The other day, shortly after Sukkot, I bought a scarf for my son before he headed back to yeshiva and, as we all are, into winter. The experience, slight as it was, convinced me that a thought bouncing around in my mind for several days prior deserved to be wrapped in some words.
There are drawbacks to working in lower Manhattan, but advantages too. Among the latter is the ability to buy an apple or banana or necktie or watch – or scarf – at a very reasonable price from one of the street vendors that pepper the neighborhood’s broad sidewalks.
Some of the merchants are not very helpful, others are “helpful” in an aggressive sort of way. The necktie-scarf-kerchief salesman near our offices was – Goldilocks would have approved – just right. A middle-aged black gentleman, he pointed me to a pile of garments, told me to let him know if I needed any help and left me to inspect his wares.
After I found what I wanted and made my purchase, he thanked me but seemed to want to say something else, so I didn’t rush away. Looking me in the eye, he told me that he sometimes plied his trade in another part of Manhattan, where there are many people “like you.” I assumed – correctly it turned out – that he meant Orthodox Jewish men with hats and beards.
“Really?” I said tentatively, wondering what was to come.
“Yeah,” he continued, with a broad smile, “and I want you to know that they are the nicest people. They always treat me really good.”
Relieved, I returned the smile that I only then noticed, told the businessman how happy I was that “my people” were acting as we are supposed to and wished him well.
Heading to the office, my relief embarrassed me. But I understood it.
Because the image of Jews, and identifiably Jewish ones in particular, has been tarnished over recent years. That is partly because of the observant Jewish community’s growth – rendering its failures both more numerous and more visible – and partly because of a media ethic that seems to have updated “if it bleeds, it leads” to something like “if it’s a scandal, it gets a handle.” That’s the fourth estate’s approach to any group or individual, but the media take particular glee in making sure that a religious person – extra credit if he’s a religious Jew – who has done something wrong gets top billing. And then there are the farther reaches of Blogistan, where facts don’t even matter, and a toxic mix of venom, imaginativeness and psychopathy serves as the local currency.
The actions of most observant Jews, though – the “daily Jews,” who invest their quotidian lives with behavior becoming members of a holy people – reflect Jewish ideals in all they do. That was the scarf man’s experience.
And that of the man at the bus stop mere days earlier who asked me how my holidays had been.
I had seen him many times and we would always exchange greetings but had never spoken much. I had pegged him as an Egyptian but he turns out to be from India. I responded “wonderful,” the truth, and asked him if he was Jewish. “No,” he said, going on to explain how he knew about the holidays, “but I work for a government agency and some of my superiors there are Jewish people.”
And then he volunteered – I am not embellishing – that “they are wonderful bosses to have, they really are. I admire them.” I realized then why he had always been so friendly to me.
The dovetailing of the two experiences was reassuring. Despite the mistakes, or worse, of some and the accusations leveled against others, there is still a mass of Jews who daily and diligently heed the Talmud’s admonition to act in a way that “causes the name of G-d to be loved because of you[r actions]” (Yoma 86a). The countless individuals who make up that population will never appear in the media world. Their due will come in another one.
The effects, however, of the way they live have impact here and now. Despite the misguided actions of some members of the tribe, and the media’s enthusiasm in providing them prominence, the “daily Jews” broadcast an accurate message about Jews and Judaism to countless people like the scarf-seller and my bus stop friend – non-Jews and Jews alike.
The mass of “daily Jews” – and, despite the headlines and headhunters, it is a critical mass – may not even realize the effect they have on the image of the Jewish people. But the rest of us should – and we should aspire to make our places among them.
© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]
All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.