This is my attempt at blogging. I'm still learning about the blogging world, and this is my own personal study hall.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

"Excuse me, sir, I know you might be Jewish, but can you spare 3 quarters?"

I was asked this question yesterday on the DC Metro (of which I am not a fan anymore anyway - please support a blog I find most helpful and often funny: and follow its creator on Twitter @UnsuckDCMetro).

And I posted the comment on Facebook, asking my friends if they could think of any way to not take offense to this. Just by way of giving context, I decided to add, "I just said, 'Excuse me?' and he repeated himself word for word! Then I just told him I didn't have any change." I got a whole bunch of "What?" and "OMG" type of comments, along with a lot of witty replies. I got one reply actually attempting to make me feel better about the situation, which was, "how to not be offended..he could have needed 10 bucks but was trying to be nice and only ask you for 75 cents..." [sic]

I agree that it's important to judge others favorably. It's a core principle in Pirqei Avoth (1:6). After being introduced as having received the Mesorah (tradition) from his teachers, in direct succession from Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher), Yehoshua' ben Perahiyah is quoted as having said, "Make for yourself a Rav [rabbi/master/teacher/mentor], acquire for yourself a friend (this clause, historically, has received a tremendous amount of commentary, which I won't get into in this post), and be one who judges every person in the cup (as on a scale) of merit." This has generally been understood to mean that we ought to give people the benefit of the doubt, to the point that even if we know that someone is doing something wrong, we must at least try to come up with a reason - even an implausible one - to justify the person's actions in our own minds. This, incidentally, does not apply when you are coming to a verdict in some criminal or civil case, but it applies forcefully (along with other similar principles) when you are sitting as a judge/juror hearing testimony and evidence, before you are ready to make your judgment.

In any case, I don't think it really applies here, and this is why (this is my edited response to my friends' comments on Facebook, plus a little commentary of my own at the end):

I ate Hummus and Pita with a non-Jewish co-worker in his office last week, and he was telling me about when he was younger ... his next door neighbor comes over to introduce himself and says, "Hi, I'm Lou the Jew!" This co-worker is about 40, and this was when he was probably 20+, and at the time Lou the Jew was apparently approaching 90. So there may have been a generational disconnect, but he thought it was absolutely hilarious, and I said, I understand, it probably sounded like he was saying, "Hi, I'm Ike the Kike!" He told me that Lou the Jew taught him a few words and phrases in Yiddish. I told him my personal feelings about Yiddish (not positive, in case you were wondering), and we discussed how pop culture reflects a lot of Yiddish-based Jewish culture as translated into American society, but how this is outdated because it is from a time when the entertainment industry was dominated by Jews who were just trying to make a living in the "Goldeneh Medineh", and how a lot of the remnants of that are really only seen among secular/non-practicing Jews in America, not religious/practicing Jews in America - or even in Jewish communities elsewhere in the world. We discussed the fact that Jews all over the world have different cultural norms, even while maintaining a core element that ties us together - our Jewishness (however that is manifested, either religiously or otherwise). I have no problem sharing annecdotes, even ones that skirt - or cross - the line of what would otherwise be considered appropriate conversation, with people who respect me and recognize that they and I both view me as being different from them. That's our role - to stand out and set an example of people who are put on this earth to serve G-d. But when someone blatantly throws an offensive stereotype in my face, and he doesn't blink or even seem to think it's offensive, I don't like it. I don't like it at all. My reaction 10 years ago might have been a bit more dramatic. I think if I had wanted to rumble with this guy I would have had about 20 people helping me. But I just calmly told him I didn't have any change and left it at that.

I don't think in certain circumstances that judging favorably helps. I don't think in such circumstances that it is even warranted. In this particular case, the man either didn't care or didn't know that he was saying something offensive. And that, to me, speaks volumes about his ideas of what makes for proper discourse. The best case scenario, that I can think of, to judge him favorably, is that he simply has no frame of reference for what it means to choose your words carefully so as not to offend another person by assuming you know their personality based on external appearances. But even this isn't applicable, because this man was African American, not entirely but pretty well disheveled, and was telling people that he just got out of criminal court and was trying to get somewhere (home, I assume) after having been released from prison. How does someone who is fitting (and presumably having trouble fighting) some evil stereotypes about his own race, sex and appearance, not realize that perhaps it would be to his benefit not to subsequently judge others by evil stereotypes based on theirs appearances? Eventually, I think, you can draw the line and say, no, this person just doesn't get it - or else, to use a word he probably would have expected me to use, he is a complete schmuck.