Friday, May 10, 1996

Civil War (Jewish Week)

 Civil War 

by Joshua Hammerman
Appeared in 
Jewish Week, 5/96

What has become of civility?

We see its demise in Washington, where angry ideologues have driven the moderates underground, and on talk shows, where hard-earned reputations are routinely demolished; from Giants Stadium, where catcalls led to ice-balls, to our own offices, schools and homes.

So I decided to launch a counter-attack -- by being extraordinarily nice for a single day.

My inspiration came from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who originated the idea of a day when all Americans would refrain from hurtful speech, and Senators Lieberman and Mack, who last August introduced a resolution designating this May 14 as the first "National Speak No Evil Day." The resolution is still well shy of the 50 co-sponsors needed to propel it out of the Judiciary Committee. Evidently, a number of senators feel this idea is too hokey to fly. I wanted to prove them wrong.

I elected to go cold-turkey on destructive language for 24 hours. These were my ground rules: 1) No cursing or screaming; 2) No negative statements about any third party not present; 3) Utter courtesy in all interactions; and 4) I would not tell anyone about this little experiment.

I began at five o'clock on a Monday afternoon.

5:30: My mother calls, with oodles of advice about relatives, the kids, work, health. By 5:45, she's broken me and I revert to my usual role as the annoyed son and willing gossip partner. On both counts, I've blown it. I decide to call off my quest until midnight.

1:10 a.m.: Mara, my wife, plops two-year old Daniel next to me in bed, jarring me from dreams of making the world better for nice people. "I'm sorry I didn't hear his screaming," I mutter, "I'll listen better next time." Perfect. I manage to suppress my knee-jerk response ("Listen, if the kid's bawling, why should we both have to suffer?"), and diffuse a potential chain reaction of verbal violence. I'm getting the hang of this.

5:05 a.m.: Four-year old Ethan plows into the bed, screaming, "Daniel is in my spot!" Again, I subdue the anger impulse, suggesting calmly that all Hammerman children return to their own beds. "Then carry me," my 49 pound eldest demands, always able to sense weakness in his parental prey. I do, with a forced smile, like a senator making nice to a wealthy lobbyist.

7:30 a.m.: I tip-toe out the door, leaving the domestic part of Speak No Evil Day successfully behind me.

As a rabbi, I represent a tradition that recognizes evil speech as an addiction and equates it with physical assault. But I'm human too, and since I spend most of my day communicating, the potential for verbal lapse is ever-present. On this day, I need to avoid all temptation. Driving to my rounds at the hospital, I switch from Imus and Stern to classical music. I miss the dirt. I need coffee.

9:25: An elderly patient whispers to me that the hospital is filled with anti-Semites conspiring to steal her flowers. I hold her hand, calmly, saying, "The people here are very nice." The word "nice" is beginning to get to me. As I leave the hospital, I smile at everyone, including an orderly sweeping the floor. He seems agitated. I'm stepping on his mop.

11:30: Back at the office, a phone call from a man moving to the 'burbs from Manhattan. I try to talk up Stamford without saying anything derogatory about the noisy, filthy, crime-infested city he inhabits (just kidding, Big Apple-ites; I love New York). It's not easy. I'm famished.

12:14 p.m.: As I return from a quick bite of anything-sweet-I-can-find, my secretary tells me that she didn't know I would be back so soon, so my 12:15 appointment, a potential new congregant, has left.

"You sent her home?!"

It's not quite a shout but I know instantly that I've gone beyond my strict boundaries. I apologize profusely. It turns out the appointment is waiting for me in the library. She badmouths another local congregation. I go out of my way to defend it. The conversation fizzles after that.

With each encounter that follows, I walk on verbal eggshells. I meet with a divorced couple, planning their child's Bar Mitzvah. Thankfully both are there, so neither can talk about the other. A close friend calls, a primary source for community gossip. I'm afraid to ask a simple "How is everything," for fear of what could follow. I have a deep thirst for some juicy stuff and sense an unnatural distance between us. What can I say to convey warmth without it being at the expense of innocent others? The call ends, abruptly. A congregant stops by to discuss a program she is working on, and states flatly of a co-worker, "Doesn't she drive you crazy?" Either a no or a yes makes me an accomplice to defamation. I pretend not to hear. Another rabbi calls, asking me for an evaluation of a teacher applying for a job in his synagogue. I've only good things to say, but every word feels like a dagger, every sentence a thrust. Through the day, I manage to deflect deprecatory comments about everyone from the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Yasser Arafat.

3:30: I am courteous to a phone solicitor offering "Rabie" Hammerman a Visa Gold card.

3:40: I stand before 75 restless Hebrew School students, wishing to dock them from life eternal if they don't shut up. I've a splitting headache. I'm ready to give myself over to a higher power.

Exhausted, I go home, flick on the tube and hear Dole attacking Forbes. I turn it off; in local news, Ethan reports that Daniel was pinching and kicking at gymnastics class. From day one, we are programmed to blame and defame.

The morning after: I am humbled by my noble failure and far less inclined to blame talk show hosts and Washingtonians for this national addiction. With or without a Senate resolution, I will have to shake it alone, step by step, word by word. On May 14, I'll try again.