Thursday, March 7, 2013

Derech Eretz Police

One of my favorite books is James Clavell's Shōgun. While we in school are taught that the "civilized" Europeans "discovered" the world and enlightened it, this book presents a much different perspective. 

In 1600, a pilot by the name Blackthorne manages to get his ship to Japan. Now, the British in 1600 weren't a pretty bunch. They stank (since bathing causes disease), they were rude (blush to hear some of their conversations), and they had the table manners of a chimp

They reach Japan, a country of the pristine and polite. 

Who's the barbarian now? 

Blackthorne is encouraged to see that without manners, the world would go mad. If all of us just did exactly what we wanted to do, where would we all be?

It doesn't take long for Blackthorne to find serenity in the customs that were originally forced upon him, soon embracing them. Rather swiftly, he cannot bear to socialize with his former shipmates, finding them animalistic and primitive.
That is how we view Judaism; by abiding to the rulebook, one is not restricting oneself, but rather freeing the mind and soul by keeping the body in check. 

Yet as we know, manners have gone the way of the dodo. What to do if one has an upright sense of etiquette, Henry Alford opines? 

Members of the New York-based frummie community can have the "Elizabethan sailor" problem, since due to our ghetto-like existence we are not exposed to certain basics; holding the door for someone behind you; eye contact with a "thank you"; the elusive "excuse me." We actually have centuries of being spat on by our gentile neighbors ingrained in our neural pathways, so politely interacting with the now relatively courteous world at large is a new thing for us. 

Alford concludes that it is all about how one points out bad behavior; after all, we don't want to be un-mannerly when teaching manners. 
So tone is everything to the person who finds himself on the business end of a manners cop’s pedagogy. What those of us with a propensity for schooling others need to remember is that we should never speak out of anger or impulse. Gentle, it’s important to remember, can also be a verb. 
But we are also New Yorkers. We are not used being criticized by complete strangers. 

A yeshivish fellow was having a loud conversation on his cell phone on the train. One really couldn't blame him; he obviously wasn't used to modulating his voice, as probably all his previous conversations took place in his car. Ta went over and told him he was disturbing everyone. The poor guy quickly snapped off his phone, and nervously apologized to my father repeatedly, once again thirty minutes later when the train reached the stop. 

That is a rarity. I applaud the chap for accepting the remonstration, eager to atone. 

But I have a sneaking suspicion he wasn't from New York.          


FrumGeek said...

Did your dad get his number? Shidduch resume? ;)

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

I once read a theory about the origin of Jewish rudeness. Back in the shtetl life was hard. Forget the whole Fiddler diorama. Life was really hard and you couldn't get ahead by being nice. You had to push if you wanted anything and not worry about the other guy. After all, if there was only one lulav coming to town for Sukkos you'd miss the mitzvah if you didn't shove your way to the start of the line.
Then you add the contempt that is taught to us about gentile culture. The gentiles hold doors open for women? Pritzus! It's a halacha l'Moshe miSinai to slam it in their faces.
And that pretty much explains it.

Princess Lea said...

FG: Too yeshivish for me. :P

MGI: Um, I don't think many consider chivalry to be pritzus. It is not like we actively slam doors; we just mindlessly let it close behind us. It's about awareness.

Fiddler doesn't paint a rosy picture of shtetl life. They mention the important bits, like starvation and pogroms.