Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Labels & Judgmentalism - II

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
And they all got put in boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
And there’s doctors and there’s lawyers
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

And they all used to own TVs,
And daven in one big Shul ,
And they all have pretty children,
And the children go to school.
And the children go to summer camp
And no more to the university,
And they all get put in boxes
And they all come out the same.

And the boys go into learning,
And marry, and raise a family,
And they all get put in boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
There’s a black one and a white one
Perhaps a blue one but no more colored ones
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

This wonderful little satirist composition was written by my good friend G on an interesting post at Bad4Shidduchim discussing that wonderful little subject we like to call 'labels'.

The key to solving, fixing, or even remotely improving any difficult problem or situation starts with understanding where the problems lie and how they came about. I was reminded of this after having a conversation with a good friend tonight, and reading a well-put post elsewhere. My friend was noting the concern they had with dating a suggestion their father made, questioning whether their parents actually understood what it was they were looking for and needed hashkafically. Out of curiosity, and to verify my own presumptions, I asked my friend to explain what each of those were, and they proceeded to try and do just that - and did quite a good job of explaining themselves rather clearly, furthering a point that Special Ed originally suggested and which I think has proven itself time and again:
Special Ed: a lot of the use of labels is to cover up for the fact the they don't know the person you're asking them about all that well.

Labels are just an easy way to describe someone, and the lack of detail is a convenient cover for lack of knowledge.

Ez: I found that a few people were described or described themselves or what they were looking for to me; almost none used any labels whatsoever. The more closely they knew the person, the less likely they were to use any labels at all. For example, a person describing their sister used zero labels to describe their sister, but when it came to talking about what their sister was looking for, they were able to explain a lot of it without... but the parts they were vague on they resorted to labels. As another note, our friends who describe what they mean without falling back on labels give a much better sense of what they are and want than those who do not.
But at the same time, my friend was slightly frustrated by the definition they had given of themselves. [edited for formatting, emphasis, etc.]
Friend: I'm a confusing person.
Ez: You're in that elusive "normal" label.
Friend: I guess. Just very moderate; not too extreme either way. And it's somewhat difficult to define frumkeit sometimes... most of the time it's a sense of things that you can't quite explain... (Ez: yup)
: ...especially in terms of another person. (Ez: YUP)
Friend: Right - so I don't like explaining "why" all the time because sometimes it can't be explained. (Ez: yup)
: Sigh.
Meanwhile, while I understand my friend perfectly, the question remains as to whether I could give that over to someone else... and even if I can, would they understand?

After mulling that over for a few minutes, I think I know the answer to that one. But before I get to the answer, this post by a young woman named Miri made a very salient set of points:
I know that categorization is a useful and necessary tool for manipulating and understanding the world, and G-d knows, for shidduchim. But there is a limit people. Really. I am, indeed, all for the whole "be in as many categories as you want! It's fun and confusing!"approach, because it is fun. And confusing. But there is a point at which other people really don't care as much as you do. So, you know. Chill out.

I think this last is very possibly my main point. When you start getting into long-winded, more than thirty word descriptions of exactly who, where, and what you are in the Jewish world, it gets to be a little much. It's like "ok, I get it, you're not the steryotype!" Only, of course, you are.

I mean, look man, all I'm saying is this; I barely have the energy to care about my own issues of identity (which I have, just like everyone else) but I have even less patience for everyone else's issues of identity. Really, we don't care that much. And really? Neither should you.
Amen. In the beginning of the post, we discussed that improvements to and solutions of problems require understanding of what the problems are and how they came about. When everyone is trying to come up with a simplified understanding and breakdown of people, 'defining' people into certain categories, it automatically leads to large amounts of people doing what they can to fit into certain boxes as opposed to "other" boxes. The old "two shuls - one to go to and one not to" joke certainly rings true. At the same time, people hate being put into their own box, either, so they continually explain just how they're different from all the rest.

And now, back to the answer. Even if I could describe my friend well, would people understand me? Would they be able to 'get' that "sense of things you can't quite explain?"

You know what - I think they could. The ones who want that, the ones who are looking for that, they'll understand. They'll know that this is someone worth spending some time getting to know and seeing if it makes sense for them. They'll understand that someone who is unable or unwilling to put themselves into - or even explain how they can't put themselves into - all the neat little boxes is not someone who doesn't know themselves, but someone who is simply frum. Or normal. Or whatever you want to call it. Oh, and that they might not have decided everything in life yet, either.
Friend: I was just thinking earlier today that I don't have an opinion on EVERYTHING, but I don't think that that matters even...

Friend: ...sometimes it's because I just haven't really thought about it too much; and sometimes it's because I thought about it so much I just concluded that I have no conclusion.
As to all the people looking for neat little labels and boxes, I wish them well, and hope that they find whatever ticky-tack box they're looking for. Just remember that in that quest to fit into the perfect little box that's just like all the other ones, it becomes a lot harder to show the fine details that makes it different from all the other little boxes.
And they all get put in boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.


  1. Under the category, the danger of little boxes: Video on Home Sweeet Home, a place where Orthodox kids go to get acceptance when the system has disappointed them and they have turned to drugs and other forms of self-destructive behavior. Somewhere in the vid, somebody actually admits that one of the causes of this phenomenon is the "little boxes" sickness or our current Orthodox culture. It seems we reject them when they don't fit into the little boxes and then we try to put our arms around them and love them after they've completely fallen into harm's way sometimes as a result of the original rejection. Watching this video has me wondering, How far down the downward spiral does a kid have to fall in order for the adults around him to say,"It's ok if you don't fit our picture of Frum, we love you anyway?"

  2. The original that G based his writing on was a Pete Seeger rant against conformity, and I think that's a good word to throw into this discussion. It's not just the labels that people use. They can't adequately define those labels, at least not in less than one million words, but it is expected that we all conform to them.

    As I've posted before, I don't play the label game any more. If someone asks me what kind of frum I am when I plain label myself "frum," I answer "God's kind" and leave it at that. Should anyone be so unwise as to ask me to explain that, I refer them back to God for an answer.

  3. Anon Mom - Any idea where I can find that online? It sounds really interesting...! And I think that that last question is always the big one. Sadly, it often seems like parents are more accepting only after the kid has become completely irreligious as opposed to a 'different' type of frum.

    ProfK - It's not just the labels that people use. They can't adequately define those labels, at least not in less than one million words, but it is expected that we all conform to them.

    Absolutely. Hence why G's version is so apt...

    If someone asks me what kind of frum I am when I plain label myself "frum," I answer "God's kind" and leave it at that. Should anyone be so unwise as to ask me to explain that, I refer them back to God for an answer.

    That's really good - I like that one. I should answer that! Truth is, though, most of the people we come across these days wouldn't ask such a question. I do think that my generation is switching back out of these labels to an extent.

  4. OKAY, I'M COMMENTING!! What more do I really need to add, anyway? ;) Be Jewish. Do G-d's will. Be happy. Love your fellow man/woman. Don't make assumptions. Concentrate on improving yourself instead of nosing into other people's business, but be humble. End of story.

  5. ezzie, finally. a post my bubbe can sing along to.


  7. Am I the only one who knows that the original song "Little Boxes" was by Malvina Reynolds, written about the "box" housing of Daly City, a suburb of San Francisco???
    The reason this parody was written is because, unfortunately, it contains a kernel of truth.

  8. I've already posted on the proper use of labels, albeit in a different context. Labels, like so many other things in life, have a benefit when used appropriately. They can facilitate effective communication and help us to understand where someone's coming from quickly. However, the purpose is defeated when people mistake the label for the person.

  9. Ezzie, it's on Bang It Out. I don't have time to give you the exact link. I was heartbroken when I saw it, not because of the content which is old news to me, but because of all the warmth that these guys are getting from the exact world that rejected them in the first place. My friend who recommended I see the vid completely missed the tragedy of this irony. I mentioned elsewhere that Neil Fleischman, NY's Funniest Rabbi blog, opens his classes with this song every year. I think it's great for teenagers. There are a million versions of it--including Pete's--on You Tube.

  10. And I must add the following caveat:
    anyone who reaches out to people who need a hand, who need to be helped up and see love and warmth in the Frum world is worthy of my respect and support. I support all organizations and individuals who lift people up. I don't want to disparage the great works of those who do. I would, however, like to see our community full throttle demand of the leading Rabbis that changes be made in the current educational system and that we need to address the "Yachidim" differently than we currently do. I want the change to be preventative initiatives as much as reaction initiatives. Speech over.

  11. Pete Seeger, being a Communist, wouldn't appreciate this, but part of the Communist legacy in now-liberated countries is very large boxes made out of ticky-tacky. Another part of their legacy in those countries was massive pollution of land, water, and air.

  12. btw, Malvina Reynolds' leanings were the same as Seeger's