Mesorah (Jewish stuff)

Don’t Panic, But You’re Representing Your Entire People

I’m in the checkout line at a supermarket, and the cashier is looking at me thoughtfully.

“Can I ask you a question?  I don’t want to be offensive, but I have a question,” he tentatively addresses me.

“Sure,” I respond.  My curiosity is piqued.

“Do Hasidic Jews believe in reincarnation?  Someone told me once that they did.”

The Jews of Antwerpen
“So, who were you in your past life?”

I’m in a brown maxi dress with a sweater cardigan thrown over it.  Under my dress is a “shell,” a tank top, which reaches up to the intersection of my torso and neck, covering my collarbone.  On my head is a brown pre-tied scarf with a geometric pattern in a cream color.  Earrings dangle from my lobes.

I’m not Hasidic, but I get where he might think that.  All Orthodox Jews can kind of look Hasidic to an outsider.

“Actually, it’s not just Hasidic Jews that think that,” I respond.  “A lot of Orthodox Jews believe in reincarnation.”

“Really?”

“Yep.  We’re here for a purpose, and if we don’t accomplish it, we come back again to finish.”

“Cool.  Thanks,” he says.  A slight pause.  “That’ll be $50.76.”

“My pleasure.  Here you go.”

“Have a nice day.”

“You too.”

We smile.

~ ~ ~

What was it about me in particular that drew this young man to ask me about a not-so-publicized Jewish belief?  Maybe I just looked approachable.  Who knows?  I do know that when he saw me, he saw more than just a customer or a woman.  He saw an Orthodox Jew.  And, in a way, all Orthodox Jews.

That’s how it is when you’re part of a community.  You become some sort of unofficial official emissary.  When I’m in public, I’m not just Rivki Silver, errand-runner.  No, I’m an Orthodox Jew.  So if I choose to talk on my cell phone in the checkout line instead of being polite, that could negatively impact all the subsequent Orthodox customers that cashier deals with.  Any bad behavior on my part will leave a bad taste in the mouth of those strangers or neighbors who interact with me.

But no pressure.

We don’t want to give people Grumpy Face

A few years ago, I was speaking with a woman who had just moved to a mid-sized midwestern town from Israel.  She remarked how she felt so much more aware of her Jewishness here in America.  In Israel you’re aware of your Jewishness, sure, but everyone around you is Jewish, too, so what’s the big deal?  Here, she said, she sometimes felt like the only Jew in an entire store, and she felt the weight of that responsibility.  She recognized that it was important to make a good impression.

Here’s a story about impressions:

Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky recounted that when he was a Rabbi in Lithuania before World War II, he was asked a question by a resident of his community. The man had purchased stamps from the local post office, and had received more stamps that he had paid for. For such a poor man, the extra stamps were no trifle matter.  Nonetheless, Rabbi Kaminetsky suspected that perhaps the postal clerk was testing him.  This suspicion was confirmed a short time later when the clerk gave him too much change.  The rabbi returned the extra money. Many years after the Nazis came and destroyed the community, the rabbi heard that this clerk had saved many Jews, testifying that he tested everybody to assess their honesty, and the Jews were exceedingly honest, which prompted him to save them! (from Torah.org)

Wow, right?  That’s making a positive impression.  A Kiddush Hashem.

It’s easy to go along our merry ways, not thinking about the people who we interact with.  Not wondering what kind of impact we’re having.  It’s even easier to do so in a city with a large Orthodox Jewish community, like here in Baltimore.  Despite this potential complacency, it’s not too much more effort to just take a second and see, really see the people around us.

Here’s a goal:  Try to make someone smile this week.  It should be someone easy to overlook, like the guy bringing in carts at the supermarket, or the gas attendant, or the postal worker.  You could wish them a nice day, thank them for their hard work, compliment them on their outfit or hair (that’s probably one for the ladies, really).  You could ask them how much time they have until they get to go home, and empathize with them if it’s a long time, or rejoice with them if it’s five minutes.  If applicable, offer them a cookie (like when someone’s fixing your air conditioner, for which you certainly would be grateful!).

Most of all, remember to see that they are a person, and that they also have goals and dreams, and while those dreams may be different than yours, they are no less important to the one who dreams them.  You know?  It’s easy to focus on the differences, but noticing similarities brings connection.  And what are we connecting to?  The spark of God within us all.  And connecting to that is connecting to the Divine, which is, really, what we’re here for anyways.

They should be this happy!
They should be this happy!

Let me know how it goes!  Please share what you did to make someone smile, and may we all be positive emissaries for whatever we represent.  If you’re sharing online, use the hashtag #kiddushhashem, or include a link in the comments.  

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28 thoughts on “Don’t Panic, But You’re Representing Your Entire People

  1. Hate to nitpick but reincarnation is not actually such a mainstream concept, not everyone believes in it (and by “not everyone” I mean including some major “mainstream” Jewish philosophers)

    1. Hi Chavie, thanks for stopping by! I would love to hear what other Jewish philosophers say on the topic. As we know, there’s no shortage of difference of opinions when it comes to Judaism! When you say not in the mainstream, do you mean mainstream Orthodox beliefs, or mainstream overall Jewish beliefs?

      I learned about reincarnation when I was studying at Neve Yerushalayim, and my understanding of reincarnation as a Jewish belief comes from there, and from online sources like Aish.com, Torah.org and Chabad.org.

  2. I just read another post about letting people “experience you” positively. To add on the part of experiencing a whole community through a single interaction with a single person really heightens the impact that “experiencing” a person can have. Thank you for sharing this story!

          1. Oh no, please, it was my pleasure! It was funny to see my self go through all of these different avenues to figure it out. It was a really fun puzzle!

  3. Yes. In Memphis I KNOW I am sometimes people’s first or at least rare interaction with an Orthodox Jew/ess. When I worked at Kroger, I had to clarify some basic beliefs to my coworkers, such as the fact, that no, we do not believe in “the J guy” as Messiah. In college, too, I always announce it during class introductions.

  4. I go back and forth between who I represent and who I am inside. I don’t think there is one good way to do this. It’s a constant balancing act in every situation. One thing I love about the Jewish people is their diversity.

    1. I hear what you’re saying. People are rarely as simple as how others may perceive them. I guess the religion thing sticks out more because it’s more of a whole lifestyle and philosophy thing, as opposed to say, me being a clarinetist. I am a clarinetist, but it doesn’t really inform many of the choices I make. Or something.

      The diversity of the Jewish people is pretty mind-blowing. I remember how astonished I was when I realized just how many different flavors of Orthodox there were! Whoa!

  5. Oh, so beautiful. And PS: This is part of why I send my son to Jewish summer camp. So he can just BE and not have to feel like he’s the mouthpiece for an entire branch of a religion. Because that happens to him sometimes. And he is soooo not that. No one should feel that much pressure, really. Every religion offers such a broad spectrum of practice, it’s hard to really know what is the “true” practice. I just look for common threads these days.

    1. That reminds me of something a wise lady told me, when I was just becoming observant, and was probably asking her a jillion questions. She said, “not every Orthodox person knows everything about Judaism.”

      Religious practice is such a personal thing, and the spectrum so vast. I think looking for common threads is the best approach. There will always be people who think you’re doing it “wrong,” and they’re probably no fun to be around! haha.

  6. You don’t only represent Ortjodox Jews, you represent Jews, period. The world out there does not know that we are such a diverse people with 40% of us being agnostic or atheist. I am always”the Jew” at work and have been for years. I take every opportunity to correct negative stereotypes and share some of what being a Jew means and how diverse it is. My son, for his first time in a very multicultural school is also “the Jew” in his circle of friends. He has been asked why he doesn’t have payos and why he doesn’t wear a kippah or how could he be an atheist if he is Jewish. He represents our people well. A new friend of his recently told me that my son was “the most principled person” she ever met. So whether you are happy about it or not, it is not only Orthodox Judaism that you represent, you represent atheist Jews like me too. And whether Orthodox Jews like it or not, the rest of us represent you. It is a shame that you chose the hashtag that you did. Jews are seen by most who are not MOTs as one people. It would have been nice to have a hashtags that could include the very large number of us whose actions have nothing to do with a Hashem that we do not believe in.

    1. Very interesting. I was just told by someone on Facebook that I don’t represent all Jews, since I’m Orthodox. Go figure.

      What hashtag was it that was the offensive one? Was it a hashtag on twitter, or a tag on my post? Most of the tags on my post are just used to help people find my posts when they are searching for them on wordpress.com, and I’m really sorry that my choices rubbed you the wrong way. I’ll be happy to include a hashtag that you think is more appropriate.

      Most Jews I grew up with did not have peyos or wear a kippah. I didn’t meet anyone who kept kosher until after college. I attended a High Holidays service where the cantor gave a drasha about how she didn’t believe in God, so I’m surprised that most people would associate being Jewish with the small percentage of us who are Orthodox. I would think the general population would be more familiar with Woody Allen, Seinfeld, Dylan, etc., but I’m grateful that you’ve told me that this has been your experience (and I’m sorry, as it must be very frustrating).

      Anyways, I always appreciate when you come and comment, and I’m sorry that I touched a nerve.

  7. Wow, this made me laugh and think! I love discussing reincarnation, quickly followed by “That will be $50.” :) I sometimes feel as a teacher in the community that I live in, that I also need to be more aware of my behavior, as I am representing my school, even at Target.
    And I love your ending about making people smile and lighting up the divine within. That’s what we’re here for. Great post.

    1. Thanks, Sarah! Life can really be full of these funny juxtapositions of the philosophical and the mundane! \

      Your comment reminded me of the pressure I felt when I was a teacher at a local elementary school, oh boy. Suddenly a trip to the grocery store was no longer an anonymous event. It was intense!

  8. I am a teacher. Here in Germany there are not many Jews, and we are really trying to hide our religion–and all those Muslim kids at my school have never ever seen one, let alone speak to one. So when one of my sweet Muslim pupils (12 years old) came up to me and asked what I`d be doing on Christmas, I said `nothing` . She looked at me increduously and asked: Why?? – Because I am Jewish. – Jewish?! – Yes.
    She turned away without any comment and left.
    The next day, she came to me after our lesson and said: You are really a Jew? – Yes. – But you`re so NICE!!
    I smiled and said: See, Jews are nice, dear!
    She said `yes…`
    I hope hat was a lesson for her and maybe also for her family.

    1. Hi! Thank you for sharing this powerful story. It reminds me of how easy it is to make assumptions about groups of people when we’ve never had interactions with them, and then, when faced with a real live person from “x” group, we see that they are, in fact, human just like us!

      I hope it was a good lesson as well.

  9. I love this post.
    I am Pagan, and understand the feeling of responsibility about making a good impression and representing myself and my spiritual path well. In my life I strive to educate and challenge preconceived notions about Paganism, Wicca and Witchcraft. Like the saying, I have to be the change I want to see in the world.
    I was raised Catholic, and have been Pagan for 15 years now. Other religions fascinate me, because the tenets of any religion shape everything about who we are. In understanding what other people believe and why they believe it, I understand them as a person better.
    I did not know about the belief in reincarnation, that’s fascinating. I too believe in reincarnation, for similar reasons.

    Wow, that was a long-winded comment, just wanted to say I loved this post.

    Blessings, Heather

    1. Thank you for such a beautiful comment Heather! I am also fascinated by other religions, and generally love finding out about things which help me understand where people are coming from. Look at us kindred spirits!

  10. My religion isn’t particularly unusual here, but the fact that I’m autistic and asexual certainly are, so I can relate. I’ve definitely had the sense, when talking about either of those traits, that I’m representing everyone with that particular trait whether I want to or not.

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