Mesorah (Jewish stuff)

Lose the Label

My family moved St. Louis while I was a freshman in college.  After graduation, I settled there (specifically in my parent’s basement) and discovered a quirky regional obsession with high schools.  St. Louisans love to ask where you went to high school.  Love it.  Not having attended high school in St. Louis, I viewed this with amused detachment, especially when I simply answered with the name of my high school and watched as they tried, and failed, to place it (a little mean, I know).  My assessment of this phenomenon was that it was an opportunity to see where your lives intersected, who you may have in common and, more cynically, where you rank in the socio-economic sense.  In short, what’s your label?


There’s a natural desire to box people up into these neat little packages of who we are and what we represent.  It’s never that simple, though.  People are multi-faceted.

Case in point:  I was schmoozing with a neighbor who mentioned that she had thought I was kind of crunchy.  She’d seen me in the grocery store with my own bags, and around the neighborhood wearing my baby.  But then she read the decidedly un-crunchy birth story of my daughter, and was confused.  Was I crunchy or not?   The answer is yes.  And no.

  • I bring reusable bags to the store with me whenever I can, but
  • I drive an SUV (okay, a crossover).
  • I use cloth diapers during the day, but
  • I use disposable diapers at night.
  • I plan on nursing for as long as I can, but
  • I gladly get an epidural during labor.
  • I’ve been known to co-sleep, but
  • I really prefer my baby to sleep in a crib in her own room.

It led to a great discussion about how we are all hard to pin down.  We are all yes and no.

In the religious world, there’s also a desire to pigeonhole.  You wear a certain type of hair covering?  You must be in this group.  You watch movies on Netflix?  You must be in that group.

I suppose there’s something comforting about being able to fit someone neatly into a stereotype.  It makes things easier to process into good/bad, like/dislike, agree/disagree. It’s neat, tidy and there’s not a lot of cognitive dissonance.  But guess what?  It’s totally bunk.  No one really fits into a box.  And life is chock full of cognitive dissonance.

This attempt at categorization does everyone a disservice, because our whole is greater than the sum of our parts.  We all have things we are working on, areas in which we would like to improve, places where we shine.  But we are neither our best nor our worst parts.  We are all of them.  Whole. 

Yes, this does complicate things.  It’s much easier to be able to dismiss someone because they are “other” or “the enemy” or just “different.”  But those people, the ones that we dismissed because they were filed into a box in our head, they also have valuable contributions.  We very well may miss out because while we thought we knew who they were and what they stood for, we were wrong.

In the Ethics of the Fathers (4:1), Ben Zoma asks “who is wise?”  The answer is “one who learns from all people.”  The answer isn’t “one who learns how to label everyone and then only take information from the labels we like.”   That would be way too easy.  And when did real growth ever come from something easy?  

So when I feel that urge to categorize someone, I’ll look outside of the box, and maybe there will be something unexpected there, just waiting to be appreciated.

didn't see that coming, did ya?
didn’t see that coming, did ya?

When have you been surprised by someone acting differently than you expected?  Is there a positive use for labels?  I’d love to hear what you think!  


Some other posts you may find interesting:

“label” image courtesy surfie_aussie_chick on Photobucket

27 thoughts on “Lose the Label

  1. Here’s a perfect example of another fabulous post. And another example of positive uses for labels: well, that Ruchi up there is really smart. We knew this, yes? And she is kicking my butt at WWF. But I don’t feel too terrible about losing. Because she’s really smart! ;) So when you admire someone, I guess it takes the pressure of to be less than. Maybe. I could blame the tiles. But the reality is she just better at this game than I am. Do I want to crush her like a bug someday? Sure, but I am learning so much about the depth and breadth of her knowledge. And I know she wouldn’t cheat.

    1. *major blush!* Here’s a label for YOU: you’re an awesome writer! Honestly, though, my husband and I just taught a parenting class about teens, and we discussed assigning labels to your kids. What we said was that when you label/identify your child by the positive, it gives him the ability to rise above. When you label your child by the negative, it give him the identification to fall below. So I agree with your premise that labels can be useful and positive

      1. Positive labeling is so crucial with children. I’ve heard people consistently refer to a child as “difficult,” in the child’s presence no less. It breaks my heart a little.

    2. I have to admit that when I first read WWF I thought World Wrestling Federation. Gives your comment a completely different flavor. Ha! WWF has led me to doubt my own intelligence many a time. Oh yes. And now I would like to begin playing it again…

  2. awesome! I call myself “modern Orthodox”– that’s the label I’m comfy with for myself. I’m BT, went to college, watch tv and movies, use the internet, and consider myself Soleveitchik modern Orthodox. My husband wears a black hat and I cover my hair fully and my husband learns for at least 2 hours a day and we daven with Ashkenazic pronunciation—- people like to call us “Yeshivish”. So when people ask, I say we’re modern Orthodox but then people get all confused. Basically I’ve noticed that people consider people more left wing than themselves lazy and people more right wing than themselves crazy.

    1. That reminds me of something Rebbetzin Chana Levitan taught us at Neve. She wrote the word “FRUM” on the board. Look at the “U,” and that’s where you are. Anyone to the left of you is “Modern” and anyone to the right is “Fanatically Religious.”

  3. Great post!
    In an answer to your questions… well, it’s complicated. Gd did place us into a physical world with limits, and those limits (including words) are what we use to navigate the world around us. Guess what words are? Labels. Guess what any limitation on anything is? Yes, a label.
    I am a female, not a male. I play the cello, not the trumpet. These are labels… and the sad thing is that as beings of this world, we *need* them in order to function in the most minimal sense!
    As human beings we do need to categorize and organize. HOWEVER – the only way we can do this is in a healthy way is by recognizing the falsity of this system. Because within every human being, within every flower and every grain of sand, there is a spark of the infinite, which is by definition a force that defies all limits aka all labels.
    The differences between people are, as you said, beautiful. And we have to recognize these differences, appreciate them, LOVE them, and in the end, realize that every person is so much more than what meets our eyes. Infinitely more.
    Anyway, those are my thoughts. I tried to answer this question on my blog as well when asked what kind of Jew I was. Came up with a whole bunch of cool music analogies (how surprising).
    Can I share this post or perhaps reblog it?

    1. Great point about the relationship between limitations and labels. I agree with the need to categorize – if we were unable to do this, our brains would be flooded with far too much information – but also the need to look beyond our limits.

      I want to read your musical analogies! Can you leave a comment with a link to the post? Also, feel free to reblog or share. That would be super.

  4. I think boxes exist for a reason: a lot of people do fit into them. Some people, though (like myself, and my husband) simply don’t. I have met many, many people who might have been the one that a particular stereotype is based off of. Sometimes I admire the person, sometimes I feel like puking (or at least, shaking them really hard, so that they’d wake up).

    So, it all depends. Even your post is in a box. ;) It’s just in the no-stereotypes box. (Yes, there is a box called no-stereotyping.)

    1. Hehe, it’s true about the no-stereotyping stereotype! I was excellent at conforming to non-comformity when I was in my early twenties, and I suppose some of that has lingered as I’ve matured.

      Stereotypes persist, in part, because there is usually some degree of truth to them. These labels, or boxes, did not come from a vacuum. However, even though we may encounter people who do seem to be archetypical, I think it is worthwhile to not write them off as this type or that, but to be open to surprises.

      1. Right. But, you really can’t say that stereotypes are worthless, which is what it sounded like in your post.

        I think I am generally open to surprises, although usually, I find that when I tell myself to just let X be, because maybe this person isn’t what I expected, I end up regretting it. In other words, I have learned that my stereotyping gut is usually (98.5% of the time) right. That definitely doesn’t help my efforts – or other peoples’ efforts to convince me – to be nonjudgmental and not stereotype.

  5. I should add as well, that we often apply labels to ourselves, and then can’t get away from them. Often in the form of “I am _____ so therefore I can’t do ______.” I really think that the reason why I’m so into hair covering is because I had that “blonde” label stuck on to me (by myself and others) and it was just so liberating to break free from it. I’m sure many people can relate to the amazing feeling of breaking your own labels :)

    1. Absolutely! We are sometimes our biggest roadblocks toward growth! Fascinating about the hair covering as related to being blond. That’s one of the most baffling kind of label, in my opinion, as it’s based completely on an external that you had zero say in (though, you could always change your hair color, I suppose).

  6. I heard once that a well-known rabbi (I don’t want to identify him by name because I may be getting the story wrong) said something to the effect of wishing he could start a school for “us misfits” (i.e., including himself).

    The world seems to be set up for pigeonholes, but pigeons make boring people (or fanatical extremists).

    1. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a school where we could really “educate a child according to his way,” like it says in Proverbs? I taught for a minute (maybe a year) in an elementary school, and I see that it could be extremely challenging, but it’s so crucial to see each child’s individual abilities and challenges, not just stereotype or label them. Oh boy, is that important.

  7. As someone who spends parts of her life in many different (and often seemingly contradictory) boxes, i loved this!

    I spent a lot of time trying to hide parts of my life from people in the other boxes until I realized that I am who I am, I love who I am, and if people aren’t okay with all of me then they don’t need to accept me, and I am okay with that.

    It’s incredibly freeing and has allowed people in different parts of my life to learn so much about the other parts that make me me!

  8. For the sake of I was actually in St. Louis about 24 hours ago and already homesick ;-) The reason why they ask what school you go to is because if you went to ladue of, means ladue kids get a better education, have bigger homes and are there for better. Just like did you go to parkway north or south? Again there is a rank there of who gets the better education, who has the better sports team, and in general who has the nicer “hood.”
    But those are not ways to describe a person. As Jews we should aspire to be described as a Ben or Bas Torah. As a wife I want to be described as a great homemaker. As a mother a great mother etc.
    You are 100% right though, that we cant judge each other until we have walked a mile in their shoes. I try point blank not to judge because I think everything in life is based on the level we are on. I want to help the environment so I am going to reuse my bags BUT i need a certain vehicle that meets my needs and am not at the level of putting the environment before my own needs. I think its great to use cloth diapers because they are better for the baby and cheaper then real diapers BUT for the night time they just dont meet my needs. Well again my needs need to come first, as do my babies. I hope you get the point.

    1. Ah, St. Louis. Sometimes when I would tell people the name of my high school, and they would realize that it wasn’t a school in St. Louis, they would ask me where I would have gone to school! Ha!

      I like your descriptions of our aspirations. Hatzlacha to all of us!

  9. Rivki–

    #1, I went to WashU and have such a soft spot for St. Louis!

    #2. Such important points in this post. I absolutely feel that “unable to box me in thing” too. Especially religiously. You know how I call myself reformadox. ;) Mivkah? Yes! Shomer shabbos? Not really. Not when it comes to flipping the lights on and off.

    I think everyone knows that they themselves cannot be boxed in yet we think we can so easily label others. Silliness!

    1. WashU has such a gorgeous campus, and I love that area of St. Louis! You make a great point about how we all feel that we defy labels, but find it easy to label others! So true!

  10. Labels are a shortcut. Of course nobody fits their label perfectly, but it gives us an idea of who this person in front of us is. It would be very time-consuming (and tedious) if we had to repeat our entire life story every time we met somebody. I can say, “My name is Sara, I’m Jewish, music therapist by training, stay-at-home mom, DIY-er, crafty quilter and sewer, and a little bit crunchy,” and you’d have something to go on – sure, I’d clarify issues as they came up, but there are a lot of things you could infer from those labels – and most of them would be right.

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