to hold up any red cups before the camera’s flash), I am forced to confront the fact that my memories of this kind young woman have no evidence. There are no images of Daniella and me traipsing across the stage in tiny tutus, or of the two of us in front of Barnard’s magnolia tree (itself recently gone, but now a loss too trivial to mention).
When I heard the news, when I said “no, that’s not right” out loud, when I felt my stomach do that thing that makes me wonder if I’ve eaten too much dairy that day, I pictured her in front of me in line at Starbucks. She ordered a caramel macchiato, and I felt jealous that she could be so thin and not even have to consider, the way I did, whether it might be wiser to pretend to like black coffee instead of “splurging” calories on a foamy cappuccino. And then I felt bad for wanting to hate her for being so incredibly beautiful and popular and accomplished and so, so beautiful. She was picking up drinks for her suitemates, just because. And she could wear denim overall dresses so effortlessly.
She said hello to me and smiled. And she asked what my drink was, and I told her grande red-eye with soy milk, presumably. She asked me what classes I was taking, and I told her, and she told me my classes sounded so interesting. She was stuck taking requirements for pre-med but listed them with a smile and glimmering eyes.
A girl my age died suddenly and I’m thinking about small talk. I’m thinking about the way I get nervous walking to class and worrying about seeing someone I know, but not that well, and making an awkward facial expression. I’m thinking about the way I’ve been trying to pull myself away from the habit of checking phantom text messages on these walks, because the prospect of a friendly greeting doesn’t need to instill panic in me. I’m thinking about how all this time I’ve denigrated small talk, taking my reasonable discomfort to too-broad extremes.
Because small talk is what I remember her by. By the way she asked “how are you?” and actually listened to the answer. By the way her small talk didn’t leave me feeling diminished, or small.
I’ve been thinking about the degrees of distance we have between us, and the connections. Between any two people. On a daily basis, you probably have more “small talk” exchanges than “real” discourse with people. It can’t not matter. It must have power, however “small”. Can we find a way to redeem it? In her memory, we must.
We have to start somewhere.
Sign up to commit to a time to pray, in memory of Daniella Moffson, z”l: