Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The Wise Men of Chelm and my red face

The Wise Man from Chelm

I used to work for a company, where a non-Jewish Polish immigrant was a senior manager (of a different department than mine.) Once, when we were both early for a meeting, we started chatting. I asked him where in Poland his family came from.

He answered, "Chelm."

I blinked, searching his face for any hint of a joke. He wasn't joking. He was a brilliant, kind, and insightful man, and a great manager. He had no idea that his hometown was a joke. I certainly didn't enlighten him.

Since then, I've felt guilty about Chelm stories. Before meeting Joe, I never knew it was a real place. I thought it was a made-up name - the "Plony Almony"* of home towns.

"Jewing Them down"

We lived in North Carolina for six years. The Jewish population of the whole state then was about 13 thousand (out of about 8 million). At work, and in town, I was sometimes the first Jew, and often the first practicing Jew that people met.

Our Hadassah Chapter's major source of funds was our annual Gift Wrap fundraiser. From the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve, we ran a full-time gift wrapping booth, enjoying watching the "holiday frenzy" of the season from our smug oasis of calm in the middle of the local shopping mall. Frantic shoppers appreciated the service we provided. We appreciated the support of the profits for hospitals and schools of Hadassah.

Hadassah had little name recognition among the non-Jews of North Carolina, so we made a big sign that said, "Hadassah Gift Wrap for Charity - supporting medical and educational institutions - domestic and international" just above our price list.

Every so often, a customer would be surprised that the gift wrap wasn't FREE to them. I'd explain that the wrap was being sold to benefit a charity, not to provide gift wrap to others as the charity.

I still marvel at the idea that anyone would consider that someone would donate time and materials to make sure that no gift need be exchanged bereft of glossy paper and a shiny bow. Would that the world was such a bountiful place that that was all I could think to do to improve it.

We had official Hadassah brochures scattered here and there on the wrapping table, but most shoppers were preoccupied with their gift lists. Few cared who we were or what charity we supported. They wanted their gifts wrapped well, quickly, and inexpensively.

Once, a boisterous group of men swarmed our gift wrapping tables. With the camaraderie of a hunting party, they celebrated the capture of the bountiful quarry that strained so many shopping bags. We had six volunteers wrapping gifts, and the cheerful group kept all of us busy. Two of the men were wearing Santa-like hats, the kind with a little white pom-pom at the tail of a red velour triangle.

They called to their buddies across our tables, teasing each other about how much money was spent on the gifts. The wrapping volunteers and the gift-hunters shared friendly banter. We admonished them to make sure they spent enough on their wives. It felt like a party.

When we finished wrapping the presents, and were collecting the money, they called to one another, comparing the amounts we charged them.

When one man revealed his (significant) gift-wrap bill, his friend, who was my customer, called from across the table, "What?!! Couldn't you Jew them down a even a little?"

On our side of the table, the party died on the spot.

We six Hadassah ladies, shot hurt looks at one another. We continued to pack their gifts and collect their fees, wordless with shock. The men continued joking with one another.

When my customer turned back to me smiling, oblivious to the reaction his comments caused, I couldn't stay silent.

"What did you just ask your friend?" I asked quietly.

"I just asked if he could Jew down your price a bit, after all, it's the holidays..." He smiled.

Puzzled by the incongruity of his demeanor and the slur, I just looked at him.

"I was just asking..." He shrugged. He must have thought I was annoyed that he'd ask for a 'quantity discount'. He had no idea of the effect of his words.
"What was the term you used?"

"’Jewing down’?"

"Yes. That term. What does it mean?"

"It means, fight for a bargain. Fight hard to get the best price," he explained.

I asked him, "How do you think a Jewish person might feel hearing this term?"


This was a nice man, out shopping with friends in celebration of his holiday. Exuding generosity and good will, he meant no harm. We talked a bit. He wasn't a bigot. He had heard this term his whole life, and had never considered it. It was just a word. When brought to his attention, it disturbed him that such a racist term worked its way into his vocabulary without his awareness.

It wasn't until after we had this discussion that I mentioned I was Jewish. (We were in the galut of the galut! That big 'Hadassah' sign gave no hint.) He looked mortified. He had no idea I was Jewish; I had no idea anyone couldn't just tell!

I laughed and said, "You meant nothing by it. Just please find a synonym!"

We were able to smile and wish each other a happy holiday. He really was a good man.

Blushing because I meant no harm

It is easy to offend unintentionally. Comments made with a pure heart can still insult.

Having made major gaffes, I try to stay attuned to potential misunderstandings that result from what I say. Remembering my own misspoken moments helps me assume the best when another person misspeaks. I know in my heart that I meant no harm. Maybe the speaker is as ignorant as I was (am).

This is a season of the Jewish calendar where we focus on eradicating baseless hatred and attempt to develop an awareness of the effect of our words. May we all speak with care, and listen with flexibility and forgiveness.

* "Plony Almony" is a Jewish version of "John Q. Public" or "Joe Shmoe" (I hope nobody is suffering with any of those as their real names!)

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Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, thanks for sharing it. Keep up the good work you have a wonderful blog.

Fern @ Life on the Balcony said...

How weird. I was *just* talking about the exact same offensive phrase on a message board. I couldn't believe that there were people who didn't realize it was an offensive term. But apparently there are parts of the U.S. where there are so few Jews that no one even connected the phrase to the people. Quite a few people said they thought the phrase was "Chew 'em down" or "Jaw him down."

Juggling Frogs said...

It's a tricky balance.

Something can be offensive without intent. But, if there was no intent, it's not an insult, just ignorance.

An intended insult requires a defense. But, a prophylactic defense can make one more likely to find insults where none was intended,. This can result in a lost opportunity to educate/explain/communicate, which leads to less understanding.

Less understanding yields a higher likelihood of more insults.

Yet, we can't allow certain statements to lie uncontested.

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