Question & Answer With Bob Miller - Midwestern Derech Eretz
A Simple Jew asks:
Who displays greater derech eretz, a Jew living in New York City or a non-Jew living in the Midwest? If your answer is the latter, what does this say about us?
Bob Miller answers:
I found some remarkable articles on the Web by Professor Deborah Tannen that clarify some misunderstood aspects of New York City (and Jewish) interpersonal behavior (see here and here). The gist of this is that some aspects of NYC conversational style and general American conversational style (as in the Midwest) are so different as to cause major misunderstandings about intent, character, etc.
Reading this material, I began to understand certain things that have happened in my life as a displaced New Yorker who has lived many years in the Midwest and other places outside Greater New York. It told me that much of what we take to be an indicator of derech eretz or the lack of it has to do more with local mannerisms than intent.
That said, I have noticed areas where derech eretz really does seem better in the Midwest:
1. People say "Good Shabbos" even to Jews on the street who are not their friends, relatives, or teachers, and are not dressed in the same Shabbos uniform.
2. Store personnel are generally friendly to customers and vice versa.
3. Recent examples of goodness (although, truthfully, these could have happened anywhere, including in NYC):
Yesterday, shopping at the Kroger supermarket and a health food store in the same strip mall, I lost my keys in the parking lot. After 5-10 minutes of searching, I walked up to the customer service desk in the Kroger saying I had just lost my car keys. The desk lady pulled them out instantly and gave them to me. So an honest person had picked up the keys and taken the keys straight to the desk, and the desk lady assumed automatically that they were my keys (no third degree interrogation).
A few months ago, my cell phone (turned on) fell off my belt into another supermarket lot and I didn't even notice it. Minutes later, my wife got a call on her cell phone (we were driving home together in the car) from the finder of my phone, who wanted to arrange where to hand it back to me. The finder had gone through my speed dial list to find some contact to tell about the found phone.
4. Our kids went to Orthodox schools in Metro Detroit, which were pretty free of chutzpah. The teachers were not fighting a war with the kids.
All the above is pretty anecdotal, but I get the feeling that Midwesterners really are friendlier and more polite, two aspects of better derech eretz. As for reasons, it's hard to speculate. Yes, NYC is a busy, crowded place, but so are other big cities. I think something is pushing some New Yorkers to feel they must act out as tough or cynical, even when they're really not that way. Something is pushing some of them to feel that obeying normal societal rules is a form of weakness.
Now, what about a direct comparison of Midwest non-Jews to NYC Jews as regards derech eretz? The fact is that derech eretz relates to a whole range of behaviors. Let's look at public school life and crime and politics, for example:
The fact is that urban public school systems all over the country, the Midwest included, are failing in their mission to educate kids to become civilized, responsible citizens. Absenteeism, disinterest in learning, teaching of PC platitudes instead of real knowledge, bullying and other violence, drugs, sexual aggressiveness and other problems afflict these systems. Suburban systems all over have their own set of problems, including many of the above, despite the greater financial resources of their families and school boards. Both urban and suburban systems are predominantly non-Jewish through and through.
The fact is that many cities, Midwestern cities included, are experiencing crime waves that include ever more heinous crimes, week after week or even day after day.
The fact is that, overall, the politicians agree to lie and the voters agree to be lied to. The Midwestern newspapers chronicle as much of this as any others. Educational and public safety problems are swept under the rug, or pretended solutions are offered with much fanfare and then forgotten.
So something basic is breaking down in the character of non-Jewish civil society all over the US, despite what niceness and civility still remains from bygone days. By comparison to this, the derech eretz problems in the NYC Jewish community (and other Jewish communities) can be seen as relatively easy to solve once we decide we're not already perfect.