The Importance of Meeting Ernest

Think haredi Jews, as a rule, smell? Are unhygienic? Rude? Obnoxious?

If you do, you know what you can do to yourself.

Let me be more explicit: Anyone who denigrates the haredi population in general is guilty of being as anti-Semitic as any damn Nazi who walked the earth during World War II.

Whence comes this statement? Well, I’ll tell you. My story starts in the garbage room of my building, where I went this evening to dispose of my trash. As I was about to enter, a diminutive haredi gentleman appeared, making his way out.

“After you,” I said with a gesture. Politely, he smiled and exited the area. I deposited my garbage in a bin, then went to the elevator. He was holding it for me.

“Thank you,” I said. He smiled. I’d seen him before: short, elderly, dressed in black, gray-bearded, with a jovial face that has grinned at me in the past upon our intermittent meetings. I asked him how he was doing. He indicated he was fine … and asked me a question.

“So what do you do?”

This was the first time we made any conversation of note. I told him I was an editor, which I am — in downtown Manhattan. He nodded. Following a not-so-awkward pause, I revealed my name to him, noting that we’d never actually been introduced. I asked him his.

“Ernest,” he said.

Yes indeed. He worked at a large, well-known electronics emporium on the West Side, and upon this revelation, I exclaimed, “I love that store!” But the elevator doors were closing. We wished each other good night. And I left for my apartment.

The moral: Not all people are the same. I’ve argued this before. Yet it’s especially important in this context because there are quite a few people who share my faith and look down on this group of Jews. They don’t like their old-fashioned ways. They don’t like their literal interpretations of the Torah. They don’t like their supposed hermitism.

This is what I have to say to that kind of thinking: Blow it out your tuches. Because everyone has the capacity to be good. Everyone also has the capacity to be bad. One is not nice or nasty because he or she belongs to a particular religious branch. Reform Judaism isn’t better or worse than Orthodox Judaism. It’s just different.

That’s what makes us, as a culture, so extraordinary. We’re varied. We’re myriad. We don’t stick to one thing or another.

Ernest, I’m sure, is not the exception to some kind of anti-Semitic rule. He’s a wonderful individual, and he treated me with both respect and grace. Would most of my fellow Reform Jews deign to do the same if they encountered a haredi man or woman? I hope so … but given many of the comments on the Times of Israel’s website and Facebook page, I have to worry. Folks who are as Jewish as I am are looking down on other Jews, and that’s not cool. We should all be standing together. We should all be supportive.

This evening, Ernest taught me a lot about tolerance and understanding without a speech or big words or complex ideas. He did it by being friendly. That’s no small example. Lots of other people should take a page from his book. The goal: not to generalize about large groups of humans. We do that, and we get something right at last.

We miss that boat, and we’ll have to start over again. I’d rather be on the correct road — to mutual respect. I believe we can achieve it.

I suspect Ernest — upstairs, far away, yet hardly unreachable — does, too.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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