Shame wells up in me as I thread my way through the cluster of young wives standing near my home, animatedly talking with one another as their children play at their feet. Four shopping bags dangle from one arm, five from another, and I shift them uncomfortably as I carry them from my car, practically bent over from their weight.
I take a deep breath as I try to quell the hurt and disappointment I feel, the anger that courses through me. For I know – sadly and with great certainty – that as I wend my way toward my front door, no eager young hands will try to wrest the bags from me and insist on helping me drag them up the stairs to the third floor where I live. Not one of these fine young frum women will detach themselves from the group to inquire: “Do you need help?”
The clammy cold hand of truth grips my heart and tells me: “You are invisible to them, your need is invisible to them.” What else can I think, how else can I rationalize their indifferent behavior? That they do see me struggling mightily and simply don’t care? I’d rather not be seen.
I wish I could convince myself they still consider me young – not their contemporary, clearly, but young enough to easily carry these bags myself. But I’m in my late fifties, as old, or even older, than their own mothers, and my extra weight makes me lumber, not limber.
For years I’ve tried making excuses for them, but I’m running dry; I want to think well of them, but I just don’t know how to explain their oblivion. Shame scorches me, but I’m not quite sure why: is it my own shame at being rendered so irrelevant, or is it the shame I feel as the physical capacities I once took for granted now fail me?
Or is it the shame I feel for them, for their glaring lack of middos and consideration? Why do I race to help them shlep their baby carriages and strollers up the steps, when they always stare so blankly at my arms laden with ten bags?
When I grew up in Boro Park in the 1960’s, my teachers made it clear that while learning was important, menschlichkeit was supreme.
We were repeatedly instructed to surrender our seats on the buses and subways to pregnant women and the elderly and to assist all people (regardless of gender, age or religion) weighted down with too many packages and escort them home if need be until their cumbersome burdens were safely deposited at their doors. We were taught to open doors for the people filing into stores behind us, to gracefully give up our place on long lines at the bank or post office to those stooped over in age, and to leap at the chance to scour the sidewalks for loose change someone had dropped and was now bending over to anxiously retrieve.
(I was reminded recently of the soft-spoken teacher who delivered that particular lesson to us in her gentle, pleading voice, when my white-bearded husband dropped a roll of quarters that scattered in many different directions on a busy Boro Park street traversed by dozens of frum people, all of whom – I am sorry to say – ignored his kneeling figure and never once thought to stop and assist him.)
I sincerely wish I could exculpate my fellow Orthodox Jews by subscribing to the theory that a glaring lack of middos is a “New York thing,” a function of too many people squeezed into too small a space, and that common courtesies and general civilities are the sacrificial lamb of congested city life.
But I find that as I grow older (evidence of it apparently radiating from my face despite the best advertised attempts of Olay), these little courtesies are actually being extended to me more and more each day by the non-Jews in the neighborhood. Which makes the issue rankle me even more: When it comes to ordinary, everyday middos, why are frum people lagging behind those to whom they are supposed to be a beacon?
* * * * *
Recently, I was driving down a street in Flatbush looking for an address scribbled on a piece of paper. As much as Hatzolah has campaigned that all homes be marked by clear and large address numbers (so that they can be easily found in case of emergency) many are still woefully lacking, and I had to stop and start my car constantly as I tried to peer at the miniscule script inscribed on most front doors.
I was still creeping slowly down the street when a car pulled up to next me. The driver honked the horn, motioning that I should open my window. It was a frum young woman wearing a sheitel and the requisite high-necked, long-sleeved blouse. Since I had been, on that same day, brooding over what I perceived as the decline in middos in the younger generation, I felt heartened – downright elated – that this woman was trying to come to my aid, clearly disproving me and my theories wrong.
My assumption – as I rolled down the car window with a broad smile, my heart literally expanding with happiness that I was mistaken, that people did care – was that she had witnessed my confusion and distress and wished to help me out. She, too, rolled down her window and bent her head out to address me. But on her face no smile appeared. Instead, she snarled at me and spat out these words: “Why don’t you learn how to drive, lady?” She then extended her middle finger in my direction and sped away.
I pulled over to an empty space on the street and sat in my car, shaking for several minutes. I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. If she had been just any woman, it would have been an ugly encounter. The fact that she was frum left me devastated.
Yes, I’ve heard the rhetoric before and I know it by heart: Frum people are human. There are bad apples in every group. You can’t judge a group from a few individuals. Yes, all of the above is true, so much so that they’ve become clich?s. And yet .
There was something deeply disturbing about that woman’s behavior that afternoon. Her outward appearance conformed to frum standards. Sheitel: check. Tzniusdik clothing: check. Tefillas HaDerech dangling from her rear view mirror: check. Deretz eretz: ZERO.
Was the woman’s chutzpah representative of something dark and pervasive in our community, or was she an anomaly? I would like to wholeheartedly believe the latter: that her behavior was uncharacteristic, that she belongs to a tiny minority of deviants, and that our community is drenched in kavod habrios, derech eretz, and exemplary middos.
* * * * *
Just the other day I was battling the Sunday crowds in a pizza shop when a burly young man rudely pushed past me, jostling me so strongly that I tipped off balance, almost keeling over to the floor. He was too frum to speak to me – a woman – Heaven forbid, perchance to say, “Excuse me, please.” But what about the laws of negiah he clearly violated as he tightly squeezed by?
The woman standing next to me and I rolled our eyes at each other, but as she was not wearing a sheitel and was clearly Modern Orthodox, I felt an immediate impulse to defend the young man. “I guess he was in a huge rush,” I stammered, embarrassed.
“Oh, come on, honey, it happens all the time,” she rejoined. “These people are so rude.”
Cringing at her criticism of “these people,” and not wanting her to leave with negative impressions, I ended up – ironically – trying to persuade her that the majority of frum people are aidel, fine, kind and respectful. I tallied up the huge number of chesed organizations in our community and asked her if there was anything comparable to be found among other groups.
“Yes,” she said, “that’s true. But chesed and middos are two different things.”
As I reflected upon her remark, I recalled an incident that had occurred to me the previous week. I had been on line at a takeout place when a frum young man cut in on me and bellowed out his order to the counterman, without checking to see if everyone else around him had been served.
Having been told I need to be more assertive, I timidly spoke up: “Excuse me, sir, but I believe I was ahead of you.” I expected an apology, a smidgen of remorse. Instead, the young man sneered and said: “So what do you want me to do about it now? Give you my sandwich?”
* * * * *
There are several other issues of common courtesy I wish rabbonim and teachers would address. Driving etiquette – more accurately, lack of same – is one of them. The incessant honking by impatient drivers in our neighborhoods grates on the nerves and is a huge contributor to the noise pollution that diminishes our quality of life. Aside from the assault on our ears and equilibrium, the constant honking creates a chillul Hashem. What exactly do frum drivers imagine they can achieve by aggressively pressing down on their car horns when there is a traffic jam up ahead? Do they want the cars trapped in front of them to sprout wings and fly over the cars stuck ahead of them?
Equally aggravating is the tendency of some of our brethren to stop their cars smack in the middle of the street while they engage in conversation with pedestrians, totally forgetting about or disregarding the cars idling behind them. Can’t they just pull up to the nearest empty parking space and have their discussions there, instead of holding up traffic?
And then there’s Purim. A good number of non-Jews reside on my block. It is appalling that the limos/trucks/SUVs and other vehicles carrying young merrymakers on Purim night roll down the streets at 2 and 3 a.m. blasting ear-splitting music at deafening decibels, waking up everyone within a two-mile radius, including the non-Jews, some of whom must rue the day frum Jews moved into the neighborhood.
Speaking of non-Jews, how many of us even bother to greet our non-Jewish neighbors and validate their presence in our lives? Most people know the inspiring stories of the Bluzhever Rebbe, who was spared the gas chamber because of his pre-War daily greetings to a rabid anti-Semite, and Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky, whose widow was paid a shiva call by a local priest who could not forget the rav’s hearty salutations to him each morning.
We love these stories, but how much do we incorporate their lessons into our own daily lives? We need to be conscious of our non-Jewish neighbors as people, not just convenient Shabbos goys.
Holding doors for people entering places you’re about to exit is a minor thing, as is saying “thank you” when the doors are being held for you. Extending greetings for a “Good Shabbos” to everyone you pass on the street (including strangers) is de rigueur in smaller frum communities, but infrequently practiced in the larger ones.
I’ve heard people argue that there are so many frum people on our streets that it’s just an impossible feat to perform. Perhaps that’s true – maybe it would become tiresome, tedious and robotic. But what about people who do greet you on the street and you look past them, ignore their greetings and just walk on? Not extending Shabbos greetings is one thing. Not reciprocating them is inexcusable.
* * * * *
People wring their hands at the stories of frum people embezzling one another or perpetrating massive and irrevocable kashrus frauds. How is it possible, we ask, shaking our heads in disbelief. Frum people would do this to one another? Incomprehensible! But is it really? Haven’t we already set the stage for this kind of behavior by ignoring its lesser manifestations – bad middos?
Lack of respect radiates outward, far beyond the domain and parameters of simple human decency. Allowing our children and grandchildren to get “away with it” – with chutzpah, rudeness, and offensive behavior – not only augurs poorly for the day-to-day interactions and relationships in our community, it also nurtures harmful, even dangerous, attitudes that spill over into other spheres and create myriad abuses.
If one is allowed to be impertinent and cheeky without formal restraint, if one is given free rein to engage in disrespectful behavior without any accompanying censure or the proverbial slap on the wrist, then the door is open to a complete breakdown in human relations – a breakdown that ultimately threatens our very way of life.
Unchecked disrespect of other human beings is an important building block on the road to spousal and child abuse, financial crimes, kashrus scandals and many of the other upheavals we’ve experienced in recent months. Many of the social ills currently besieging our community could have been at least partially avoided if we had inculcated our children with kavod habrios, ahavas Yisrael and overall menschlichkeit.
It certainly is true that when it comes to chesed, the frum community’s level of activities and programs is unparalleled, and in that regard we have much to be proud of. But make no mistake: As the woman pointed out to me in the pizza shop, chesed and middos are two very different things.
Let us hope the time will come soon when mitzvos ben adam l’chavero carry as much currency in our community as do mitzvos ben adam laMakom; when the current separation between these two pillars of Yiddishkeit dissolves and is integrated into one seamless whole; when we say “mi k’amcha Yisrael” in reference to both chesed and middos; and when we can effectively serve as the light unto all nations we were meant to be.
Soferet Dugri is the pseudonym of a writer living in Brooklyn.