Thursday, January 28, 2016

Parshas Yisro 5776

Among the vast collection of jokes that I have heard from my father over the years is the following:
There was once a British fellow, a rich American, an Indian, an imbecile, and an Israeli sitting together in a diner. The Brit turned to the quadro and said, "excuse me gentlemen, what is your opinion about the meat shortage?"
The rich American replied "what is a shortage?"
The Indian replied "what is meat?" The imbecile said "what is an opinion?"
The Israeli asked "mah zeh excuse me?"
Are Israelis rude?
After having the zechus to spend almost two weeks in eretz Yisroel with our son shalom, in honor of his bar mitzvah, I have spent much time pondering this question. Well, I didn't have to really ponder the question. I had a few occasions when I was given the opportunity to ponder the question. Like when I asked a cab service if I can make a reservation and told them when I needed it for, and the dispatcher abruptly replied that they don't have then and promptly hung up.
Or when I had set myself up in a seat in one of the shteiblach where we went to daven (which have minyanim every fifteen minutes and basically have open seating). An elderly gentleman then walked in and placed his tallis bag where I was without saying a word to me, basically signaling me to move.
Or when asking people for directions and they make that unexplainable noise with their tongue clicking the roof of their mouths, which seems to imply that your question is pathetic or irrelevant, but really just means that they don't know.
To answer the question we need to look at the opposite end of the spectrum and ask if we Americans are too sensitive and wimpy. I recently saw an article in The Atlantic which discussed the negative  fallout of the western worlds efforts to maintain political correctness. The result is that we are breeding a society of adult babies who can't handle the slightest offense, real or imagined.
This issue trickles down to our approach to child-rearing in which parents unwittingly overprotect their children and in so doing unwittingly steal from them the opportunity to learn how to get by in a highly competitive and often judgmental world. Childish banter is often called bullying with disastrous results, both for the labeled "bully" as well as for the labeled "victim". (This of course doesn't discount the problem of real bullying that at times exists and is a serious issue.)
So what defines rudeness and what defines over-sensitivity?
The answer of course depends on perception. To us Israelis may indeed at times appear rude and abrupt. But living in the world they live in with the challenges that are part of their daily life, what would happen if they were more like us wimpy Americans?
And would we not be better off as a nation if we could adopt some Israeli bravado? Wouldn't it do us well to be able to not care about petty comments or perceived insults?
What would we give for an American tour-guide to tell a few kibitzing teens during her lecture that they are welcome to go outside if they don't find her interesting, but they may not talk while she is talking? [This actually happened at a tour we attended this week.] I wonder what would happen to a rabbi if he tried that in shul where a congregant was talking during davening? He may find himself looking through the rabbinical classifieds the following week.
To be honest, I didn't appreciate when the dispatcher rudely hung up on me, or when the elderly men wordlessly told me to move. However, I did recognize that that they didn't mean any offense.
Perhaps we can find some happy middle ground - a mixture of Israeli bravado and American manners. This way the dispatcher would wish me a pleasant evening before he slammed the phone down and made a sarcastic comment.

Wishing you Shabbat Shalom and Good Shabbos from Yerushalayim!
Dani Staum