A TIME AND PLACE FOR TALKING BACK
On Yom Kippur in my maternal grandparents’ small shul, you could hear a pin drop. I don’t mean only during services in the sanctuary; I mean in the lobby, in the coat nook and even on the sidewalk in front of the building. The Days of Awe were serious business.
Among the congregation of Depression and Holocaust survivors in that shtiebel, there was no place for conversation…except for the big one between man and G-d.
What a contrast with home life!
Let me take you a few doors down the block from the above-mentioned synagogue, to my maternal grandparents’ living room on any Sunday afternoon. Between lunch and dinner (we called it “supper”), there were arguments about, well, everything.
Even though there was plenty of yelling and name-calling, there were clear House Rules: Seniority counted, and doctors, shul presidents, army veterans and union organizers held a good deal of esteem and respect.
Next to baseball, talking was their favorite sport. Let me take you back there:
Cigarette smoke is swirling and onions are frying. One of my uncles is about to purchase his first family home, and the relatives are out-shouting each other about the housing market. The doorbell rings and in walk the Steins and their son, Myron.
The Steins own a real estate company, and Myron, who is a business and economics genius, works with them in their long-established firm. Louis, Sarah and Myron Stein have a certain amount of expertise, right?
Not in this group. The Steins find themselves among 12 other self-proclaimed real estate mavens: my family. Everybody’s an expert!
The three Steins are also Jewish, and therefore they can’t help throwing themselves into the fray. They stopped by to issue an invitation to the movies, but the talking compulsion kicks in, and they sit down. They miss the double-feature they planned to see because they spend the next few hours arguing and exchanging persuasive anecdotes.
My whole family loves the Steins, and the Steins love my family; they’re all talkers.
I cut my own talking teeth in that very living room. As a toddler, I liked to hang out with my mother’s unmarried younger sister, Shirley, and her beautiful girlfriends. They looked through magazines, all the while maintaining a steady stream of words, words, words. I sat on my aunt’s lap and listened with all my might, which did nothing to impede the steady flow of conversation.
I was a talker-in-training and had to be nourished. When I began to recite nursery rhymes, which I also didn’t understand, Shirley and her girlfriends clapped their hands in approbation. I sort of got it: Talking is really great.
Fast-forward to just a few weeks ago, when we were with a group of friends for Shabbat lunch. Typically, everyone – especially our host and hostess – have a lot to say, aren’t the least bit daunted by or intimidated by controversy and remain at the table long after the official termination of the meal. There’s just so much to argue about…the presidential elections, the Middle East, health care, the economy in general…that there’s no end of talk.
But this particular meal was different. The banter was uncharacteristically desultory and unemotional. Occasionally, my husband tried his best to start a fire by making the kind of outrageous statement that should provoke unbridled comebacks, but to no avail.
Once in a while, somebody offered a comment about a book being read or a film recently seen. But there were no sparks flying; no one slammed a fist on the table or jumped up from a chair in a moment of exasperation.
We finished eating, and my husband, desperate to elicit some sort of challenge, offered a controversial d’var Torah. Even that didn’t work; his words were received with unanimous approval. Then everyone helped clear the table, and all of us left, thanking our hosts for a delicious Shabbat lunch.
What was going on? We knew these people well. We’d been in each other’s homes lots of times. We were perfectly comfortable in one another’s company. These people used to be heavy-duty talkers.
“How do you think that went?” I asked my husband.
“Nobody tried to convince me of anything outrageous,” he answered.
To be fair, he quickly added, “And every one of them is perfectly capable of outrageousness.”
“Well, I figured it out!” I said.
“You know how the rabbi’s always admonishing us to watch what we say – be respectful; listen more than you speak; keep adversity out of personal interchange; be like Aaron, Moses’ brother, and make peace between adversaries.
Well, his advice took.”
“I don’t think so!” my husband the humanitarian exclaimed. “Everybody’s just tired.”
“Tired, shmired!” I exclaimed. “People have an obligation to do more than sit there. Besides, I look forward to Shabbat meals. I made the salad and dessert. I deserved to be entertained!”
Reviewing that strange Shabbat lunch, I had another thought. Our hosts served turkey: Was it the tryptophan?
I’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter. I am happy to report that in a short time these selfsame friends reverted to their former loquacious selves. After all, we are People of the Talk.
The most creative and intelligent chimpanzee can’t play the Devil’s Advocate, make a joke, tell a lie or call someone’s bluff, but the most foolish human being can do all of them. Our human brains equip us to tell stories, debate, question and contend.
Sure, it’s very nice to be careful what we say. Sure, it’s safe to keep ones’ opinions to one’s self. Sure, there are times when silence is called for.
But – please, folks – not when you come to our house.
Editor’s note: Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines.
By Chana Shapiro