Costco's wide aisles lend themselves to in-depth conversations when you run into a friend.You don't have to worry about blocking the other shoppers from their oversized cereal packages or clogging up the supersize aisles.Last week I found myself in conversation with a long time friend. We delved into the topic of humiliation.All of a sudden I blurted out humiliation destroys a person's soul.
When we heard Vera and Alla's stories of growing up Jewish in Soviet Russia, we heard one humiliating story after another.Vera tended to cast her stories with humor and distance.She learned about toughness, self-reliance, and the strength she drew from her family and from Alla.Alla's anger when she recounted the stories of bullying at school or the mounds of paperwork required to secure a visa to Israel only to be denied was still palpable.She, too, learned the lessons of toughness, self-reliance, and drawing strength from family and from Vera.But not every Soviet Jew emerged from the insults that emanated from the Kremlin on down to Russian schoolchildren.
In addition to my Costco conversation, I read a series of books and saw two films that prompted me to viscerally remember how it felt to be the one humiliated. More than two decades ago, when my contract was not renewed at a school where I had taught for three years, I was absolutely humiliated. To me "non-renewal" was simply a euphemism for being fired.At first I raged internally thinking about how much I had devoted to the job. I told a few colleagues about my "non-renewal" and they provided me with rational explanations that had nothing to do with my competency.It was comforting but, still, the stench of shame never left me.Something within me was shattered and only slowly rebuilt.
Remembering the tales of our dad battling humiliation ultimately helped me move forward. When our dad was young, his family assumed that he had intellectual limitations.They expected top marks from their other two sons, but not from their middle child.As a result, our dad worked harder to prove himself day after day in school. After school he worked harder than his brothers to earn money.His worst nightmare was Cheder because language learning was impossibly difficult for him. When the rabbi insulted him and called him "stupid," his younger brother tossed a hefty book at the rabbi and then the brothers ran.Not until his enlistment in the Army did our dad learn he was hearing impaired. If anyone ever lobbed the word "stupid" at our dad later in his life, all of the successes he had achieved were no defense against the resurgence of that horrible childhood humiliation. There's always a scar once the healing begins.
Dad was a generous man.He was proudest of creating a scholarship fund for new immigrants so they could pursue a higher education.He asked that they pay back the interest free loan once they were earning a living so that the fund could continue to help others.The H.E.L.P. Fund helped move new immigrants out of dependence and into competency and into a position where they, too, were givers rather than recipients.
Not all who experience humiliation rebound as well as Vera, Alla, or our dad.
As a group and as individuals Jews have experienced humiliation simply because of our identity. Our history is replete with regulations to separate, differentiate, and lower our collective status. And, sadly there are too many times when humiliation was the precursor of violence and murder.It is no wonder that when the State of Israel was founded security, self-reliance, and memory of the past were uppermost in the founders' minds.There focus was on hope, rebuilding, and regeneration.
The current zeitgeist in education focuses on preventing bullying. While it's a noble goal, it's difficult to implement in the schools when civil discourse in the political arena has degenerated into insults and comments designed to humiliate.Who would want to stand for political election in a climate like that?I don't believe one emerges unscathed, but the hope would be that experiencing bullying and insults would lead a person to empathy rather than to building a wall or reprisal attacks.
If we adopt a Jewish approach to humiliation, we would pray for it not to happen ("let us never be brought to shame" --Ahava Rabbah), we would try and make ourselves impervious to humiliation ("Therefore I have set my face like flint andI know I shall not be shamed" -- Isaiah 51:7). And should we experience humiliation rather than reacting in anger, we would turn to help those whose encounter humiliation on an everyday basis as they seek shelter or food. In Biblical times the three groups mentioned as deserving of special consideration included strangers, widow, and orphans. (Exodus 22:20-21)
Today, we need not look too far afield for those who feel alien, alone, and without sustenance.Perhaps, like our dad did, we should also be concerned with how we give and how we help others keeping in mind the value of treating all with dignity and ensuring that our institutions –secular and religious- uphold the same value.