Rabbi Bob Alper is both a practicing rabbi and a full-time standup comic, who tours nationwide. Many of our readers are fans of his performances—and his inspiring storytelling in two books: Thanks. I Needed That. and also Life Doesn’t Get Any Better This. For the High Holidays, this year, he sent us this reflection—including a series of brief stories—on a very timely theme at this annual observance.
Thinking of Judging Someone?
By RABBI BOB ALPER
A few years ago an amazing thing happened. I boarded a USAirways plane, and there in the doorway, greeting the passengers, was a flight attendant…wearing a yarmulke.
Naturally, I introduced myself, and we chatted for a while as the rest of the passengers made their way into the plane and down the aisle.
About a half hour later, when the plane had leveled off, the flight attendant started moving through he cabin, holding his basket of potato chips, pretzels, and health bars. “Snack?” he called out as he moved from one side of the aisle to the other. “Snack? How about a snack? Would you like a snack this afternoon?” But when he reached me, he paused for just a split second, and said, “Nosh?”
I enjoy flying. It’s not the ride so much as the people. I work at home, alone, much of the time, and yet I enjoy schmoozing. Flying provides me with an opportunity, most of the time.
And it’s while flying, and while traversing those great melting pots of humanity, airports, that I realize how we constantly judge one another, how we constantly, and, I guess, naturally, draw instant conclusions about the people we see and the people we meet.
It’s amazing how often we’re wrong, how often our natural rush to judgment makes us miss the accomplishments, the beauty, the uniqueness in those around us.
It happens to me all the time. I’m not complaining. I understand what’s going on, and while occasionally I’m a ”victim,” much much more often, I’m a guilty party.
For example, on a plane last week out of Savannah. The flight attendant, a pleasant, cheery woman, rolled her cart down the aisle, eventually stopping next to me. “What would you like to drink this morning?” she asked. And I responded in my traditional way: “I’d like either a tall, low-fat, decaf latte. Or tomato juice.”
She laughed, as did my seatmate. While she poured the juice, she observed to me, “Well, you’re a comedian.” To which I responded, “Actually, I am.”
It was at that point that she gave me a quick, not unpleasant but, nevertheless condescending smile. And she was on to the next row of seats.
I had been judged. An older guy who thinks he’s pretty funny. But I knew, that not for a nano second did she think I was actually a stand-up comic.
On that same flight, seated across the aisle, was a young man, perhaps in his late 20s, scruffy beard, wearing a T-shirt bearing the name of a Cayman Islands bar, short pants and thongs on his feet. He wore mega size headphones, and spent the entire flight nodding his head in rhythm to whatever he was listening to.
I play a silent, private guessing game, and in his case, I decided he must be a fairly lost soul, maybe a full-time follower of a rock band. But after landing, as we passengers all stood uncomfortably close together in the aisle, waiting for the line to begin moving, I saw him reach into the storage bin and grab his backpack. Moments before, I had read the title on the spine of a looseleaf notebook peeking out of the top of the backpack: Savannah Hyatt Hotel. Intensive Seminar on Adolescent Medicine. Boy, was I wrong.
The High Holidays are appropriately referred to as Days of Judgment. Some of us (and I am not one of them) believe in a Divine Judge, who marks our actions minute by minute, and, as we heard in the Unatana Tokef prayer, decrees our destiny for the coming months. “Who shall live, and who shall die, who shall be happy and who shall be sad, who shall be healthy and who shall fall ill…”
But whether or not one believes in a divine judge overlooking our lives, another interpretation of Judgment days that is appropriate for everyone, no matter where their theological beliefs or non-beliefs may lead them, to see these days as a time on which we evaluate ourselves, our actions, our thoughts, our priorities during the previous 12 months.
The way, for example, that we judge others. We do this a lot. We look at other people—our relatives, our friends, our neighbors, and especially strangers. Strangers like the people sitting across the aisle on a plane. And we come to conclusions about their lives, about who they are, about what their value is to us, to humanity.
Most of the time, I’d bet, we’re wrong. And that’s sad.
Because knowing more about people, might just help us to better appreciate them, to love them more. Even the strangers. But we…you and I…we’re so quick to judge, and then dismiss people about whom we know so little.
Let me tell you about three people. One is a close friend, one a woman I met briefly, years ago, and one whose name I don’t even know.
The first delivers cars several times a week. Cars for the auto auction in Bordentown, New Jersey. He brings the autos to their new owners. Usually not too far, maybe a few hours away. Often a luxury car. Fun to drive. He enjoys the work. In essence, the man is a part-time auto jockey.
The second is an elderly woman whose name appeared in a temple bulletin. I receive a bunch of them each month, and while I don’t read them from cover to cover, something about a page from the bulletin of Temple Sinai, Burlington, Vermont, caught my eye. It was a speech given by a Bar Mitzvah boy a few months earlier. The usual report on his Torah portion, his Bar Mitzvah project, the importance of the event for his family. And then the standard words of appreciation: thanks to his teachers and rabbi, his parents and siblings, and finally, he wrote, “Also, I would like to thank my grandfather Arthur and my grandmother Madeline for driving me to and from Hebrew School and Torah lessons and being supportive.”
His grandmother Madeline. She’s a driver too, whose task was to ferry her grandson to Hebrew lessons. Nice.
And finally, there was the man whose name I don’t know. I found his story in the New York Times Metropolitan Diary section. He was described by a bus driver as “an older guy, who just couldn’t seem to master the insertion of his senior transit card into the machine next to the driver.
Three elderly people, basically. A car jockey, a Hebrew school chauffeur, and a fellow who just couldn’t master a pretty routine task.
And now, as Paul Harvey would say, here’s the rest of the story. The rest of all three stories.
The man who delivers cars a few days a week, my very close friend, is a highly accomplished musician, a former music publishing executive who in mid-life was ordained as a minister, served three congregations with distinction, and finally retired last year. Delivering auction house cars is an enjoyable way to pass the time, and the income purchases season tickets for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera.
And about that 74-year-old granny who schlepped her grandson? She has a pretty interesting resume too. Turns out she was a journalist who was elected to the Vermont state legislature. She went on to become lieutenant governor, then governor of Vermont, and later was a member of the Clinton administration, ambassador to Switzerland, and professor at Middlebury College. Madeline Kunin. Not too shabby for a woman who personally takes her grandson for his Bar Mitzvah lessons.
And the third story is perhaps the most fascinating, a potent reminder that our observations of other people, and how what we conclude about them, based on so little knowledge, is so often far, far off base.
A man named Gene Epstein submitted this story to the Metropolitan Diary section of the New York Times:
I boarded the 57th Street crosstown bus at York Avenue and, as usual, inserted my senior citizen transit card incorrectly. The driver very kindly took it out of the fare box slot and reversed it before handing it back to me to reinsert. I sat down wondering why I could not master this simple procedure. True, I didn’t use city buses regularly, but still…
My seat overlooked the bus entrance, where I could observe boarders doing it right the first time without assistance. The large black bar went on the right, the cutoff corner on the upper left. I told the driver (we’d been talking) that I’d just completed the short course on card insertion.
He laughed. “Listen to this,” he said. “I’ve been on this route so long that I’ve gotten to know all the early morning regulars. One of them, an older guy, just couldn’t get the card thing right. I always had to help him; not that I minded, but he took some kidding. So one day after he got on, people were applauding and congratulating him, and I couldn’t figure out why.”
“Because he’d finally put the card in the right way?” I asked.
“Nope. It was just announced the night before that he’d won the Nobel Prize. Someone told me it was for some kind of scientific work at Sloan- Kettering or the Rockefeller Institute. How about that? The Nobel Prize.”
A car jockey, a grandmother driving her 12-year-old to synagogue, an elderly man on a bus.
You never know. You just never know.
Which is why we need to try to treat everybody, friend and stranger alike, with dignity. With respect. As if they were the most accomplished, saintly people in the world. As if they were the most fascinating people in the world.
A few years ago, I was filling my car’s tank at a quiet little gas station. As I pumped, I watched as an irritated man stood on the outside of the bullet proof glass, yelling at the Middle eastern-looking cashier with slow, labored words, repeated over again in a very frustrated tone. Finally, the “conversation” ended, and the angry customer returned to his car. As he passed me, he looked towards the cashier and said, “You’d think those lousy immigrants would learn how to speak right.” I pretended to nod in agreement, and added, mimicking his disgusted tone, “Yeah, and he’s probably bi-lingual, too.”
You never know. You just never know. Everybody has a story. And most people are deserving of our respect, our admiration, if only we could know their biographies.
I think of this whenever I encounter the housekeeper in a hotel pushing her overloaded cart through the hallway, or the toll collector greeting me for a few seconds as I hand him my coins, or the woman who checks my paperwork as I exit the rental car facility. You just never know.
There are lots of superficial ways we judge people. We judge them by the cars they drive, the age they seem to be, by their looks, their hobbies, not to mention the color of their skin or the religion they may profess.
What we can learn, if we think about how we make all these judgments, is that the instant conclusions we reach rarely have to do with the people we’re judging, but tell us volumes about ourselves: our values, our prejudices, our pain, our histories. We can learn a lot about ourselves if only we’ll take time in the stillness of these days of awe to think. And to evaluate. And then to continue to evolve into the kind of people we’d really like ourselves to be.