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.”
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.”
“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.”
~ ~ ~
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.
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.
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.