Neat Little Boxes

A True Story

Back when this author was a bochur learning in Yerushalayim, there were some boys I knew who had rented a dirah, an apartment, on the top floor (the roof, actually) of a building right in the center of Meah Shearim/Geulah. These were good boys, true bnei Torah, bochurim who were normal, geshmak (we won’t get into just how geshmak!), as well as ehrlich, responsible, masmidim – truly top bochurim. They came from various backgrounds and yeshivos. Some had beards and bushy peyos, while others were clean-shaven and had no noticeable peyos. All shared a love of life, Torah and Yiddishkeit, and indeed a number of them are today mashpi’im, roshei kollel, ramim, rabbonim, etc. It was a privilege that I knew them.

Downstairs from those bochurim, in one of the other apartments, lived a family who were Toldos Aharon chassidim. There were a number of children in the family, and the bochurim passed them by often enough in the stairwell, but the Yerushalmi kids never answered their greeting, smiled back at them, or interacted in any way. The bochurim at first attributed this to natural bashfulness and discomfort. After some time, though, it became uncomfortably apparent that those sweet Yerushalmi children were clearly ignoring them. The bochurim were at a loss, however, to understand why.

It wasn’t long before they found out. One of the bochurim walked into the building once, and, seeing one of the children of that family at the entrance, wished him a good morning. As the bochur then made his way upstairs, he passed the mother of the family outside her door. She had clearly heard his greeting to her child from where she’d been standing, and she abruptly asked the bochur, in no uncertain terms, not to speak to her children and to tell his friends not to do so either.

The bochur was understandably perturbed, realizing that this family looked upon him and his friends as some sort of American shkotzim. There wasn’t much to do about it, though, and life went on.

At one point, one of the older bochurim in that family made contact with the bochurim in the dirah against his parent’s wishes. He clearly enjoyed speaking to the American yeshiva boys in Torah and in hashkafah, and at one point he expressed an interest in one of the seforim he’d seen in the dirah. The owner of the sefer happily lent it to the Yerushalmi bochur.

A day or two later, the boys in the dirah heard a knock at their door. It was the mother from downstairs holding the sefer in her hand. Wordlessly, she handed it to the bochur who’d answered the door, turned and left.

The boys were astounded and shocked. They hadn’t realized just how deep the antipathy from downstairs was. Needless to say, it grew even more uncomfortable every time any of the American bochurim passed any of the downstairs neighbors in the stairwell.

Then came the climax. One of the bochurim was returning from yeshiva and making his way up the stairs. As he passed the door of the Toldos Aharon family downstairs, the mother stood in his way, fire blazing in her eyes. She tried to hand the bochur an Israeli, irreligious, newspaper. “I found my child reading this,” she said.

The bochur was dumbfounded. He had also reached the max in his savlanus, tolerance.

“You think this paper came from one of us?!” he asked her in Yiddish. “I wouldn’t even take this from you now! If you don’t want to talk to us, if you don’t want your children to speak with us, that’s your choice and your business. But if you think that you are any frummer than us, you are quite mistaken. You are invited to come with your husband upstairs and look through our dirah. Not only won’t you find such trash,” he indicated the Israeli paper, “but you won’t even find any of those ‘frum’ magazines we see your kids reading in the stairwell. We don’t have any such garbage by us. Maybe we’re American, but don’t go accusing us of your imagined offenses.”

The bochur then stalked upstairs, leaving a shocked and speechless woman behind.

It was following a levayah only a few short days after that scene that the father of the downstairs family sought out one of the American bochurim he’d noticed during the hespeidim.

“Ich vill zich shtark antshuldigen tzu ai’ereh gantze dirah,” he told the bochur, “far mich un far mein froi. I’d like to apologize profusely to all the boys in your apartment for me and my wife.

“After what you told my wife,” he continued in Yiddish as the bochur cringed, recalling his outburst, “my wife and I discussed this entire issue. I have to tell you the truth: We have only wonderful things to say about everything we’ve seen so far from you and your friends. We see you leaving early to daven or even to learn before davening. We see you coming back from the bais hamedrash late at night – 12:30, 1:00 – holding your seforim and speaking in hushed tones in learning. You all look like true yeshiva bochurim always, and you always behave that way.

“I’ll be honest with you. The apartment upstairs was empty for a while before you and your friends took it. Before that, though, it had been rented by a group of Amercian boys, and I still cringe to recall what went on then. These boys would have rocking music blasting at all hours of the day and night. They would lounge around – publicly – in short pants. You don’t want to know what kind of trash we’d find around while they were living upstairs.

“I guess that when you boys moved in and we saw that it was American boys again, we just lumped you together with those other boys and we were horrified that such people will be living here again. We told our kids not to talk to you. And then, when my wife saw that irreligious Israeli newspaper, all her nightmares came back.

“But we’ve thought about it, and you are absolutely right. There is no way you ehrliche bochurim would have anything remotely like that around. We see how Torahdik you are. We remembered that there was a plumber here that day, and it was he who probably left it around. And we agreed that we really have to apologize for treating you with such suspicion and even contempt until now. It was totally unwarranted; you are good bochurim.”

It goes without saying that the bochurim were happy, relieved and much mollified when their dirah-mate, upon the request of the downstairs neighbor, shared the neighbor’s words and apology with them.

In a sweet postscript to the story, the apology and peace-making happened shortly before Purim. Early on Purim day, a few of the children from downstairs knocked at the bochurim’s door. With them, they carried a mishloach manos – challah, salads, dips and kugels all homemade by their mother. For bochurim who had no Purim seudah of their own and had planned on washing by one relative, having a course by another rebbi and a different course at a third location, it was a mishloach manos gift the way it was intended to be. They immediately washed and sat down to begin their festive Purim seudah right there.

More than that, though, it was a mishloach manos appreciated on a far deeper level than its mere physical scrumptiousness. It was a wonderful, if delicious, ending to that saga.

Putting People in Boxes

While the story is interesting enough as is, it carries a penetrating message for one open enough to absorb it.

Almost all of us tend to place people we come across into neat little boxes. Not literally – we hope! – but figuratively, in our minds, we label everyone we meet, see or come across as a certain “type.” We have these neat little mental boxes in our minds – yeshivish, Amerikanish, chinyokish, generous, stingy, friendly, closed-minded – all clearly labeled. When we meet or even hear about people, we tend to place them in one of these boxes based on one or a few aspects of their lives we’ve either seen or heard on the grapevine.

Often, we are correct in our assumptions. After all, what people do, wear, or say can indicate quite a lot about them. At other times, though, we might just be mistaken. This happens when somebody simply does not fit into one of our neat little boxes. He might speak like an “American Harry” but not act or think in most respects the way most of his countrymen do. A person may be terse and not forthcoming, but can actually be most friendly – if shy – and even gregarious when you get to know them.

Our problem is that we’re most comfortable when we know with what we’re dealing and what the “score” is in every situation. We like to be “in the know.” It’s far easier to simply place someone into one of our clearly-marked and predefined boxes – and then we feel like we know all about them – than to have to admit that we really don’t know this person, what he does or for what he stands.

There are indeed, sadly so, enough American visitors to Eretz Yisroel who, besides for their own shortcomings, have no sense of decency or basic mentchlichkeit to understand how rude and inconsiderate it is to live among others while completely disregarding their values or simple neighborly good manners. We understand, though, as the story above illustrates, that not all Americans – and perhaps not even most – fit that description. When we judge people by one or even a few signals, rather than by who they actually might be, we risk making the same mistake that well-meaning family did. Perhaps not as extreme or as dramatic, but we can be mistaken nonetheless.

We see the type of eyeglasses someone is wearing, we hear a manner of speech, or we learn to which school a family sends their children, and we immediately know into which “box” they belong. This one’s a yeshivishe fraud, that one’s a farfrumteh extremist, another one’s a chassidishe bum, and a fourth is “just our type.” How do we know? Well, we don’t really know, but we’re quite sure that from the little we’ve seen or heard, we know just into which box to place them.

Let us clarify two things: We are not referring here to labeling someone based on something that is not even true. That is obviously wrong and will lead to mistaken conclusions. What we are speaking of is when something about somebody is true, but may not properly define who that person really is once you get to know them.

Also, our point is not to make light of or minimize wrongful or misguided behavior, speech or actions that we witness by others. Foul language – just to take one random example – is not okay just because the person spouting it has a heart of gold, does a lot of chesed or davens with a lot of real kavanah. What it does mean is that people are often far more than one-dimensional. For starters, he may not be aware that the language he uses is unacceptable. One must be dan lekaf zechus. However, even if we know enough about him to be sure that he is well aware of the foulness of his speech, we may not know his background, his challenges or his efforts to change. So while many people who speak a certain way may indeed fit into a box labeled “Crude People,” this particular person may be a generally fine fellow with a shortcoming that does not define who he is.

So while we are not minimizing the ramifications or wrongfulness of acting in certain ways, dressing in certain ways, or engaging in less-than-ideal behavior, we must still remember that such behavior, dress or actions do not always define the person. True, some people do indeed speak, dress or behave in a particular manner because they want to give off a certain impression and do indeed fit that particular description. Quite often, though – and we may be surprised at just how often – the person in question simply does not fit into any of our pre-labeled neat little boxes and there is a lot more than meets the eye.

We don’t want to be caught feeling silly or mistaken as happened to that wonderful, well-meaning family in Yerushalayim. It is far better not to make the mistake in the first place. Aside from all the boxes we have tucked away in our minds, let us place another box there – a large one, labeled “You Just Never Know.”