Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies

Dealing with those invasive inquiries.

WATCH: Highlights of 221 Olim Landing on the July 2015 Charter Flight (photo credit: NEFESH B'NEFESH)
WATCH: Highlights of 221 Olim Landing on the July 2015 Charter Flight
(photo credit: NEFESH B'NEFESH)
‘How much money do you make?” “What do you pay in rent?” “How much weight did you lose?” “How old are you?” I don’t respond well to being asked for my stats.
I feel more comfortable in the safe space created by a polite and fairly distant social understanding that some questions are inappropriate, especially if they’re coming from someone you just met.
I find that in Israel less thought is given to what may or may not be an offensive question. When I tried to discreetly point this out to a colleague who had just asked a clearly uncomfortable middle- aged client her age, she responded, “I can ask whatever I want. Everyone can decide what they do or don’t want to answer” – putting the onus of pleading the fifth on the receiver of the query rather than hoping the question wouldn’t be asked in the first place.
People ask about what they want to know. Fair enough. I’m pretty sure many Europeans would be interested in what their next-door neighbor’s monthly salary is, but I am also pretty confident they wouldn’t dare ask. Perhaps the famed local chutzpah is behind all the daring inquiries.
In some cases, the questions are even illegal. Although according to the law prospective employers are not allowed to ask certain personal questions, time and time again they do so anyway.
Sometimes under the guise of small talk or chit-chat, people get asked about their marital status or the number of children they have or are planning to have (this seems to happen to women more often than men).
One has every right not to answer such questions or even report the very fact that they were asked; but in many cases, doing so won’t land you the job.
“Who are you voting for?” is another question many olim find very jarring. During the recent election season, I was asked it by colleagues, cab drivers and a prospective suitor but not by my Anglo friends. The guiding force apparently is “It’s just a question; what’s the harm in asking? If you don’t ask, you won’t know!” After one too many incidents where my blushing and stuttering only confused the asker (who then repeated the question), I have begun trying to arm myself with an emergency stock of prepared coy non-responses to use when a question I don’t want to answer arises. I also sometimes plainly state, “I don’t feel comfortable answering that,” which inevitably is followed by yet another question I’m not particularly eager to respond to: “Why?” I guess it’s a matter of differing social boundaries. Whereas in many urban North American cities, many of us have mastered the art of being in very close physical proximity to someone without making eye contact, in Israel one is often treated to unsolicited personal advice while taking public transportation. The question that reverberates internally for me is “Who asked you?” swiftly followed by a chastising “Mind your own business!” (though I have refrained from uttering either of those out loud).
On one hand, it can seem forward and invasive to observe someone give parenting advice to their fellow passenger; on the other, it can be nice to see people scrambling to help while said parent is attempting to balance an infant and a stroller while paying the driver.
Someone close to me once had the misfortune of walking back from the ladies’ room at a gala event in California, crossing the crowded ballroom with the hem of her skirt inadvertently tucked into her pantyhose. Lots of people noticed, yet no one said a word for fear of embarrassing her, though she was exposing herself to 500 people – which was much more embarrassing! In Israel, I think someone would have reached out a hand and yanked her skirt down before she even realized what happened. I guess the New York City subway system’s security slogan “If you see something, say something” should apply to other areas of life as well.
There are two sides to the coin. The same sense of closeness that gives some people the mistaken idea that they are free to ask prying questions can also result in some of those questions being kind and caring. It can lead to a genuine “Are you okay? Can I help?” or “Would you like to join our family for lunch this Shabbat?” Locals tend not to abide by the social graces and fear of faux pas as much as their brethren across the ocean, but they care. They care about who you are, what you think, where you come from and what you’re doing, as well as how you’re feeling.
Maybe I should stop worrying about coming up with evasive responses and just adopt the age-old Jewish tradition of answering every question with one of my own. OK?