Monday, April 4, 2011

America the Not-Helpful?

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here]

[Post very worth seeing: Conquests of Jerusalem and Israel's Control at Yaacov Lozowick's Ruminations]

Some weeks back, I was sitting in a shul somewhere in Canada waiting for Maariv to begin, and I heard a man learning with his pre-adolescent son. They were talking about the mitzvah of לא תעמוד על דם רעך – “You shall not stand by your brother’s blood” – which requires us to act to save others who are in danger.

The father explained to his son that this is a critical mitzvah, that we must stand up on behalf of people who are in need. So far, so good. But then he said, “This is especially a problem in America; people there don’t help each other.”


I wanted to say to him, "I’m an American, pal. Where do you get off generalizing about an entire country? That’s horrible chinuch (pedagogy)." (And I’m a New Yorker, so I also wanted to hit him, but that’s another matter.)

Not to mention, he was wrong – wasn’t he?

I instinctively assumed he had to be wrong, although I had no statistics to offer to the contrary. Of course he was wrong. How could he be right? Wasn’t my life saved by… um, no, come to think of it. But didn’t I have a relative who was in… no, not that, either. Didn’t I know someone who was saved by a stranger’s intervention, or something? Um… no.

So all I had to go with was my general intuition that Americans are not the soulless, internally focussed drones who ignored the screams of Kitty Genovese in the 1960’s. Not exactly convincing, that.

But it realy did bother me, and continues to bother me, in terms of the generalization. Did that really serve a purpose in educating his son? Did his son internalize the lesson of intervention by picturing genial Canada’s southern neighbor as a self-centered slob?

It reminded me of the way that some Jews generalize about non-Jews in teaching their kids, actually. Also a very uncomfortable thing.

Bottom line: I don’t think we need to put down others in order to teach our children lessons about positive behavior. And Gd bless America.


  1. perhaps there was a meta-concern of how attractive life in the usa can seem and a need to sell against it?
    one way to make membership in a club seem worthwhile is to denigrate the alternatives, it's often an easier sell than selling the benefits of membership over a competing "good".I agree with your conclusion, I'm not sure statistics would support the father's thesis.
    Joel Rich

  2. Right after 9/11, I recall a circulating sicha from R. Aharon Lichtenstein, in which he acclaimed America for proliferating 2 things in the world: 1) monotheism (presumably in the form of Christianity, of course); and 2) chesed. Some complain that the US is imperial, and out for America's own gain. And others complain that the US's do-gooding does no good. But that doesn't mean America doesn't try. Moreover, there has been great chesed extended to the impoverished nations that borrow fund, and then don't repay them. Some of the US deficit is really for good reason....

    Though the Canadian father might have been thinking of daily human interaction (and to that, I would say that probably every American has been helped by a fellow (stranger) American some time or other, but that's just my guess).

  3. It is amazing. I refer to America as "My land of in-opportunity". Every dream I have ever had, I have not been allowed to achieve. Everything I wanted to become, I have been prevented from becoming. Every thing I have wanted to learn, I have not been smart enough or 'good' enough to get in the 'club' to do.
    I made a list when I was 11 of all the things I wanted to be in this life. And I just dug it out the other day. It was amazing to see, nothing I wanted to be or do or learn, I have been allowed to IN THIS COUNTRY. All I do is grunt work, that doesn't pay well enough to save; so I never get ahead financially.
    I wanted to learn to fly a plane, to be an artist (painter), a writer, to sail boats, to marry and have a family-ahh; but no takers on my right hand. Only American men seem to want just free sex. Even, I wanted to learn how to dance, but my parents decided I was too clumsy and it would be a waste of money. I wanted to learn Hebrew fluenty and study Torah and be frum and Kosher and shomer shabbes. But I work for goyim as a truck driver. So I never get a Shabbes off or a single Jewish holiday.
    So this is where I am.
    I pray everyday for this country to be destroyed forever. And I pray everyday that I will never be born here again in any life time. And that I will never have any memory of ever living here in any lifetime. And I pray every day to never know any of these awful evil soul who have damaged me and kept me from getting the opportunity to be any of those things that I wanted in this lifetime again. I pray that Hashem is on my side. Next time around. Not this time around. I will be born in Eretz Yisrael. I will be Jewish and frum and kosher and shomer shabbes. And no one will be able to say I am not one of my people.
    Got to tell you, if you are comfortable and blessed in Edom, this is your inheritance and your birthright.
    The bowl of lentils from your father Esav.
    But if your ancestor is Yaakov, you own the birthright and the blessing. And you belong to Hashem and Israel.
    You should not 'fit in' here.
    Just MY opinion.

  4. As an over-fifty Torontonian, I think I can understand (not justify) the statements by that individual. When we grew up, all we heard about was that if you got mugged in New York, even in broad daylight in public, people would walk by and not get involved.

    Maybe it was an urban legend, or maybe it was true then but not now - I don't know. As I said, I'm not justifying, just explaining where I think this comes from.

  5. Joel-
    Could be; I have seen that here.

    Anonymous 6:07 AM-
    Thanks; Rav Moshe Feinstein's מדינה של חסד description of the US, too.

    I'm very sorry to hear of all of your troubles, and I daven that you should be aided in your attempts to change your circumstances.
    But I would contend that recognition of the good in a person or nation is not the same as fitting in.

    Got it, thanks!

  6. I am not sure exactly how the father phrased it, but is it possible that he was contrasting "America" to Israel?
    Israelis really care about one another. As a (somewhat) positive example, I can tell you from experience that people will yell at you if they think your child should be wearing a jacket.

    I am a native Torontonian, and, when contrasting the land of my birth to my homeland, I will often say "In the States" or "in America".

  7. A nice thought, Russell - but he was pretty clear that he was distinguishing between the US and Canada...

  8. To indulge in a little bit of generalizing and stereotyping of my own, it has been my observation that many Canadians are very into *not* being American, and celebrate what makes Canada not the United States, while many Americans - if they ever even think about it - like to joke that Canada may as well be the 51st state, given the proximity and many cultural similarities. Many Americans - again, if they even think about it - can't even understand why, exactly, Canada even needs to be Canada. And Canadians, apparently, know just why.

  9. Sorry, I'm trying to write something thoughtful, but the chorus from "Blame Canada" keeps going through my head.

    (they're not even a real country, anyway...)

  10. Canadians are just upset that they use monopoly money for currency. And now I must leisurely walk away before I am chastised by some guy carrying looneys and tooneys.

    Or even worse, eaten by a polar bear. ;)

  11. Jack-
    Do I need to remind you that 1.00 CAD is now worth 1.04 USD?

    O Canada, indeed.

  12. Give it a week and as soon as the polar ice caps melt all those canucks will come running down here telling stories aboot floods and moose. ;)