As a Contracting Officer for the U.S. Department of Defense back in the early 1980s in Philadelphia, I had occasion to handle a particular procurement of a specialized piece of hardware. Nothing exceptionally complex or costly, but intricate enough to warrant in-person, face-to-face negotiations with the prospective suppliers in those days before the Internet-based document sharing and Zoom meetings that now have become commonplace.
One vendor (whose company eventually was awarded the contract) was a dealer who had manufacturing facilities, and also ongoing relationships with machine shops who subcontracted work from him. In the four previous years at the job, I had awarded easily more than one hundred purchase orders to his company (and he was an unsuccessful contender in a few hundred more procurements of mine), but our numerous interactions until then had been strictly postal correspondence and/or telephonic; we had never before met in-person.
A meeting was scheduled, and on the appointed day, I walked into the lobby of the building. Approximately 15 or 20 people were seated in the lobby, most of whom were familiar vendors’ and manufacturers’ representatives who regularly frequented the building to obtain business for their respective companies. When I called out my vendor’s name, he turned his head, got up from his seat, came over to me, and we shook hands.
As we walked towards the empty room where the daily public bid openings had already concluded for the day, he said to me, “I long ago gave up trying to guess what people look like, but now that we have finally met, I can recognize you as the guy with the Fu Manchu moustache.”
“Well, Stan,” I replied, “I do not fit any of the stereotypes.”
A few years after that incident, my wife and I relocated from Cherry Hill, New Jersey to East Northport, New York, a community on Long Island approximately 40 kilometers east of the New York City border between Queens County and Nassau County. Our new community, where we would live for more than 20 years before making Aliyah, did not fit many stereotypes either. An Orthodox Jewish community in Suffolk County was (and in many respect still is) a rarity. People from established communities such as Borough Park in Brooklyn, or Monsey, or Lakewood frequently made incorrect assumptions about us.
One summer, when we visited our son at a camp in the Poconos, his “rebbe” there (actually a yeshiva student who was conducting the Torah studies portion of the camp curriculum for our son’s bunk), discussed with us our son’s interests in learning after the summer camp had concluded. He spoke in terms of exploring additional synagogues a few blocks away from our home, totally oblivious to the fact that the Orthodox shul to which we belonged was the only available one in the area for us. [We chose the community because of that shul, and even after our Aliyah we proudly maintain our connection with it.].
The selection of kosher food in the local supermarkets in our community left much to be desired, and we had to drive all the way into Queens, or to Great Neck or the Five Towns in Nassau County, for good kosher restaurants.
On one occasion, I accompanied a client of mine to Brooklyn to meet with a rabbi who was attempting to mediate a resolution of a lawsuit. There were major traffic jams on the Long Island Expressway and on the parallel parkways, so we arrived more than a half hour after the scheduled time. This rabbi castigated my client (and me) for being late, saying that it was only a short trip from Long Island; he had construed the term “Long Island” to mean Great Neck or the Five Towns or West Hempstead, and did not understand that we were coming from as far east as Suffolk County.
Many of the people our rabbi brought out from his old yeshiva in Queens were amazed and awed that an Orthodox Jewish community like ours even existed in Suffolk County. And in more than one instance, people we were bringing out to visit us or others in our community were dumbfounded at the distance beyond JFK Airport to which we had to drive.
My wife’s uncle, who had been learning at the Lakewood yeshiva, made Aliyah in 1950, preferring to get his smichah in Israel instead of from Rabbi Aharon Kotler in Lakewood; he settled in Bnei Brak and lived out his life there. Once when he came to the USA to visit, he stayed with a friend of his in Brooklyn. We drove in from Suffolk County to meet with him one evening, and he told us that we were better off in East Northport than we were in Cherry Hill. We had to explain to him that unlike in Cherry Hill, there was (at that time) no mikveh in Suffolk County, and my wife had to drive nearly an hour to use the one in Queens. We explained to him that Long Island extended about 150 kilometers past the Nassau-Queens border. He had had no conception that “Long Island” was so vast.
But stereotyping of other Jewish groups is not unique to the insular Jewish communities (I have grave reservations about using terms such as “ultra-orthodox” or “Haredi” to refer to such demographics). In fact, stereotyping operates in two directions. Many comments about the people in Bnei Brak or Modi’in Ilit I read in the newspapers and on the Internet, or hear from people in my own social circles, reflect stereotypes which simply are inapplicable to many people I know who live in those locales. On more than one occasion, some protesters who came to Bnei Brak have been greeted by local residents reaching out in friendship and distributing refreshments. And, contrary to some common stereotypes, many people in Bnei Brak hold down jobs and serve in the military.
Stereotyping does have its uses and applications. A person traveling through an unfamiliar city or town who wishes to procure an item can find a source for the item farm more expeditiously by selecting a store that fits the appropriate stereotype than by systematically walking down the street and checking out each store as he or she progresses through the business district, and once inside the store, can often locate the desired item by finding the aisle where such items stereotypically are shelved. A product or service can be efficiently marketed by targeting advertising towards the stereotypical consumer demographic for that product or service. In such applications, stereotyping is a useful tool.
As with all tools, be they in the physical toolbox of a tradesperson or in the figurative brainbox of the mind, stereotyping has its appropriate uses and inappropriate uses. A sledgehammer was a tool that was well nigh indispensible to my grandfather for dismantling cast iron boilers in his scrap metal business, but would be useless (and in fact destructive) for me in replacing the hard drive on my computer.
Amidst all that is happening these days, the Jewish communities in Israel, America, and elsewhere sorely need to put the many powerful tools we wield to better use.