Thursday, March 08, 2007

Question & Answer With Bob Miller - Midwestern Derech Eretz

(Picture courtesy of

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.


At March 8, 2007 at 11:43:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

“The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” - Sherlock Holmes

When I first read this quote as a child I wondered if it was true, and I suspected then (as I do now) that it is probably pretty true indeed. As an out-of-town kid transplanted in NY, I miss the civility and better manners away from the unmitigated chutzpa, overt selfishness and rough edges of New York. Nevertheless, things are not as bad as the may superficially seem. I’ll start by going over the points one by one :

1. (Out of town) 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.

It is a nice thing to have, I miss it. But believe me, Try this in Boro Park – I have – it isn’t practical and it borders impossible. As you pass hundreds of Jews, it becomes an impossible task to maintain. Therefore, you cut it down to greeting people you know. This isn’t mean, it’s just practical. When I pass someone I often try say Good Shabbos, and others do the same, but it can’t be done all the time.

2. (Out of town) Store personnel are generally friendly to customers and vice versa.

This is a big problem in NY, no question about it, but believe me - if you deal with the sheer number of customers and everyone’s individual attitudes you’d find that the friendly disposition gets tough to maintain. I do look for the stores that I know are more mentchlach (they exist), but I realize that a store in the city deals with more problems – and problem customers - than the out-of-town store dreams of.

3. As Bob mentioned, there are amazingly beautiful examples of goodness in NY as well – I agree that the point being made is valid, and there is more assumed honesty out of the city, but the crime rates in overcrowded (and less well-off) areas do point to a reality that is part of life.
Nevertheless, frum people and frum establishments in NY are commonly providing similarly prime examples of goodness.

The chutzpa and impoliteness of the city can be hard to take, I agree 100%. But when people are so overcrowded everyone needs to stand up for themselves and find a way to get ahead. It’s simple human nature and a survival technique. This definite makes the NY’er rough around the edges, and it fosters a “me first” (me only?) attitude that isn’t pretty, but in a way the sheer honesty of it can be a little refreshing. All the fakery of the insincere out-of-town smile isn’t all that noble either. Here, you often find that you know how people really feel, as the sentiments are not as dressed up.

With all that said, derech eretz kodma leTorah, and R’ Nachman of Bereslov states that melachim should be able to learn etiquette from the behavior of the Jew. We are obligated to be a living example, and it seems that the fummer the community the less that takes place. This is a sad reality, even if understandable, and many reasons for this abound – but this is the bottom line:

In life we are influenced by our environment and out own humanity. In all these areas we must try to improve constantly, but when looking at others we must remember that while they may have weaknesses where we have strengths, so too do they have strengths where we have weaknesses. When we surround ourselves with communities Torah and yiras shomayim it puts us in the ball-park, and there really is no other place to start – the rest is of little relevance…

Thanks Bob (& ASJ) for a thought provoking piece!

At March 8, 2007 at 12:07:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're welcome! (derech eretz at work)

If a lack of crowding makes it easier to acquire and maintain our midos, this gives us some insight into why so many Gedolim/Tzaddikim of the past came from (or even stayed in) shtetlach and farming areas lacking many urban Jewish amenities.

At March 8, 2007 at 7:37:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

לכה דודי נצא השדה.......(שיר השירים ז:יבּ) - דרש רבא מאי דכתיב לכה דודי נצא השדה.....אמרה כּנסת ישראל לפני הקבּ"ה, רבּשּ"ע אל תּדינני כיושבי כּיושּבי כּרכים שיש בּהן גזל ועריות ושבועת שוא ושבועת שקר.....(עירובין כא:)

וראה רשּ"י שם, ד"ה כּרכים.

At March 8, 2007 at 7:56:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, I see that one word was duplicated ( כיושבי ) by mistake, so scratch that.

Also, I will give an explanation for those who have difficulty with the gemara in the original.

The gemara (Rava) comments on a posuk in Shir Hashirim, 'Come my beloved and let's go out to the field.....' that Knesses Yisroel (Klal Yisroel) said to Hashem, don't judge me like the inhabitants of large cities, who have among them gezel, aroyos, shevuas shav and shevuas sheker...

This gemara seems to be saying that there is, at least in certain aspects, a moral advantage of sorts of rural areas over great metropolises.

Does that mean that there is no yeitzer hora in rural areas ? No. The yeitzer hora is represented in the countryside as well.

However, perhaps there is something to what the Amish (להבדיל) say, 'close to the land, close to G-d'.

So even though Bob was talking about midwestern urban areas, nevertheless, compared to NYC, they are like small towns, there are farms nearby, etc., so I think the words of Chazal have some application to this discussion.

Re the Sherlock Holmes quote - it is interesting, but we can differentiate between the different contexts Sherlock and להבדיל, Rava and Shlomo Hamelech, are coming from.

At March 9, 2007 at 8:03:00 AM EST, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Will read and comment later! I am both a midwesterner, former NYer, and fan of Holmes!

At March 9, 2007 at 8:35:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up on Staten Island, where my family had moved before World War 1. My grandfather originally drove a horse-drawn wagon to deliver milk, switching to a horse-drawn sleigh as needed in the winter. In my childhood, the Island remained pretty isolated from the rest of NYC, with the only direct access to Brooklyn being by ferry until 1964. Our relatives in Brooklyn rarely visited, seeming to act as if we were on another planet. We still had some small farms and many empty lots on the Island, and most neighborhoods (as now) were of one-or two-family homes. The culture there then was altogether different from Brooklyn and the rest of the city. Jews were a distinct minority (about 10,000 out of about 200,000), with the vast majority being Italian or Irish. Our sector of West Brighton, sort of a small town in itself, was largely Irish/Italian/Scandinavian with scattered Jews. Once in a while, we non-commuters went into the city (i.e., Manhattan) or Brooklyn or Queens. Commuters took the ferry daily to lower Manhattan.

I started to see much more of the city when I began commuting to Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan (1962-1966). The school then was heavily Jewish. Typically, students there thought of Staten Island as some distant country hick town.

Anyway, the people I ran into in the city, whether students, teachers, people in stores, etc., didn't seem particularly rude then, despite the crowding, bustle, and noise. Something else must have happened since then to coarsen behavior.

At March 9, 2007 at 12:01:00 PM EST, Blogger Neil Harris said...


Best posting quote: "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. "

I found that while the pace of life is faster (due to a greater drive to succeed, get a seat on the subway, and navigate larger crowds of people, individuals in New York are just as nice face to face.

As a kid growing up in Wichita, KS, then spending 2 yrs in E'Y and another 8 in NYC, then almost 8 years in Indianpaolis, I've experienced both sides of the coin (now I've compromised and moved to Chicago).

My thoughts were similar to those by chabakuk elisha, who used one of my favorite quotes from Arthur Conan Doyle. At least I now know one person who might appreciate the two Sherlock Holmes based postings I have planned to put on my blog.

I'm a big fan of Prof. Tannen's writings.

Your points:

1. For sure, out of towners are more into "good Shabbos" than the average NYCer. In smaller communities there is more of a sense of achdus/ "were all stuck in the same boat" mentality. Your current community, IMHO, is very unique in the acceptance of most people who attend the Orthodox shul. Once people enter the shul on Shabbos they are treated equally. I should email you a fantatic article written in the 60's called "THE NON-OBSERVANT ORTHODOX" published in TRADITION.

2. Customer serivce. 10 years ago Starbuck started using midwesterners to be their nationwide customer service trainers. The slower pace of life, more independantly owned stores, and need to retain the consumer all add to a friendlier shopping experience.

3. Great stories. When my wife and I first came to visit Chicago for Shabbos one winter we were amazed by a minhag here to leave a lawn chair in your 'parking space' on the street in front of your home. I'm not sure if an unattened chair would surivive in a larger city.

4. Schools. Our kids school has a motto that is plastered everywhere "Where middos and learning are linked together." I'd like to hope it's true, but kids will be kids and some do things that are not so nice. We have plenty of friends in Teaneck, Passaic, Far Rock, and the 5Towns and their kids all have good middos, too.

Schools and teachers are a factor, but the real avodah takes place at home with the parents.

As you ended your post, Bob,

realizing that we are not perfect is the first step. Being sensitive to others and thinking is key. What difference is there between being rude to another Jew and not thinking about a bracha when you just say it by rote and drink your cup of coffee? Sensitivity is needed in all aspects of life.

At March 9, 2007 at 12:20:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said Neil!

(And I must admit that I come from a long line of ACD fans...)

At March 9, 2007 at 2:19:00 PM EST, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Ah yes, Watson. The Curious Case of the selective Derech Eretz.


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