Monday, July 9, 2012

Birthday Blessings and Baseless Hatred

A Blessing On Your Head
When I joined Facebook, I noticed that many of my Orthodox Jewish friends dispensed blessings to their Jewish friends on their birthdays. Not being orthodox from birth, I like to try out new customs for myself and see how they feel. In this case, I liked the idea that I had a special superpower on my birthday.

It reminded me of being a new bride. According to Jewish custom you see, a bride is granted whatever she prays for on her wedding day. Except that in this case, it seems, I had the power on a single day each year. I’d just never been aware of that power.

I didn’t look into why people were giving out blessings on their birthdays. It may be a Chassidishe custom and I am a Litvak. But it seemed like a nice enough custom to adopt; one that would result in no harm to anyone and might even be beneficial. Who can’t use a brocha—a blessing? Besides, the sudden assumption of power seemed a heady thing that I wasn’t about to forego.

And so it was that I made my decision. This year, when Facebook informed everyone it was the day of my birth, I would answer each and every birthday greeting I received with a blessing. Not only would I give out blessings, but I would do so in the same way my mother taught me to write thank-you notes: each and every blessing would be particular to that person.

No rote blessings would be allowed. There would be thought and intent behind my blessings. My blessings would be caring and specific. I didn’t want my power wasted on emptiness. I wanted that power imbued with and applied with meaning.

My friends seemed genuinely pleased with my largesse and in many cases, commented on how apt my blessings were—how much they desired those very blessings. But toward the end of the day, I received a birthday greeting from a fellow blogger and writer who wrote only half in jest, “Happy birthday. Are we still friends?”

Interesting, considering how many times I’d thought of unfriending this particular woman. My hand had even once hovered over that, “remove from friends button,” on the precipice, so to speak. But each time, I had refrained from completing the action.

The issue in question was this woman’s adamant dislike of Haredim, or black-hat Jews as we called them back in the alte heim (old country), expressed over and over again on her own blogs, in talkbacks, and in other people’s blogs. She had an utter hatred, it seemed, of my co-religionists, and could not be reasoned with on the subject. Though I tried. Repeatedly.

But every time I thought of unfriending her, I thought that if I just continued to be a shining example of the breed, I would ultimately persuade her and make her see another side of the story. It was a long shot. But it seemed to me that it was in both our interests for me to continue to try and cajole her into seeing a different, good side of Haredim.

So when she greeted me on my birthday, I thought of it as an opportunity to drive home the point. My blessing to her was, “May you come to see the good in all your fellow Jews and shun baseless hatred. May you learn to strive for the unity of our people and develop a true love of Israel.”

Yes. I’ll admit. It was a dig. She knew where I was coming from with that. But then again, she’d opened the topic by asking if we were still friends. She knew exactly what was between us and what it was that needed to be resolved.

As far as I am concerned, what needed to be resolved was a willingness to include me and other Haredim as part of her people and not single out specific negative actions perpetrated by a few rank individuals as justifying her mental exclusion of us from “her” nation.

Hatred: like an arrow (or several) to the heart
Consider this: a month ago, my grandchildren, who look quite obviously Haredi, came to visit me in my town, which is overwhelmingly of a National Religious character. My 13 year-old son took them to the park and immediately, the resident children at play, began to shout epithets at my grandchildren, “Stinky dirty Haredim,” they cried. “Go play in your own parks.”

Now, where did they learn that? You know the answer to that as well as I do. They learned this bias and hatred from their parents.

Starfish are People Too
It was a horrible, even traumatic experience for my grandchildren who immediately left the park and returned to my home to spend the rest of their visit indoors and safe from the hatred extended toward them during what should have been a pleasant visit to Grandma.

Going back a few months further, my husband and I attended the wedding of a friend and at our table, the guests vied to best each other’s jokes which focused on denigrating Haredim. They must have thought my husband and I were of them and not Haredim, though I wore my sheitl and was otherwise dressed according to Haredi shita (fashion).

My husband and I sat through it all, not saying a word, waiting it out, not wanting to create any kind of dissension at our friend’s daughter’s wedding. When I returned home, my whole body ached from the tension of holding back a response, of deflecting the hatred in each word and glance and trying to defend from any sort of penetration. Like the meltdown of adrenaline after an incident. Like the aftermath of fending off a rape.

I thought of all this as I typed and sent my blessing to my Facebook friend. Can you guess what happened next?

Of course you can. She unfriended me. She took offense at my blessing. She took offense at the obviousness of the lesson I was trying to impart: at the inference that she was at fault for her hatred rather than I for the sins of a few people who wear similar clothing to my own and adhere to the rulings of some of the same rabbis.

I shook my head in despair when I realized that this woman had finally found me annoying enough to unfriend me, rather than work toward resolving the issues between us.

This is the three-week period during which Jews mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples due to baseless hatred. I hope that at least, from time to time, during the next 20 days or so, my unfriended friend will think about my blessing and let it sink in, as it was meant to be, as a blessing on both of us, for all of us, for our people.