One of the questions that rankles me most is “Do you know who I am?” I’ve heard it enough in my career. The website Subzin, that gathers and shares famous movie quotes, claims that the expression “Do you know who I am?” has appeared 1,093 times in 1,016 movies, most popularly — and not surprisingly — in “The Godfather.” It’s the kind of line that people with big egos or large machine guns and cannolis like to throw around to instill fear or awe in others. This arrogance reminds me of a bumper sticker I recently saw: There is only one God. Quit applying for his job.
“Do you know who I am?” suggests self-preening, a public sort of dismissal. It usually belies deep insecurity and a strong need for approval. Variations on the theme:
“Do you remember my name?”
“Look me up on Google.”
“I am known in certain circles.”
“Do you know who my friends are?”
“Let me tell you who my friends are.”
Ouch. Throw into the mix people who introduce themselves by virtue of a title in a place where titles are not necessary, and you’ve got enough ego for a rocket lift-off. A doctor needs to be a doctor around patients but not at a shul picnic (unless someone chokes on fried chicken). A professor needs to be a professor in a classroom, and a rabbi needs to be a rabbi when officiating at a wedding but neither needs a title on vacation. Our simple humanity — our given names — should be good enough. One of the things I love most about attending synagogue is that people are all there as worshippers. No other job description is necessary. Leave you resume at the door.
Many of us see hundreds of people in the course of a busy week, most are strangers. Invariably some of them will ask if you remember them. Learning is usually localized so if you take someone out of the context in which names were first shared, chances are that you will not remember the name of a student, a congregant, a donor, a former colleague or a person you met at a party ten years ago.
Ask an exercise instructor, speech pathologist or teacher how he or she feels when this happens. “Do you know who I am?” Hmmmmm. If I remember your face but not your name, I will feel terrible. If I remember neither, I will feel ashamed. You will feel worse. You think I let you down, that you are not important. I will apologize.
Instead, apologize for asking. We are forgetful beings. We are busy people. You are not the center of the universe. It’s not a downgrade; it’s not intentional. It’s human. Be a mensch. Don’t ask; just re-introduce yourself and smile widely.
In the Talmud, Rava said, “A person is allowed to make himself known in a place where people don’t know him,” [BT Nedarim 62a]. The biblical proof-text for this practice is from I Kings. Ovadiah, the prophet, identified himself to Elijah so that Elijah would know with whom he was speaking. Ovadiah hid and fed 100 prophets in two caves because Jezebel, King Ahab’s wife, wanted to kill off all Hebrew prophets. When Ovadiah saw Elijah he bowed deeply: “Is it really you, my lord, Elijah?” It was. Elijah was the chief prophet targeted in Jezebel’s vicious hunt. Ovadiah wanted to save Elijah’s life. Elijah needed to know Ovadiah was a double agent, working for the king but betraying him by keeping the prophets alive. Ovadiah told Elijah who he was, not for the sake of his ego, but for the sake of Elijah’s safety.
Sometimes, you need to communicate a title to demonstrate expertise, street cred, skills, connections or content knowledge that can be helpful to others. In this biblical instance, it was life saving. One medieval commentator believes that it is permitted to announce yourself to strangers because a community would not want to make the mistake of not properly honoring a Torah scholar. Others disagree and defer to the need for modesty and humility and only permit this in limited situations.
Let’s replace “Do you know who I am?” with “Do I know who you are?” What if this High Holiday season, we tuck away our egos and the arrogance of expecting people to know who we are and exchange it for a slim grab at intimacy with another? Do us all a favor and leave “do you know who I am” for the movies. Try this instead: “I’m ______. We met a few years ago at _____. It’s nice to see you again.” It’s not all about you. After all, before Ovadiah introduced himself, he asked Elijah a question, “Is it really you?”
Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month.