Just Ask

The painter was an older, Italian fellow, someone who took pride in his work and wanted the job to come out looking as nice as possible. On the day before he was to do the dining room – the room into which one first enters upon walking through the front doorway – I remembered that I had wanted to ask a rov about whether, and how, to leave an amoh al amoh, the space of a square cubit, unpainted as a zeicher lechurban (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 560:1).

As the house had been previously painted and it wasn’t simply a matter of leaving a space unspackled or unpainted as with new construction, the question was how, or if, to mark off such a space. Additionally, as there was no space of a square cubit facing the doorway, the question was whether to leave less space unpainted or have the zeicher lechurban someplace else.

By the time I had reached a rov and received instructions for how much and where to leave unpainted, I could no longer reach the painter. Knowing that he would show up with his team first thing in the morning, I knew I had to be there early and then catch my ride to the out-of-town kollel in which I was then learning. I would be rushed, and I was afraid that the time constraint would leave little time to explain and make sure that the painter understood my concern.

The easiest route would have been simply to tell him to please leave this specific place unpainted, without bothering to explain. I was afraid, however, that the painter would think that I intended to cover the space with something later on and therefore did not need it painted, and I was thus seeking to save on paint or save him work and time. If he would think that, it was highly possible that he would paint the space anyhow, as we had seen already from experience that he wanted the job to look nice and had even surprised us with a number of free extras to make the job look nicer (no easy feat on an old, vandalized, home).

To ensure that he did not paint the requisite area, I figured – uncomfortable as it would be – that I would have to tell him something about it being of religious importance and significance. I was not sure whether to go into some detail about it being a remembrance for our destroyed temple, so that he should not think that this was some “weird” religious practice, or not to bother and just leave it at “religious importance” and that’s that.

Unsure, rushed and undecided, I arrived at the home to indeed find the painter and his crew readying their paints and tools. After greeting him, I began telling him that I would need an area left unpainted. I don’t recall how much I stammered about this being a religious requirement, when he cut me off with a wave and a huge smile.

“Oh, sure! You want the temple thing? John,” he called to a worker who was readying the dining room, “he’s going to need the temple thing unpainted. Remember that, okay?”

Turning back to me, he told me to simply mark off the exact space and he will make sure that it remained unpainted.

I was in and out in record time and had a humorous anecdote to share on the way to kollel. Here I had been so uncertain as to how this Italian would take to, or understand, this religious requirement, and in the end he clearly knew all about it and was more than happy to oblige with a religious Jew’s need to have “the temple thing” in his home.

• • • • •

This incident came to mind recently after hearing a number of people speaking of the shopping experiences of their families. Now, in the days leading up to Pesach, many of us are busy (on top of all the cleaning and other preparations!) shopping for new Yom Tov clothes for ourselves and our families. While shopping, for some, is a favorite pastime, even such individuals often return home frustrated and empty-handed after yet another unsuccessful expedition.

For women and girls, especially, shopping is doubly challenging due to the need to find something nice yet becoming. It seems that finding clothes that are “clothes” – not merely some cheap, ill-fitting, or off-taste scrap of something to wear, some of which may be “in” but definitely not tasteful or pretty – is far from an easy task. Worst of all is that too often, one has no more success in our “own” local stores than in secular establishments. Clearly inappropriate items are sold with the excuse that the buyer can alter it if they want (often nearly impossible or prohibitively expensive) or that “everybody” is wearing it nowadays.

(Which brings to mind the fellow who was visiting an unfortunate man confined to an asylum for the mentally insane. The visitor noticed how the rooms were padded and how many of the patients would run up to the walls and bang their heads into them. After seeing this repeated in a number of rooms, our visitor stood back, and then, like a sprinter, shot off and smashed his own head into one of the padded walls. Dazed, but thankfully unhurt due to the cushioning, he fell to the floor holding his head and moaning. Asked by a shocked nurse why he just did what he did, he responded indignantly, “Come on! Didn’t you see that everyone was doing it?!”)

It seems that people are growing increasingly more exasperated as they visit shop after shop, yet find little appropriate to wear. From the sound of it, the problem is widespread, affecting people in all classes and circles (read: i.e., not just the “nebs”). After all, many quite fashionable and trendy young ladies still do believe in not cheapening themselves by wearing some of the grossly inappropriate items being sold nowadays.

What is a person to do?

Well, there is one question to ask all those who tell of leaving a store empty-handed and disappointed: Did you – or your wife – say anything to the proprietor? How is a storeowner to know why a customer, or a potential customer, walked out if they never bothered to inform him or her?

Shockingly, this question has thus far been met almost universally by a meek “No.” The customer, it seems, usually slinks out of the store, upset, frustrated, but afraid to say anything about not finding clothing that have met her standards.

Afraid? Afraid of what?

Afraid of coming across as some farfrumte, preachy, aidel knaidel.

Which is what brought to mind the incident with my Italian painter. We are so afraid of how we may come across to the other person, so horrified at the mere thought of, perhaps, being labeled a frummy or a neb. In a free market, though, why should anybody be afraid to request anything he or she desires? The painter wants his customer to be happy, and if that includes having a “temple thing” done, he’s game. If customers would mention their desire for respectable-length skirts or other decent clothes, who says a proprietor – who is looking to make money, after all – wouldn’t order some?

We won’t know if we never even ask.

Think about it: When we’re in the hardware or houseware store and can’t find the type of vacuum-cleaner bag we need, do we hesitate for a second before asking if they carry it? If we can’t find the exact type of canned peaches we’re looking for in the grocery, don’t we ask the nearest worker if they have it? More often than not, if the store is indeed out or does not carry our item, we’d be informed that they’ll try to include it in their next order.

Businesses are in the business of making money. They generally want to please the customer or at least carry merchandise that will sell. Although it might indeed be clearly forbidden for a store owned by a Jew to sell unacceptable merchandise, in a practical sense, complaining about it or talking about how “they” need to make takanos won’t usually get us too far.

How about the good old rule of supply and demand? Why are we so afraid to simply ask for the item we’re looking for or mention that we would have been interested in buying it had the store carried it? The worst that can happen is that they’ll say no or maybe (gasp!) look at you weird. On the other hand, they might actually decide that if there is indeed a demand, they’ll try to include such items in their next order.

Suppose you and two others were disappointed about the lengths (or lack thereof) of the merchandise carried in a local store you’ve visited. You looked – and you left, disappointed. They looked – and they left, disappointed. Picture, for a moment, if all three of you had mentioned – in a simple, friendly, informative, non-combative way – what you would have bought. “I really loved the items on that rack,” you could have said. “If you’d carry them in longer lengths, I would definitely try them.”

Is it not conceivable that the proprietor might decide to keep an eye out for such items in the future, since there were a few requests?

Are we wary of asking because of our fear of what “they” might think? Or could it be, perhaps, that we are afraid of what we think of ourselves? If you know you’re doing the right thing, then it’s no different than asking for the particular type of vegetable peeler you like to use. Perhaps they’ll order it; maybe they won’t. We hardly have a right to complain, though, if we simply slink out and never even ask.