In My Own Right: Stereotypes

Prejudice or preconceived idea: pre-judging without specific knowledge or reason.

Purim Jerusalem370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Purim Jerusalem370
(photo credit: 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.
Next 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 accepted.
Put aside any preconceived ideas: This isn’t a man-pursues- woman story.
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 eardrums.
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” look.
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 ideas.
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 one.
After the eulogies, prayers and lowering of the body, several of the men worked hard shoveling in spadefuls of earth, according to Jewish custom.
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 work.
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 stereotypes.
‘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 Galilee.
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 never forget.
“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.
My 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 because....”
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 aren’t.
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 YouTube.
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.
That’s clearly not prejudice; more like good sense and healthy self-interest.
ON A very basic level, preconceived ideas, stereotypes, prejudices – call them what you will – are an inextricable part of our growth as human beings.
Only 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 human beings.”
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.