These days, you can make a new friend every day. Simply "confirm" a "friend request" on Facebook or send out a request of your own and you can reunite with a pal from decades past or forge a new relationship based on a cursory meeting.
Admittedly, I don't have that many cyberspace friends. Within a few hours of creating an account, my brother's count of Facebook friends quadrupled my own list, cultivated for months. As for my daughter and her teenage cohorts, their lists number in the thousands. How do young teens know so many more people than I, a relatively sociable middle-aged woman with close friends from different decades of my life? For the middle and high school set, anyone from school, camp or classes becomes a friend. I suppose that by the time they reach college, they can barely remember all of the friends they have accepted. I, on the other hand, still get a small thrill when a friend request pops up on the upper left corner of my Facebook screen. I revel in the acknowledgment that a fifth grade classmate remembers my identity. It gives me a sense of narrative coherence, confirms the continuity of my existence, and inspires me to post a contribution to the strange non-stop conversation that scrolls somewhere in cyberspace.
Our system of connections among people who agree to participate in a network of "friendship" makes me wonder anew: What makes a friend?
I've been trying to understand friendship since I began to conceive of my place in a social world. I hate to presume gendered binary oppositions by arguing that this is a female consideration. People fall along different places on a spectrum of gender identity. As Simone de Beauvoir observed, one is not born but made a woman; gender is a construction. My philosopher-father reminds me that Aristotle devotes considerable attention to the question of friendship in his Nichomachean Ethics. Yet I almost reiterated the cliché that even in a nursery school classroom one can see that while many boys are single-focused and love to throw balls, the girls have already deftly begun to navigate and manipulate social arrangements. In the age of GLBT awareness and beyond, I know that such gendered stereotypes are problematic and exclusionary. But... some of us girls and women sure do think about friendship and relationships a lot.
Suffice it to say that I was a girl with concerns about social networks, even though those were not the words we used at the time. I remember the utter delight upon discovering my best friend, Carolyn, in the fall of first grade. As a sibling of twin brothers, I often felt lonely and yearned for a twin of my own. When my perfect BFF moved into a house a few doors down from my own, my life changed. If Plato imagined our yearning for a soul mate who would reunite a split self, mine surfaced in the form of a charismatic 6-year-old girl. While I was shy and cerebral, I could entrust outgoing Carolyn to forge friendships for the both of us. Blessed with an easy-going nature, Carolyn allowed me to dictate the terms of our games (school was a favorite with me as the teacher) and opened social doors into parties and new relationships. Making a friend gave me a table buddy in school, a playmate in the afternoons, and a sense of unity in my heart.
Of course, as our social group expanded and we got older, years of torment ensued. Teenage friendships can engender all kinds of power dynamics and tests of loyalty. Our growing group of girlfriends jockeyed for positions of insider and outsider, eager to hold onto the position of best friend, fearing the fall to second-best, third-best or even ostracized from the list. Just thinking of the dramas of middle school social negotiations makes me sweat. And yes, over the years, Carolyn and I drifted apart. But I learned how to make new friendships.
I seem to have done OK for myself over the years. If I am sad or troubled, I have a core of loyal and dependable women who will do just about anything for me. If I want to assemble a dinner party, I can assemble witty, intelligent and creative friends whose conversation rivals any Algonquin table. I have long-distance friends overseas and across the country and friends on every floor of my apartment building (who says New Yorkers aren't friendly?). I have a team of entrusted friends who prescreen some of my blog posts to offer advice or moral support and I have even made new friends through blogging.
Despite the sudden intimacy I have with my Facebook friends, no photo, witty posting or apt political cartoon can match sitting on a park bench with my friend as we periodically review struggles and joys in our work, marriages, children and bodies. No amount of clicking "like" stands in for keeping me company before a scary mammogram. Friends take that seat next to you so you don't sit alone.
Once upon a time, seventy years ago, my cousin had friends who saved her daughter's life. Cypora Jablon Zonszajn, my grandfather's first cousin, was a Jewish girl in the city of Siedlce, Poland. Her best friends from middle and high school, Zofia Olzakowska and Irena Zawadzka, were Catholic. Cypora, Irena and Zofia played, studied, read and dreamt together. They recognized their religious differences, which only strengthened their interest in and respect for one another. Cypora spent Christmas with her friends' families and on some Fridays her mother taught the girls to bake challah. As young women in universities in the 1930s, nationalism and anti-Semitism reared their ugly heads. Zofia chose to stand alongside with the Jewish girls forced to separate themselves in her Swedish university. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Irena and Zofia joined the Resistance. Cypora and her family were forced into a Jewish ghetto in Siedlce. By 1942, when Cypora realized that her days were numbered and the death camp of Treblinka awaited, she snuck her 11-month-old baby daughter Rachel over the ghetto border to Irena's house. Irena (and her mother) and Zofia (and her sister) took turns hiding and caring for Rachel. Risking their own lives, they raised Rachel as their own daughter. They also hid a diary Cypora wrote from the ghetto testifying to the horrors she witnessed. Discovery of the diary surely would have caused the friends' deaths. Friendship involved a love, ethics and devotion that surpassed concerns for their own safety.
I am writing a book, Cypora's Echo, about my cousins, Cypora and Rachel, and about their incredibly brave friends. In my process of writing, I had the honor and privilege of meeting these "Righteous Gentiles," Zofia and Irena, in Poland. We exchanged talk, letters and photographs. I promised to write their story.
During the process of my writing and research, Zofia's granddaughter, Zuzanna, wrote me a letter informing me that her grandmother had died. From that letter, our friendship began. I have been to Warsaw to visit Zuzanna and she has come to New York City to see me. Together we piece together parts of the stories of these amazing friends who were ripped apart by war but whose bond could never be severed. We also talk about love and men, politics, favorite books and movies, and even fashion. Thankfully, the barriers of 1942 that separated Cypora, Zofia, and Irena no longer exist. Zuzanna and I are also Facebook friends. Through our posts I can follow her travels while she can view my daughter's recent bat mitzvah.
So while I don't have quite as many friends as the "young kids," I cherish the friends I have who sit beside me on a park bench, at an annual mammogram, and even pop up on Facebook. And oh, remember Carolyn, my BFF from first grade? She and I are now Facebook friends. She is the first not only to "like" my HuffingtonPost blogs but also to share them on her own page.