On Table Manners

We were not overtaken by the pandemic pounds from the forced isolation like we expected. Instead, my wife and I looked up from our roasted chicken meal last night and realized that we had thrown most of our table manners out the window. We had devolved into slobs.

Please understand, we have had to practice topnotch manners for decades, as we attended weddings, b’nai mitzvah parties, desserts, business meetings, congregational dinners, and private invitations to congregant homes. We learned to cut up anything served in a red sauce smaller than usual to avoid a “whoopsie,” an advertisement of clumsiness on good clothes. At shiva calls, if the offerings were not finger foods, then all was to be avoided lest the paper/garish plastic plate become our downfall. “Just a cookie please, we have more obligations.”

Yet, we sat across from each other with greasy fingers, picking tidbits from chicken pieces and chasing errant pieces of zucchini and sweet potato threatening to fall off the edge of the plate. Looking down from my fingers, I realized there was no napkin waiting in lap, which I usually need for the whoopsies. Dressed in my old, stained sweats with dogs hovering beneath my stool with bated breath, what was the point of having a napkin? Oh yeah: I cannot touch anything clean without smearing grease on it.

We are not going to restaurants anytime soon, so what is the point?

The point is the lack of attention has demeaned our daily rituals. Our ritual of table manners has served my family for years. Every so often, my adult children thank us for demanding they learn how to carry themselves in public. They have experienced the business meal where their good manners stood out as polite, conscientious, and engaged while those without such knowledge were diminished. We all sat across from diners in any situation with confidence that our conversations would not be sidetracked by an obvious faux pas.

I always considered table manners to be the great equalizer amid the American melting pot. The rituals of sharing a meal with others transcends cultures, countries, education, and economics. This is not a matter of whether one culture belches loudly after a good meal, which can be interesting. Table manners, no matter what culture where one is seated, is about demonstrating respect for the other. They are the simplest vehicles for offering respect, whether the etiquette is over chopsticks, hand foods, or western utensils.

Table manners broadcast respect for ourselves and for others in a most personal and intimate setting. Our use or lack of these rituals telegraph who we are and what we think of others. The cliché, actions speak louder than words, is oh-so-true at the dinner table.

Let not the sticklers for etiquette deter us from the task of giving respect for others. No one really cares if the bananas foster is served with a fork or a spoon; we only care whether you will wait for mine to be served so that we may share together. Table manners are something we do together, a ritual we share that confirms quietly and unobtrusively the respect we each offer.

Unless it’s barbeque in my house, in which case all bets are off and you are on your own, sucker.

A Prayer in the Time of Pandemic

 “Every hand that we don’t shake must be a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern.

Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise. 

So, as we keep a level of social distance, let us all remain spiritually near to each other, by responding to this health emergency with love and care for everyone’s well-being. 

May Adonai give us the wisdom to continue to react appropriately to this crisis and heal those who have been infected.” 

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

B’nai David-Judea Congregation

Los Angeles, CA

Lessons of the Book Search

In the process of researching a new article-maybe-book, a down-the-rabbit-hole investigatory thread emerged. The origin of the thread begins with the novelist Herman Wouk (The Winds of War), a 20th century author of deserved literary repute. Mr. Wouk was also an Orthodox Jew, proud and practicing his faith so personally that he wrote a non-fiction text “This is My God.” His book is a well-written introduction to a Jewish theistic God concept, which is an accessible recommended read. In his introduction, Mr. Wouk explains  that his book is in response to a derogatory text promoting agnosticism. The hunt began.

The book that invokes Herman Wouk’s ire has almost disappeared from library shelves in the first decades of the 21th century; in contrast, Mr. Wouk’s book is still in print and easily available. Homer W. Smith was a biologist in the first half of the 20th century who wrote three books of some publishing success. The third was “Man and His Gods,” published in 1955 and running at 485 pages before the index. However, what makes the book stand out is that the Forward is written Albert Einstein. The book sold well in its day.

As Dr. Einstein stated, Professor Smith attempts “to portray man’s fear-induced animistic and mythic ideas with all their far-flung transformations and interrelations.” One of the major arguments of the book is that Western religions are a magnet for all destructive fears that have haunted humankind. Further, these religions are also a significant broadcaster of these pernicious narratives that promulgate terrible results such as war and widespread unhappiness. The book is a thoroughgoing condemnation of religion and its application up through the beginning of the 20th century.

One can clearly understand why Herman Wouk despised this text.

There is no doubt that Professor Smith was extraordinarily well-read. Besides the Bible and biblical scholarship, he was intimately familiar with Enlightenment philosophers, the volumes of Gibbon’s “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Darwin along with his milieu of detractors and supporters, Medieval magic and literature on the Devil, literary criticism, Christian theology and metaphysics. He saves some of his highest praise for the eleventh edition of Encylopedia Britannica, published in 1910-1911. (p. 483)

“Man and His Gods” is an archetypal text of its time. The writing is long-winded, and the grammar is complex, which was typical of the academic presentation of the day. Reviewers of that decade would declare that the book was erudite and well-written, whether or not they agreed the provocative argument.

The thesis is that knowledge and rationalism trump religion and superstition. Most of the text is a review of the religions of Western world and the Ancient Near East through history using the lens of 20th century rationalism. Professor Smith hoped to put the final nail in the coffin of superstitious religion with this book. He did not.

A funny thing happened though, which is why there was a hunt. “Man and His Gods” has nigh disappeared. In a dash of irony, I believe that the book would have certainly slipped away totally, despite a forward by Einstein, if Herman Wouk had not mentioned the text by name in his introduction. If Mr. Wouk had simply dropped a few sentences explaining his angry motivation for writing his book, time would have accomplished his goal for him.

I went searching for the text. My university lists a copy of Dr. Smith’s text in its catalogue, having purchased it in 1956. According to their records, the book was never checked out of the library. After I and the university librarian perused the shelf, we both concluded that the book had been stolen, probably decades ago. The Library of Congress (Card no. 52-5512) has a copy, buried in one of their offsite repositories. Having access to an academic national search function, someone located a copy at SUNY-Buffalo. Ten weeks after an initial request, I was holding the book.

The book did not meet my needs though. I was seeking a text that explained and promoted agnosticism in the 20th century. Dr. Smith’s text is the other side of the coin, exclusively attacking theism and orthodox religions. He states that rationalism is the better/best way, yet he offers no arguments for this stance. While the book may have made a splash at the time of publication, this lack of a positive argument may explain why the book disappeared from the great discussions on religion, culture, and individual relevance.

Having read through the book only to find the book only to find disappointment, I am reminded of a quote from the end of Ecclesiastes. “The making of many books is without limit and much study is a wearying of the flesh.” (Eccl. 12:9) Homer W. Smith taught me two lessons: first, erudition easily falls into hubris and second, pre-determined conclusions can produce a myriad of ever-escalating mistakes and misreadings.

Mr. Wouk’s book also taught me a lesson: Anger is a tool and it should never be a reason.

Philosophy of Learning – Teaching

לְלַמֵּד – (to teach) teaching

For as large as a role teaching plays in the history, the present, and in the future of humanity, the word itself as few synonyms. One can instruct, educate and coach. Most of the other possibilities bring other ideas and concepts into the definition of teaching such as imbue, infuse, impress upon, implant and instill. Some hope to broaden a student’s horizons or open their minds or even beat some sense into them. With these diffusion of ideas of the nature of teaching, teaching is a method of learning is hard to assay. The regional colloquialism “I’m gonna learn that boy somethin’” conveys more self-righteous indignation and anger than love of learning. (For non-native American English readers, the deliberate misuse of teach/learn is a statement of emphasis.) To understand the method called teaching, one does not need all of these ornaments. Teaching, which in its core definition of transmitting knowledge to those who do not have the knowledge, is one of the most potent and enduring methods of learning.

As every instructor of teachers has warned me: “You may think you know but until you have to teach it, you really don’t know the material.” Preparing a lesson plan is not a simple task of jotting down a quick outline and rushing off to class. The facts and the points of argument have to be verified as correct and in context. Point by point have to be confirmed as flowing in a comprehensible order. Then the plan has to be evaluated for clarity, reasonableness, goals, and after all of this due diligence, the teacher has to ask if the plan has a good chance of succeeding.

To teach one has to learn the material again. This time the student has to focus closely, determine the hierarchy of information points and the strength of connection between the points. The teacher has to be ready to address such questions as “why are igneous rocks important?” and “when am I ever going to use quadratic equations in real life?” Who, what, when, why and how may be points that a journalist ticks off when writing an article but for the teacher, these questions define the totality of the lesson. As a mere student, one gets to ask the question, but as a teacher/student, one has to ask and answer these questions in a thorough and convincing manner.

The best of teachers have lesson plans that fail. A teacher looks into the faces of students and notes the look of profound boredom and the furrowed brow of incomprehension. There are skills of classroom management and behavior modification processes, but teaching is still an art. No one is born a teacher, every teacher has to practice. There is more than one way to teach a concept, a fact or a process and there is no easy way to determine the best method to teach that lesson.

Learning and teaching go hand in hand when one commits to passing down knowledge. The two methods of learning become a dance of informing, deflating, and confirming each other. For some there is no higher calling than teaching and in terrible contrast, teaching is one of the most denigrated and underpaid professions in the United States. Is it a wonder why the nation worries that our education system is failing?