There's this recurring memory that I just can't seem to let go. I'm at a friend's Bar Mitzvah party in 6th grade. Considering that I, along with the majority of the attendees at the party, went to an Orthodox Jewish school at the time, nearly everyone was dressed modestly according to Halachic standards.
But there was this one girl. She had gone to our school up until 7th grade, when she decided it just wasn't the right place for her. She ventured into what was then the unknown for me and many of my peers: public school. To us, public school was where drug addicts were born and sluts were molded. It was a mystery that none of us felt compelled to pursue.
So I'm walking around the party, conversing with a few of my friends, when I notice that this girl is in attendance. To the unjustified dismay of many, this young girl was wearing short shorts and a sleeveless tank top. One simply does not attend a Bar Mitzvah in clothes that aren't modest. It just wasn't the way of things back then. Though many initially marveled at this "rebel," they quickly tossed aside the disturbance and continued on with the festivities.
But there was this one man. He was a member of the community, but no ordinary member. He was a part of the more religious group of men within Memphis's Orthodox Jewish community. This man was a regular at the school's Beit Midrash, hammering away a page of Talmud every night. This man was very learned, of that I have no contention. However, this man walked the halls of our school - my school - with his head held a bit too high, almost high enough as to insinuate that he was on a level comparable to God's. This man was well known as being a pompous prick, one that felt it necessary to impose his religious will on the "unholy and doomed" members of the community.
This man was a self proclaimed righteous Jew. A proclamation that I now find laughable.
Back to the story. We're all enjoying the night. There's a fondu chocolate fountain and a wide variety of yummy sweets. There's even a picture booth set up where you could accessorize your outfit with hats and beads! It seemed as though nothing could dampen the night.
That's when it happened. That's when I really started to think about what it means to be righteous. That's when I recognized the glaring flaws of the Memphis Orthodox Jewish community as a whole.
This young girl that I mentioned, she was enjoying her night just as well as everyone else. Her friends didn't care what she was wearing, they cared only to cherish the time they were able to spend with her, for her switching schools meant less leisure time together. She's having a fantastic time until the aforementioned man confronts her about her mildly inappropriate outfit. The man belittles the girl, implying that she is nothing more than a lowly whore. The man goes on to instruct the young girl to change out of her blasphemous outfit into something more suitable for a Bar Mitzvah party.
At the time, I didn't really give much thought to what had happened that night. I figured that it was just a man trying to preserve the integrity of what a Bar Mitzvah represents. Looking back at that perception of what took place that night baffles me. Now that I'm older, I've developed an entirely new understanding of what that night's events meant.
This man, this self proclaimed righteous Jew, was really nothing more than your average jackass trying to impose his opinion on those around him.
This man made me realize that just because one is knowledgable when it comes to the Bible, just because one devotes hours upon hours to exploring the depths of Jewish literature, does not make them a righteous person. One has the ability to learn each of the 613 commandments in the Torah, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they will go about practicing these commandments in the appropriate manner.
Someone who is truly righteous has no problem with the life choice of others. Someone who is truly righteous treats others with respect. Someone who is truly righteous is altruistic.
This man was so self absorbed that it wouldn't surprise me if he (I hate to be crass, but it seems necessary in this situation) enjoyed the smell of his own flatulence. This man had the audacity to self proclaim that he was a righteous Jew. This man, a man who belittled a 7th grade girl in public, walks the halls of my school today with his head still held high. This man, a man who embarrassed a young girl in front of nearly 100 people simply because her outfit didn't fit his standards of appropriate, is actually a respected member of my community. It's baffling. It truly is.
My years of observing this man have led me to many truths about the Memphis Jewish community. From the outside looking in, we may seem like a tight knit community that looks out for one another. How that couldn't be further from the truth. The harsh reality is that the Memphis Jewish community is full of people like this man. The community is full of people who judge, berate, belittle, and outcast those who hold mildly different values than the norm.
Judgements riddle the Shabbat table. Children are brought up around constant criticism. Men and women designate time to talk trash about other members of the community, simply because their ideology is slightly different than the social norm.
I used to take it personally when I wasn't allowed over at a classmate's house. I used to cry when I was called a "bad little boy" by parents of the community. I used to think there was legitimate merit to their criticism. Now that I'm older, now that I actually have the capacity for intellectual thought, I've come to realize that all of those who treated me that way were even more doomed to Hell than I am. That's quite funny considering the fact that I don't keep Shabbat, Kosher, Shomer, or any other Judaic mandates.
The mere fact that my last name carried a reputation robbed me of many typical childhood opportunities. The mere fact that I jog down Brantford without a shirt on, or I walk around on Shabbat Kippuh-less sends many community members into a frenzy. To them, I'm Lucifer. To them, my character means nothing. To them, the only thing that matters is the amount of Commandments I know and the hours I spend in the Beit Midrash.
Many members of my community don't consider that, if they got to know me, they would find that I'm actually a very respectable young man with very healthy, commendable ideologies. Many members of the community don't give others the time of day due to the mere fact that their ideologies are a little bit different than what they consider to be right.
Many members of my community don't understand that being righteous isn't about what you know, it's about how you treat others. Being righteous is about having the ability to treat others with a sense of respect, despite whatever differences you may have.
I love this city, but I am damn ready to get away from some of these twisted people.