Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Mirage

Growing up back in Canada, we had a modest frum infrastructure. We certainly were blessed with kosher food and even restaurants, since most major Canadian cities (Toronto and Montreal especially) have kashrut organizations. And we of course had all different types of frum yiddin, and in turn yeshivas, shuls, and mikvahs enough for everyone.

More to the point though, we had a sense of solidarity. While most cities were broken down into frummie subtype neighbourhoods (the modern orthodox area, the yeshivish area, the Sephardi area, the Satmyr area, etc.), with most members of a given area sticking to their given neighbourhood, there was a definite sense of comraderie. Maybe it was due to the history of anti-semitism in Canada, but yiddin stuck together, and remembered that they were Jewish first, Canadian second. The result was tolerance for variation in frumkeit, because the prevailing mentality was/is that we had to present a united front to the non-Jewish and non-frum worlds.

When I moved to the United States, I lived in various suburbs, and in such places, as in Canada, you found a sensibility of everyone having to get along. There was even less infrastructure in such places, with often only one kosher shop, one mikvah, one shul (and in turn, only one minyan and one school). The mikvah and shop were generally not near the shul/school either, so you were required to drive to obtain kosher products or to go to mikvah. You certainly had to drive to get to the handful of kosher restaurants (1 milichig and 1 fleischig, if you were lucky). Imagine-if you had to go to mikvah on Shabbos or Yom Tov, then you had to wait.

One thing that attracted me to Brooklyn was the incredible abundance of resources. I mean you have gemachs, you have institutes with learning for adult women, you have choices for mikvahs, restaurants, kosher shops, tznius clothing vendors. The list is incredibly long and encompasses every aspect of frumkeit. And yet, the reason for this amazing infrastructure, namely the mind-boggling variety and number of frum yiddin, seems to net an odd result, i.e. a vague callousness in attitude.

Now I'm going to stop right now and qualify what I mean by callousness, because I don't want anyone to misinterpret what I mean. People here are doing unbelievable chessed, and are committed to their fellow yid; I see an endless display by my neighbours of fantastic kindness and self-sacrifice daily/nightly for both individual yiddin and the community at large. Rather, what I see evidenced is a kind of oblivious attitude in people's day-to-day dealings with one another. The carts blocking aisles/banging into you without an apology, the ear-pounding honking of the cars who can't wait for you to move at lights or while parking, the young men who don't give up their seats on the metro for pregnant women, the lack of hearing a "please" or "thank you". It is precisely because of the unbelievable chessed that these same people are undoubtedly doing that I have a hard time understanding this lack of common courtesy, of "politesse".

Perhaps it is because there are so many yiddin in New York, people from "in-town" appear, at least on the surface, to take their fellow yid for granted. There will always be another minyan going on, another shop to get goods at, another restaurant to grab a bite. And so, the average person doesn't seem to consider the person right next to them as they go about their business. A dependency on the Brooklyn lifestyle, an inability to contemplate a life "out of town" is coupled with an "I'll pretend I don't see you" attitude.

As I say, it's probably my own status as someone from "out of town" that prevents me from truly appreciating this odd snippet of Brooklyn behaviour. So, as I go about my day, I try to retain my sense of consideration for my fellow human being (frum, fry, or goy), by saying my "please" and "thank you", my "excuse me" and "would you mind" as my mother taught me. Because, I remain confident that, all superficial appearances aside, my fellow Brooklynites are trying as best as they can to create a better world. And so, in my own way, should I.


  1. Ah... the chesed vs calousness thing.

    Search me. I agree 100%

    There is no place on the globe with more kindness and chesed for one Jew to another. There is no place on thde globe with more organizations helping Jews, and with everyone contributing generously.

    But, those same people who, if called to do a chesed would drop everything and run to do it, eager to help out another Jew, would be rude in the street or in the store. They will crash into your shopping cart and not even think of apologizing, shove in front of you in the line, double park as if the city is theirs, not caring if they trap you in your parking space for hours.

    They are eager to volunteer their time to help the ill or poor, but will blow their horn loudly, if you daydream one second at a light.

    I have been out of NY area now for many years. I need to come to NY to do some shopping, but dread dealing with the rudeness.

    But, there is another thing that to me is ever worse. Once cannot relax while one drives around Brooklyn. If more than 4 inches is left between your front bumper and the rear bumper of the car ahead of you, some jerk will "nose in" pushing himself that space. If you let your guard up a second, you will hit him. So, you need to constantly tailgate, and/or remain a nervous wreck while driving.

    There are many things that one needs to maintain constant vigilance on. One can't walk down any street without being aware of being followed. One can't walk down the street without being annoyed by peddlers, pickpockets, and others pushing by, ready to knock you over just to get into a store 5 seconds earlier.

    It is these things that one goes through constantly, that contribute to the rudeness. When a Brooklyn resident ventures outdoors, he/she unconsciously girds himself up for those above battles. This means he/she becomes rude and callous.

    Then when he/she returns to the comfort of his home, they switch off this tension, become normal, and return to being the person of chesed.

    Unfortunately, the rudeness and callousness is a vicious cycle. Its very existence puts people in the mood/attitude to do it to others.

  2. The essence of kindness is to focus on another soul, to desire completeness and consistency for him, and to strive to provide it. To be kind you have to learn to look at another human being. Understand where he is hurting, lacking or incomplete — and endeavour to fill that hole.

    There is a paradox in kindness. Why do we have to help others? Because they are in need and we care about them. But the other side to kindness is that by helping others, we really help ourselves most of all. Kindness is a primary way to achieve self-perfection.

    We are constantly faced with free will choices to be kind or callous. Choosing correctly is how we refine the character of our soul. But the paradox is that kindness is only genuine when we do it because we care about the welfare of others.