I am delighted to share this platform today with my good friend, Judy Gruen. I think it’s a great reminder that each of us can choose to add kindness to the world with a simple act.
Recently, I attended a memorial tribute for an elderly friend named Maurice. I had met Maurice and his wife, Mildred, back in the late 1980’s, when my husband, Jeff, and I had joined Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, the “Shul on the Beach.” We had been drawn there by the teachings of Rabbi Daniel Lapin and his wife, Susan, and their dynamic leadership that had begun to revitalize a once-thriving Jewish congregation.
Now, Maurice was a big man with a big personality, brash and bluntly opinionated. A strong baritone, Maurice usually seized the opportunity to begin prayers and hymns with his melodies of choice. His commanding voice and musical selections helped define the spiritual atmosphere of the synagogue for nearly 40 years.
Maurice was a colorful character, yet as people reminisced and eulogized him, it was clear that he had touched people by always remembering synagogue members’ full names, bellowing out his greetings: “Jacob Israel!” Or, “Leah Emunah!” His loud acknowledgement became one of his trademarks, but it didn’t end there.
He also remembered the names of extended family members, and he also remembered what troubles or issues they were dealing with.
As I sat listening to the tributes, I nodded in recognition. Long ago, I told Maurice that my sister was about to undergo her seventh spinal surgery for complications of severe scoliosis. For years afterward, he’d regularly ask me, his brow furrowed with concern, “How’s your sister Sharon doing?”
One speaker said half-jokingly, “I thought Maurice only remembered the names of my parents and siblings. Now that I know he did that for everyone, I’m feeling a little less special.”
The little girl named Leah Emunah is now a young mother in her 20’s. She said, “Even though the synagogue was overflowing with children, Maurice knew all our names. We all understood that in a small congregation, we were each important. Only later did I realize that a big part of this feeling came from Maurice always addressing us by name.”
I decided to honor Maurice’s memory by making a point of greeting people by name. I first tried it at the grocery store. As the cashier rang up my purchases, she glanced at me and asked, “Did you find everything you were looking for today, ma’am?”
I expected the question — it was company protocol to ask. Even on occasions when I hadn’t found quite everything I had looked for, I’d still answer blandly, “Yes, thank you.”
That day, I decided not to answer by rote. I read her name tag and said, “Yes, thank you, Toni.”
She looked back at me for a just a second and visibly brightened. “Glad to hear it!” she answered with a smile.
With only one word, I was able to infuse a predictable and commonplace interaction with a small spark of personal connection. She was not just a cashier ringing up groceries during a long shift. She was a woman named Toni.
Since then, I try to always call sales clerks or service reps by name, both in person and even in online chat sessions. In person, I always am rewarded with a smile, a straightening of the shoulders, an appreciative look. I wish I had thought of doing this on my own, but I was prompted to do it because Maurice had set a gold standard in carrying out this mitzvah, a good deed commanded by God. I had known it was a mitzvah to greet people with a pleasant demeanor. What had I been waiting for?
You never know where a kind greeting can lead. My friend Barry not only chatted with the manager of a local mailbox store, calling her by name, he asked her out on a date. They were married within the year.
In today’s society, too many people feel invisible and lonely. Increasingly, even when we’d like to smile or nod or make small talk with another person in public, we can’t. Too often, they are in the addictive clutch of their phones, an impenetrable barrier. These small losses add up to a much larger fracturing of the social compact.
I discovered through my little experiment, and Maurice proved, that the simple, old-fashioned practice of greeting others with a kind expression and acknowledging their names when we can isn’t such a small thing after all.
Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith” (She Writes Press, 2017). (3 Guesses who the Rabbi in the title is.) Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, Boston Globe, Aish.com, Jewish Journal, and many other media outlets.