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Sorry

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You are walking down a crowded New York street minding your own business, careful to avoid bumping into anyone else. And an oncoming body smashes into you. He or she will ignore you or perhaps say “sorry” and you might say “sorry” back. Why? The offender doesn’t care. Otherwise he or she would have been more careful. And why are you sorry if they bumped into you?  It wasn’t your fault. “Sorry “is just a meaningless exclamation that conveys no truth on either side. Yes of course there are exceptions. But I can’t recall when that happened to me. 

If I accidentally bumped into someone, I hope I would stop and check that he or she were all right, instead of just mumbling sorry and proceeding on my way. I might say “sorry.” But I would mean it. A variation is when the same events occur but this time it is “excuse me” instead of “sorry.” As if that makes any difference. And if I said “No I do not excuse you” would that make any difference either? “Excuse me” is American for “Get out of my way! I am coming through.” Just as “How ya doin?” or “Have a nice day” really mean “I know I am supposed to say this, but honestly, I really don’t care.”

You might say that this is just the etiquette, the formality that is supposed to oil the wheels of interhuman contact. And that’s true and I guess I applaud it. But there comes a moment when such conventions need to be re-examined for their usefulness or sheer stupidity.

I was brought up at a time and in a place where etiquette mattered, and I still think it should. It was regarded as very important to know how to behave. To say “please” and “thank you.” “I beg your pardon” if your body did something it should not have (or at least not in public). One did not raise one’s voice. Polite people did not shout. Or act in a wild aggressive way. One raised one’s hat to ladies and opened car doors for them and walked on their outside.

Then at the tender age of sixteen I was catapulted into Israel. I arrived at Haifa port to find myself pushed, shoved and insulted. I was told not be so British. The Brits at that stage were still hated for the way they exercised their Mandate. They had tried their best to stop Jewish survivors of Hitler coming to Israel. They were seen as supporting the enemies of the Jews. Being polite was associated with outwardly civilized polite but scheming British colonialists. Who played one side off the other with complete duplicity. Smiling but plotting your downfall. Hypocrites, even if they were polite hypocrites.

In contrast the Sabra (in theory) might have been prickly on the outside with none of the smooth politeness or polish of the British. But at least he claimed he was honest, saying things he believed, being straight and not devious. “Dugri” was the word. Say it as it is, as you feel. To hell with politesse. And of course, the Sabra was really very sweet and caring inside! Or so they claimed. This was the new unapologetic Israeli Jew. And everything I did rubbed them up the wrong way. Particularly if they asked me what I thought of Israel and I dared express any reservation whatsoever. 

Who ever heard of lining up, of not pushing and shoving to get on a bus in this young, egalitarian, pioneering socialist utopia? Young muscular, tanned men in shorts and simple leather sandals, short sleeved shirts and Kova Tembels(an Israeli version of beanies) strutted their way even in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv. And the healthy, buxom tanned, liberated wenches swanned around as if the only thing necessary for happiness was to dance the hora. All of them looked down on a wimpy Englishman who said, “excuse me” and would not push. And it wasn’t just the Secular Zionist pioneers who despised the Diaspora Jews with their pathetic apologetic good-mannered affectations. The ultra-Orthodox world is not known for its polite manners either.

My first introduction to a Hassidic Rebbe’s Friday Night Tischwas in Jerusalem. I had been packed off to a Yeshivah in Bayit Vegan, a suburb of Jerusalem. There were two other English students there and they decided to induct me into the mysteries of Hassidism. Late one Friday night we walked the five miles or so down into the Machaneh Yehudah home of the Gerrer Rebbe. The hall was teeming with men, tall and portly short and squat with large black fur hats proudly strutting around the communal hall waiting for their Rebbe to arrive.  At midnight the door opened and in came the Rebbe. A small person with a phalanx of body guards all dressed in the same uniform, walked in majestically. He looked around. Wherever he turned his gaze the mass of black bodies struggled to get out of his line of vision like waves of plankton escaping the whales. He eventually retired behind a wooden crash barrier and sat down at the top table flanked by his senior followers. He proceeded to dispense shirayimwine, bread and fish via his major domo to the faithful. The Hassidim rushed the barrier to get as close as possible to hear his holy words.

I was shocked. To see hundreds of grown men hurl themselves at and over each other to get closer to their saintly Rebbe. I stood back in a mixture of awe and revulsion. One of my friends who had taken me there, was David Lincoln who later became a well-known Conservative Rabbi in New York. He was a six-foot-tall rugged rugger playing Englishman who was familiar with the local scene. He turned to me and said “Don’t just stand there looking stupid. Follow me.” And off he hurled himself like missile into the fray, burrowing, fighting and clawing his way to the front, with me in his slipstream. I reached the barrier. I got to see the great man. To hear his brief but very holy words. Heard some lively, marching songs and then soaked with perspiration, suffocating under the weight and smells of sweaty bodies, I pulled myself out and escaped into the warm but clear Jerusalem night air. So much for good manners. And I warn you. If you ever go to Ger on a Friday night, and get shoved around, saying “Sorry” will definitely not help.

I don’t like hypocrisy and two-faced slimy obsequiousness. I don’t like being rude and aggressive and thinking it is being honest. But neither can I bear this false convention of saying “sorry” all the time. In our tradition if we have done something wrong, we really should apologize, ask for forgiveness and determine not to do it again. Nowadays Israelis might say Mitztaerto mean sorry. But the more common and biblical word is Slicha. Which really means to forgive. But if you don’t mean it don’t say it.

And while I am complaining, I just can’t get used to the American habit of calling everyone “Sir.” Even as they snarl and are about to slap you in handcuffs for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In my days in Great Britain (as they once liked to call it) you only called someone “Sir” if he was a Knight of the Realm, a Baronet. Otherwise it was plain Mister. And his wife was a Milady. Now everyone is a Sir. And most ladies are not ladies. And why are lawyers called Esquires when they have nothing to do with ancient squires serving their lords or carrying their arms?

Are you still with me? Offended? Sorry.

5 thoughts on “Sorry

  1. Jeremy –

    Re: Hypocritically polite versus brusque and unmannered. I’ve gone from pillar to post on this one thrice in my life, mostly because of changing (“evolving”?) personal, geographic, and professional situations, and have decided that with so many different deadly societal fires burning, I’ll stick with the Sabra approach. It suits my Brooklyn origins, and it’s easy on the mental to do list.

    Re: “Sir”. Well . . .given our almost universally shallow personalities and fragile self-esteem in the USA most people don’t feel “validated” being called simply “mister” by anyone except seven year old Dennis the Menace; and in return most people don’t feel honest or comfortable calling 99% of men they meet “Sir” whom they’d like instead to call an expletive deleted.

    But here in the states we’d become quite inventive, especially since WWII, in trying to thread the needle. Ergo “Bud” “Buddy”, “Chief”, “Mack”, “Pops”, later on in the century “Man” (usually preceded by “Hey”), also just plain “Hey”, a unisex “Baby” (don’t even get me started), later still “Yo”, “Bro” and of course the distant and condescending professional or authority figure attempting to install ersatz trust with: “my friend”.

    I imagine you have a list of similar terms from the streets of London and Edinburgh. Too, we will shortly be forced to add “Zee” and “Hir”. (Again, don’t get me started.)

    Personally, I bristle much more at the intrusiveness and the implied, self-arrogated, unwarranted and faux, intimacy of Buddy, Bro, Babe, and Friend much more so than I feel any lack of honor and respect by being called Mister instead of Sir. Chief and Mack are middle of the road for me, and I can take them just fine. If I’m crossing blind into traffic, even “Yo!” or “Hey” would be welcome. Just don’t call me late for dinner.

    (Parenthetically, my wife is wont to say that when she gets called “Honey” “Dear(ie)” or “Sweetie” by some snotty Gen Z upstart one-third her age at a coffee place, she has to fight the urge to go Medieval on her. And I promise she is usually the peacemaker par excellence in this happy couple.)

    Michael

  2. Oh Jeremy, what an interesting article. Or maybe should I call you “Rabbi”? Or maybe even “Rabbi Rosen”? Probably never “mate”, certainly never “Mac”. “Chief” was in widespread use in the Birmingham of my youth, and “cock” was a particularly London greeting. Thanks for the remeniscence trigger.

    I think that all these forms of address are really about social gradations and markers. Traditionally (when you and I were in short trousers, at least for the first times – not counting recent Florida vacations !) the words you used to address people were indicators of societal status. You’d call your (male) teacher “sir”, and possibly the same in the fifties for your boss at work. The formal “Mr” so-and-so or “Miss” such-and-such was much more in vogue, and indicated a little more equality with the person being adressed. And so on. Nowadays, however, with the awful North American tendency of addressing everyone by their first name, there’s no indicator of status or societal standing, and that, it seems to me, is a retrograde step.

    I remember the time when it became relevant to me. When I moved in with my then-girlfriend (horror of horrors, avert your gaze!) we had the issue of what her then four-year old son was going to call me. There was no way I was going to allow him, a four-year-old, to call 35-year-old me “Nigel”, because I was looking to take on the role of a parent, and first-name terms would indicate an equality which I certainly didn’t feel appropriate. And there was equally no way that his father, whom my wife had divorced for very good reasons, would allow him to call me “Dad”. We had to find a form of address that suited the parental relationship; eventually, since he was in French immersion school, we settled on “Papa”, which worked quite well for us. Again, the form of address comes down to the way in which you show the relationship between the two parties.

    Finally, my pet “don’t get me started” peeve. It’s the horrible response when one says “thank you” – the common response of “no problem” drives me up the wall. I want to hear “You’re welcome” or something similar. “No problem” is short for “I didn’t have a problem doing that service for you (for which you were saying thank you)”. Well, quite honestly, I really don’t give a flying anything whether you had a problem or not. In fact, if you did have to go out of your way to perform the service for me, for which I was thanking you, it would be more meaningful, and would mean that I was putting you out, so my “thank you” was sincerely meant. “No problem” is very self-centred, and I really hate it.

    So, thank you for a very thought-provoking article. But don’t dare respond “No problem” !!

    Shabbat shalom,

    Nigel

    PS: David was on CBC radio this week. Always good to hear him.

  3. I remember my late, beloved father telling me that he was walking in Stamford Hill one evening, on his way home from work, when he thought his last moment had come, as an arm stretched out from behind a hedge, grabbed him by the neck and yanked him through a gate. It was a Hassid, who schlepped him in to make a minyan. He said it took hours for him to get over the shock.
    You couldn’t offend me if you tried because you were brought up, as was I, to respect people and have good manners and discipline. Shabbat Shalom, Jeremy.

  4. I’ve though about it and I honestly think that when I say, ‘sorry’, even if it’s a hurried sorry for bumping into someone while passing, I really do mean it. I mean that I’m sorry I bumped into them even if it didn’t hurt them at all and they’d forget about it in less than a minute. If I do actually hurt someone – not seriously but by e.g. accidently stepping on their toes, I am beside myself with sorries. “Oh sorry sorry sorry.” Some of this rubs off when you live in Israel, as I have for over 30 years. I was amazed to find shoppers in Sainsbury’s, in England, saying sorry if their shopping trolley came too near to mine (not even touching, just near). So whilst ‘sorry’ doesn’t mean that I’m devastated, I think it does mean that I care enough to acknowledge that I invaded your personal space.

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