Joseph C. Kaplan
Joseph C. Kaplan

Things That Annoy Me

(Title note:The original title for this column was “Things I Hate.” But there’s already enough hate in our world – indeed, much too much – so that word should be reserved for truly hateful things: war, racism, cruelty, and anti-Semitism; despots and dictators; terror and tyranny; murder and mayhem. Hence, I’m sticking to annoyance.)

It’s not unusual for readers to ask me from where I get ideas for my columns. My answer: anywhere and everywhere. From things I read, hear, and see; from my grandkids, friends, and people I meet on the street, watch on television, or sit next to in shul; from discussions I participate in, FB posts I agree (or disagree) with, and classes I attend. And I share this ever-open eye and ear with others, like rabbis, who also have to come up with something newish to write or speak about on a regular basis. In fact, a rabbi recently told me about a great idea for (an as yet undelivered) Yizkor sermon that was sparked by an exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

But there’s another aspect to this. Sometimes an idea doesn’t have legs. It works well for a paragraph or two, but quickly fizzles out. There’s a seed but no flower, an appetizer but no meal, an opening jump ball but no fourth quarter buzzer. Yet such ideas, even if brief and disparate, can sometimes form a coherent whole if melded together – as I hope this column about things that annoy me (not an exhaustive list) demonstrates.

1. When speaking or writing publicly, not understanding that your audience is not monolithic. Please, when discussing things like being married or having children or grandchildren, remember that not everyone in the audience is so blessed. And don’t say in a sermon “when we (or when Jews) put on tefillin in the morning” because many of those in shul obviously don’t. Fortunately, many rabbis and other speakers have been more careful recently in choosing their words. Unfortunately not all of them.

2. Endless chatter on social media and newspapers about Ben & Jerry’s decision not to sell its wares on the West Bank and about the Netflix show “My Unorthodox Life.” If you don’t like B&J’s decision don’t eat their ice cream; I’ve personally been boycotting them ever since they replaced vanilla heath bar crunch with toffee bar crunch. And if you don’t like the show, don’t watch it. But please move on to something actually important.

3. Attorneys for people accused of a crime who emphasize, in newspapers and on television (as opposed to before a jury), their clients’ presumption of innocence. Presumption of innocence is a legal doctrine, not a social one. Even after seeing a video of the defendant committing the crime, a jury must continue to be bound by that rule. The public does not. Similarly, only juries are bound by a beyond a reasonable doubt standard; for the rest of us, preponderance of the evidence is sufficient. And that applies after trial as well. So Bill Cosby and Michael Flynn, you weren’t “exonerated” just because you were let off on a legal technicality or pardoned by a president. Your guilt has not been erased.

4. Customer service representatives who substitute an apology for a solution. Apologies done well are important (“If You’re Going to Apologize, Apologize!”), but not as an alternative to actually fixing the problem.

5. Patting ourselves on the back too strenuously. In one of my earliest columns (“Let’s Study Torah Together”), I wrote about political leaders who speak about the attributes of their constituency as if they were truly unique and extraordinary – which is only rarely the case. Similarly, when someone writes or speaks about something wonderful and admirable Jews have done, they often add, as a rhetorical question, mi ke’amcha Yisrael? (Who is like the Jewish people?), as if we are unique in such acts. But the trouble with rhetorical questions, as Judge Judith Kaye taught me, is that those to whom you pose your question may very well have a different answer than the one you think is so obvious. Which is why a listserv post about a wonderful Jewish charity that ended with “mi ke’amcha Yisrael” engendered numerous replies citing to other — non-Jewish — charities doing exactly the same thing. We’re a very good people, with many fine traits. But we don’t have a monopoly on any of them.

6. Standing up when the rabbi is speaking. While I’m quite punctual, especially when it comes to shul, I wasn’t always like that. As a youngster and then a parent of young children, I considered it a success if I made it to shul by Sh’ma – and I often wasn’t successful. So I truly understand those who come late. But that’s no excuse to stand during the rabbi’s sermon while catching up on davening. It’s disrespectful to the rabbi and rude to those sitting behind you. Catch up either after the sermon or outside the sanctuary.

7. People who grapple with the question of theodicy by blaming particular evils (e.g., the Shoah or the pandemic) on the actions of others, “others” being the operative word. I know I’ve discussed this before (“God’s Accountants”), but it continues to really annoy me.

8. Drivers who don’t move to the middle of the intersection when waiting to make a left turn, and shoppers who wait until all their items have been scanned before searching for their credit card or money. Both demonstrate disregard for the people behind them.

9. Paying extra to cut lines at amusement parks. I’m returning to this (see “Camp Savta and Grandpa”), because there recently was an article in the Times where Disney executives defended their increasing use of this practice by saying “it creates a better guest experience.” Sure it does – but only for wealthy guests, leaving a poorer (pun intended) experience for the rest of us. There’s an important life lesson in the fact that my grandkids can’t get all the tchotchkes rich kids get at such parks. But there’s no educational merit in their waiting longer for a ride because some hedge fund manager’s kids want to go on it too. That’s simply unfair.

10. (For Yankee fans.) John Sterling’s home run calls. Enough already.

11. Conspiracy theories. Whether it’s the faked moon landing, a controlled explosion on 9/11, anti-vaxxer pseudo-science, or the stolen 2020 election, they’re all lies that impede civil discourse, insult our intelligence, and demean the importance of facts and history. There are many things we can disagree about, strenuously and passionately. But no, there’s no debating the falsity of either the existence of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” or the claim that the world is flat. (This one is, I admit, close to hate.)

I’m certain that there are plenty of things that I (or others) do that annoy my readers. Feel free to share them in a letter-to-the editor of the Standard at jstandardletters@gmail.com, comments to my Times of Israel blog, or an email to me, at penkap@panix.com. I’d love to know what you think.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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