In My Own Right: Stereotypes
Prejudice or preconceived idea: pre-judging without specific
knowledge or reason.
Purim celebrations in Jerusalem, 2/25/2013 Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
When I was quite new in the country, in my twenties, I taught English to adults
in a Tel Aviv language school, and one of my students was a large, swarthy,
somewhat unkempt fellow, a driver by profession. “That’s a person I wouldn’t
care to meet in an alleyway on a dark night,” I joked to myself.
thing I knew, he had come over at the end of class and was offering me a lift
home. Rather nervously, and because the weather was stormy, I
Put aside any preconceived ideas: This isn’t a man-pursues-
We were riding along, when he suddenly asked if he should
put on a tape of his favorite music. Glancing sideways at his rough appearance,
I nodded my assent and waited for some sort of heavy-metal assault on my
Imagine my shock when the delicate strains of Mozart’s Piano
Concerto No. 21 (“Elvira Madigan”) wafted through the vehicle. “I love this
piece,” my student said, dreamily.
So much for my snap summation of this
man’s personality, based on his unappealing apparel and “unintellectual”
My memory is becoming increasingly sieve-like, more’s the pity. The
life episodes I have forgotten could fill a book. Yet the “rough diamond” who
loved Mozart stands before me in my mind as fresh as if he had driven me home
just yesterday – I think because of the way that small incident illustrates our
human tendency to judge others based not on any real knowledge of whom we are
judging, but largely on our prejudices or preconceived
FAST-FORWARD to last week and a funeral I attended at the Dalet
Amot cemetery in Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, outside Jerusalem, where another fixed
notion of mine got a shaking.
The deceased was a distinguished and
well-loved man, a professor at the Hebrew University, and a large crowd of
colleagues and friends surrounded the family as they bid farewell to their dear
After the eulogies, prayers and lowering of the body, several of the
men worked hard shoveling in spadefuls of earth, according to Jewish
Then it was the turn of the two grave-diggers, who had meanwhile
stood to one side, to finish filling in the grave.
This is my set of
preconceived ideas about gravediggers: They are fellows of no great sensibility;
they do the job mechanically, much like on a building site; they bury people all
the time, which would blunt any feeling they did have connected with their
This is how my preconceived ideas got shattered: A large bucket of
pinkish-white, long-stemmed roses had been placed at the scene, and after the
grave-diggers had filled the grave and smoothed the surrounding soil, they each
took a single bloom from the bucket and placed it – one gently on the grave
itself, the other diagonally across the wooden name-board lying at the grave’s
head. These simple acts were performed with such delicacy and grace they seemed
almost to have been choreographed.
The two men then gathered up their
tools and walked away.
Never mind that my neighbor, who also attended the
funeral and is informed about the cemetery, told me later that these were men
who had chosen this sad work out of a sense of mission; for my part, I felt I
had been given another prod toward broadening my mind and sloughing off easy
‘IF YOU’RE talking about preconceived notions and people
behaving in unexpected ways,” my neighbor offered on our journey back to
Jerusalem, let me tell you about the trip a friend and I took recently up north,
which included a visit to Kfar Kama, the Circassian village in Lower
It turned out that part of the welcome was a traditional
Circassian dance by a professional dance troupe. It was a dance my neighbor will
“Just imagine,” she exclaimed, “my friend, whom I’ve known
since childhood – an introverted and not particularly attractive-looking woman
who’s turned 70 – suddenly got up and joined the dancers! She was the only
visitor who did it.
“‘Wherever did you get the nerve?’ I asked her
afterwards. ‘I just felt like it,’ she said.”
Two things I know about
this woman – she has never married and is still living in the house she grew up
in, never having quite managed to leave her comfort zone.
And yet in
later life, here she is stepping out of it, in more senses than one.
reaction: How lovely it is that you can never totally pin people down; that
someone you think you know through and through can still surprise you (hopefully
in positive, and not negative ways).
It’s that small strand of
un-knownness that makes our relationships, including our closest ones, so much
more interesting, and keeps us alert.
IT’S A sad thing that we sometimes
have to use preconceived ideas as a basic means of protection – such as, for
example, when we tell our young children, “Don’t talk to strangers
Can’t such parents be accused of prejudice toward all
strangers? asked a friend who likes to play devil’s advocate. (I put up with
this because she helps me clarify my thoughts.) Is every person out there that
our children don’t know to be regarded with suspicion? After all, she continued,
there are countless people who love children, are maybe a bit lonely and just
want to be friendly – but we lump them together, willynilly, with those who are
up to no good.
It’s true we have no specific information about people our
children meet whom they don’t know, I answered, and can therefore be said to be
judging them without sufficient reason.
And yet we do have a reason:
knowledge and experience of the world we live in, of the dangers that lurk even
out in the open; and our realization that there is no time or space, especially
for a child, to safely ascertain which strangers are well-meaning, and which
When my daughter was little, I found The Berenstain Bears Learn
About Strangers an excellent book for teaching children to maintain a healthy
balance between caution and outright fear of strangers. It’s now available on
Everyone, younger and older, who uses social networking sites on
the Internet similarly needs to be wary around new “friends,” withholding
personal information until it is proven to be absolutely safe.
clearly not prejudice; more like good sense and healthy self-interest.
A very basic level, preconceived ideas, stereotypes, prejudices – call them what
you will – are an inextricable part of our growth as human beings.
the seriously mentally challenged live in a vacuum; the rest of us are forever
using our intelligence and experience to observe patterns in human behavior,
making generalizations and associations based on them.
As one blogger
puts it: “We are all bombarded by thousands of stimuli each day which shape our
judgment and perception... we are invariably prejudiced for or against a
countless number of ideas, ideologies, ideals, styles... It’s the tweaking,
reshaping, and sometimes shattering and rebuilding of prejudices that make us
The negative creeps in when stereotypes are presumed true
in all cases, rigidly held without room for error or exception – and especially
when they are used as a basis for hate and persecution.
We Jews know all
about that, even without the story of Purim, which we have just read.