Writing and speaking in a public forum is exhilarating. That means it is both exciting and terrifying. When my husband or I put something out before a listening or reading audience, we sometimes find ourselves completely off target in how we think it will be received. It is as disconcerting to see stony faces after making a joke as it is to get laughs after saying something serious.
When we publish our Ask the Rabbi column each week, we are occasionally taken aback at the lack of interest in what we thought was a fascinating question or, conversely, immense interest when we didn’t expect it. This week’s question was an example of the latter.
My husband and I work closely together. After he writes a Thought Tool, he sends it to me for comments and editing. After I write a Susan’s Musing, I send it to him for comments and editing. Nonetheless, Thought Tools is his work as the Musings are mine. Our Ask the Rabbi column is the closest thing we come to writing in a 50/50 manner.
Here’s how it usually works. I scan the many questions that come in and choose one for us to answer. I then reflect and write an answer that I shoot over to my husband. He edits what I wrote, adds the product of his own prayer and reflection, and sends it back to me. Sometimes we go back and forth a few times and sometimes we initially discuss the question over dinner. (There is no such thing as a quick bite in the Lapin household.) Eventually, we agree on what to publish.
True confession time. This week, I did something that I don’t remember ever doing before. In addition to a chock-full schedule tidying up after the month of holy days and catching up on things I had missed, I found myself immersed for many hours in an unexpected but urgent project. I had not begun to pick an Ask the Rabbi question and answer and I had used up everything ‘on the shelf’ during the past month. The post was due to go out and the clock was ticking. I reached into the archives and pulled out a question that we had run from a decade ago, written by a woman who was not comfortable shaking hands with men. At that point, even though it was early in the evening, my equally exhausted husband and I turned off for the night.
We awoke to find more comments on this column than we had seen on any Ask the Rabbi column in a long time. Furthermore, the comments came from many different viewpoints, ranging from those who for physical reasons find shaking hands challenging to those who think that not shaking hands with everyone is standoffish verging on insulting and possibly unAmerican.
What a wonderful reminder on a relatively minor issue as to how difficult it is to mix different cultures. A woman visiting an Orthodox Jewish synagogue and throwing her arms around the rabbi after the services will make him highly uncomfortable. In turn, any woman offering a warm and platonic hug would feel hurt by a man recoiling away. Assuming that someone with Asian features should be greeted with a bow rather than with a handshake might insult a third-generation American of Asian background while embracing someone raised in a formal British environment might be seen as a brazen and rude intrusion.
Since we cannot hand out questionnaires to those we meet and with whom we interact, it behooves us all to be aware that the joys of having a diverse group of acquaintances is dependent on assuming best intentions until proven otherwise and to remember that what we assume to be normal and customary may not be so for others. This would be a huge improvement on today’s cultural message that we should find offense in any behavior or thought that is not exactly in line with our own. What a better society we would live in if we all were more sensitive to others but far less easily nettled ourselves.