Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rabbi Nebbish

One warm afternoon, some time back, I attended a shiur before which the rabbi took off his jacket, approaching the group in his shirtsleeves. I was surprised to hear an older woman turn to the person beside her and comment, audibly, “Nebbish.” She said it twice – there was no mistaking it.

I think she meant he was unimpressively thin, which he was. On a deeper level, though, the woman was channeling a stereotype of the skinny, knock-him-over-with-a-feather, bookish Orthodox rabbi.

Literature has several overlapping stereotypes for the Orthodox rabbi – the overweight, socially inept glutton; the avaricious user of his flock; the strict legalist of gaunt face and sharpened beard; and the nebbish, the skinny rabbi, often young, generally a wallflower.

I just finished reading Allegra Goodman’s “The Family Markowitz” the other day (this is definitely not a recommendation for the book), and she presents several appearances of this last, uninspiring mold of rabbi. It appeals, this vision of the clergy as a bookish young man who is socially inept and unimpressive. Discounting the religious message is easier if we can assume that the rabbi is a shy milquetoast who simply lacks the ability to pursue the sins he claims to willingly shun. Think of the initial impression of Father Mulcahy from MASH, until you learn that he has a sense of humor and can do a tracheotomy with a pocketknife.

Perhaps rabbis own a certain obligation to prove that they are not this pathetic; that feeling certainly figured into my decision to return to the gym several years ago. [Granted I haven’t gone since moving to Canada…]

But I think Jewish society owes itself some degree of freedom from the stereotype, which hampers the community as much as it hampers the rabbi. Assuming that the baal mussar [author of rebuke] does not know the pleasures he condemns is a cheap way out of taking his words seriously. Better to hear what he has to say, and weigh it seriously, regardless of the conclusion.

By the end of the shiur, the rabbi had completely won over this woman; she was laughing at his jokes, participating in the discussion, and calling, “More” when he concluded his talk. So he won the battle that day. But I wonder how many times the speaker is not given the opportunity to correct misimpressions, and so a valuable message is lost.


  1. An analysis of the source of this stereotype would be a good doctoral thesis (e.g. does the rabbinate statistically draw a higher percentage of certain types? why?)
    Joel Rich

  2. "I think she meant he was unimpressively thin, which he was. On a deeper level, though, the woman was channeling a stereotype of the skinny, knock-him-over-with-a-feather, bookish Orthodox rabbi."

    Sorry Rabbi but on this one I disagree with your conclusions. One, "I think she meant"--absent having asked her what she did actually mean through her use of the word, there is no way, none, to know what she was responding to and how she defines nebbish. Two, you, yourself, agreed with her, when you said "which he was" referring to "unimpressively thin," so it's both of you that had that impression. Three, "nebbish" is used in a number of ways, any one of which could have applied. Yes, a nebbish can be someone who is physically unimpressive or pitiful, but the word is also used as a substitute for "nebboch," what it is descended from, meaning poor or unfortunate. And there are those who commonly use the word as the yiddish substitute for nerd, meaning unstylish, unaware of what is "in." "Nerds" wear their shirts buttoned all the way to the top--how was the rabbi's shirt buttoned? Were his cuffs and/or collar frayed? Was the shirt unpressed or wrinkled? Did his pants hang loosely instead of fitting well? Was he also wearing glasses, glasses of the hornrim variety?

    In short, it may not have been a stereotype she was referencing but an actual reference to something she was seeing on the rabbi that made her pity him.

    Strange, in all my years of living I have never had a shul rav that fit any of the stereotypes that you mention, neither too thin nor too heavy. Mostly in our house it's not how the rabbi looks but what he says and does that we might comment on.

  3. Joel-
    Looking for more thesis topics? That could be an interesting post.

    Could be something other than his figure, I'll concede. And I'm glad to hear about your household.

  4. Taking off a jacket (or a hat) when giving a shiur or leading a discussion with a group shouldn't be a reflexing of a person.
    It's a techinque. Sort of like when you use a Dale Carnegie move and use the person's name when speaking to them.

    Getting "comfortable" simply give the impression that you are relaxed, not threatening, and are attempting to relate to your audience.

    In fact, when leading discussions with Jewish teens professionally, I would always take off my jacket.

    Moadim l'Simcha.

  5. Wow, i was actually shocked to read that you haven't been to the gym since you moved. That physical activity, and the discipline that goes with it, seemed to be really important to your sense of yourself, apart from the rabbi/husband/father roles.

    Is the new gig going so well that you don't feel you have to carve out that time for yourself? Or has it fallen by the wayside as you convince yourself that you have more important things to do?

    Not that I care if you exercise, you could meditate or go spend an hour with a good cup of coffee instead, but I'm curious as to such a drastic change.

  6. Tzipporah-
    Quite perceptive; it's been a very negative development for me. Unfortunately, it's the reality of my schedule. Night seder doesn't end before 10 PM, so I don't get home until 10:15 PM. Then I need to take care of night emails and (possibly) talk to my Rebbetzin. Which means getting up in time to be at the gym at 5 AM just isn't happening...

  7. This sort of sterytype can also be found to some extent in Harry Kemmelman's Xday The Rabbi....