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An Un-Scientific Survey

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman

Are Jerusalemites unfriendly? Not necessarily

Wednesday, February 13, 2019


re Jerusalemites in general aloof and unfriendly, particularly the Orthodox? Some think so, fairly or unfairly. There even exists a joke about this alleged aloofness: Thank G-d for the monthly Kiddush Levanah ceremony. It forces Jerusalemites to say shalom aleichem to a stranger at least once a month. (For those unfamiliar with this rite: During the prayers sanctifying the new moon — Kiddush Levanah — there is a requirement to say “shalom aleichem” to three participants.)

Is there any truth to this joke? Jerusalemites are, after all, very charitable, kind, and hospitable, and go out of their way to do tzedakah and chesed. But it does seem that the words “shalom aleichem,” when addressed to strangers, are apparently not in their lexicon.

In order to settle the question in my mind, I tried an experiment. For one full day I would say hello to every stranger on the street, and then tabulate the reactions. Granted, this would not be a scientific sampling — but remember that the scientific samplings of the professional pollsters once informed us that a certain Hillary would definitely become president… Below, released exclusively to Mishpacha readers, are the details of my experiment:

5:45 a.m.: Leaving for the morning minyan. In the lobby of our building, a man is delivering circulars. I say a cheerful boker tov. He seems startled, mumbles something inaudible, and rushes off. It will take a while before he gets over his shock.

7: 15–7:45: I come across four strangers on the street, and greet each one with a friendly boker tov. One is taken by surprise, but recovers enough to smile and reply boker metzuyan. The second makes eye contact but only grunts. The third ignores me completely. The fourth mutters something that might have been boker tov. I am beginning to feel a bit silly.

7:55: I say boker tov to the garbage man on the back of his truck. He smiles broadly, waves his arm, and shouts out a lusty boker metzuyan. Translation: I am rewarded for being the only one this week who greeted him.

(12 noon: My wife gives me lunch. I say hello to her; she says hello to me.)

2:30 p.m.: In the post office, the clerk is shuffling papers on his counter. I am standing in front of him; he does not look up at me. “Shalom aleichem,” I say with a smile. No response. He continues shuffling, still does not look up. Recklessly, I add “Mah shlomcha?” (How are you?) He looks up finally, mutters what I think was a baruch Hashem, then adds impatiently, “Nu?” Translation: Enough with the small talk. What do you want?

4 p.m.: On the way to Minchah, I say shalom aleichem to a stranger. He stares at me quizzically. I think he nods his head and then hurries off. Translation: These Americans, they aren’t normal.

Score: Out of eight encounters, two answered civilly, three ignored me or mumbled something inaudible, one barely nodded his head, and one was downright rude. In other words, 75 percent did not respond civilly to my overtures. Note that in each of the cases, I, and not the others, initiated the greeting.

But wait: Does this suggest that Jerusalemites are unfriendly? Not necessarily. Not saying hello may simply be a function of one’s culture. In the southern US, for example, one says hello to everyone encountered, or, at the very least, one nods. That is the accepted norm of human interaction: You acknowledge the existence of the other, especially face-to-face. Not to do so is considered discourteous. But in London or Paris and certainly in Zurich, the reverse is true. Greeting everyone is a sign of boorishness, and might be considered too forward, intrusive, overly familiar.

It is clear that although Israelis come from a variety of cultures —from America to Yemen to Russia to North Africa to Iraq to Ethiopia to Australia — the more aloof culture of Europe has somehow become dominant. Why this is so is anybody’s guess. Certainly, it does not stem from an innate Israeli reticence or shyness. Possibly it is because of Europe’s geographical proximity. More likely is that the human density of Israel is a factor — private space is at a premium, and a sudden hello is an unwelcome intrusion on one’s personal space.

One question, however, still intrigues me: The Jerusalem Orthodox are seriously religious, granted. How, then, do they deal with the basic instruction in mishnah Avos 4:20: “Hevei makdim bishlom kol adam — Initiate greetings to everyone,” an instruction that is buttressed by the Talmud in Berachos 17a?

This puzzle I will leave to my readers, because right now the new moon is out, and the Kiddush Levanah prayer beckons. Who knows — if I take part in it, maybe some stranger will say shalom aleichem to me.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 748)


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