Erica Brown

Listen Up, Jews

Breathe deeply and relax. Passover is behind us. But its leave-taking leaves us with a challenge. Ready?

We just finished the Maggid, the story of our exodus in the Haggadah. The infinitive “le-hagid” in Hebrew is to tell a story in expository style. Delve into it and speak it from one generation to the next. Three times in Exodus and one time in Deuteronomy do we find the command to tell the story to our children. The sages of the Talmud contrived from this repetition the notion of the “four sons” of our Haggadah. The unnecessary repetition signals the obligation to engage in differentiated learning. Tell it so that no matter whom you are telling it to, the story will feel fresh and relevant. This, of course, demands that we become master storytellers.

This year, reflecting on Passover, I began to think of storytelling a little bit differently. I thought a lot about the noise level of the average seder. It’s great to have a mitzvah to talk because that is a field where Jews excel. Jews love to talk. We can talk until the cows — or the paschal lambs — come home. But the transmission of a story from one generation to the next is more complicated than speaking alone. It requires expert listening. If we do too much talking and don’t pay careful enough attention to what is being said, we won’t have much to offer the next generation in terms of a great story. We’ll end up talking only to ourselves.

Despite the fact that our central prayer, the Shema, translates as “Hear O Israel,” hearing has never been a strong suit for us. Maybe that’s why the prayer reinforces the listening aspect. Just ask professor Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of many well-known books on how we talk. She has written an academic paper on how we talk called “New York Conversational Style,” that, while not limited to the way Jews speak, gives us a lot of attention. Friends, it ain’t pretty.

Tannen uses a clutch phrase to describe Jews interrupting each other in conversation. We’re not being rude. We’re merely engaged in “high-involvement cooperative overlapping.” Talking while others continue to speak is common to our use of language. We also use a fast rate of speech and “the avoidance of inter-turn pauses.” This is coupled with abrupt shifts of topic, sudden introduction of new topics and reintroducing a topic with stubborn persistence if others don’t pay attention to it. Oy.

Tannen shows how well intentioned we are when we do this. We are showing interest and enthusiasm in the conversation and demonstrating warmth and engagement. Really? It sounds rude to me. In fact, I’ve been using the Tannen filter for a few weeks now as I observe myself and others in conversation, and I think Tannen was being too nice. What I observe is how often we engage in the Jewish suffering Olympics; your difficulty is just a springboard for me to “see you and raise you” in intensity. You went to the dentist for a cavity? Well, I had a root canal. You had a root canal? Well, I had an infected root canal.

I can never have appropriate compassion for you when I use you to tell you about me. Some people tell me that this describes every date they’ve ever been on.

Tannen says that this form of in-speak works when we speak to others with the same conversational style but can be perceived as pushy and hostile to outsiders. Research on intermarriage also shows that more than spiritual differences, ethnic differences like conversational style can create fissures between couples. In-speak doesn’t really work if we tolerate it only because we don’t know any better. Maybe it’s time to develop greater intolerance for constant interruptions and face the fact that it is just plain rude to speak when someone else is talking. It hurts when we don’t let someone else finish a sentence or a thought. It is a blemish in our own capacity for grace and compassion.

Between Passover and Shavuot, we count the Omer: 49 days from one holiday to the next. Mystics use each day as an opportunity for character development. It is a sacred practice and perhaps one that we can adapt in light of Jewish conversational style. Let’s use this time to redeem ourselves as listeners, to make a personal commitment to let others finish a sentence or two.

I pondered with a friend what would happen if we combined a Passover program at a hotel with a silent retreat. The story of our exodus would not be less meaningful in a whisper. Maybe it would help us really hear it for the first time.

Erica Brown’s most recent book is “Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death” (Simon and Schuster). Subscribe to her weekly Internet essays at

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).