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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

‘The Dance’

I honestly never know what inconsequential element people are going to become fixated on when I post anything here at treppenwitz. I may think that I’m writing something insightful or timely about topic ‘X’, only to tune in later to find most of the comments were about some incidental ‘Y’.

Case in point is yesterday’s post about the wonderful evening we had with the, um, the Fish’s (or perhaps more correctly, Not the Fish’s). I wrote a breezy little entry about a lovely evening out with lovely people, and for humor’s sake added in a mention of a fleeting moment of awkwardness when Imshin and I greeted one another.

Well, it seems that this awkward moment caught the attention of many readers… and as a result most of the comments were about ‘the dance’.

HSBC, a bank that does business around the world, has a serious of witty ads about cultural disconnects that feature the tagline; ‘Never underestimate the importance of local knowledge’. They go on to use such examples as 'football in America vs football in England'… 'A handshake in Europe vs Bowing in Japan'…'escargot in Paris vs chicken feet in Beijing'. You get the idea. One reason the ads resonate with the public is that, at one time or another, nearly everyone has made an ass of themselves over some sort of cultural blunder.

I remember from the many times my ship visited Japan that I could never get the whole bowing thing to work for me. It wasn’t as if I ended up knocking heads with anybody, but there were many moments of mutual confusion because Japanese wouldn’t expect a young westerner to bow… so they would usually extend their hand in a typically western greeting. I, trying to be sensitive to local cultural, would try to bow correctly. I later learned that the timing, depth, precedence and length of a bow is a cultural skill that Japanese know from a lifetime of practice, and which westerners rarely if ever get right. When Japanese are nervous or embarrassed they usually try to hide it by smiling widely or possibly even giggling. Lets just say I encountered a lot of giddy Japanese during my many visits there.

Getting back to cultural blunders, these things really can’t help but happen when one culture bumps up against another. The problem among Jews (especially in Israel) is that Judaism has a wide range of religious and cultural norms that can be devilishly hard to sort out. One of the most obvious is the one to which I eluded yesterday when I made mention of ‘the dance’.

For those who are not familiar with the finer points of this topic I’ll review.

Among religiously observant Jews there is a prohibition against unrelated men and women touching one another (some would add the phrase ‘in an affectionate manner’).

Anyway, the reasons for this prohibition stem from two unrelated issues:

1.  Menstruation is considered to be a condition that makes a woman ritually ‘impure’. This is not to say dirty, or defiled in any way (a common misconception)… but rather the potential for life was there, and menstruation is a sure sign that that potential has passed. To remove this impurity an observant woman goes once a month to a ritual bath.

2.  Touching in an affectionate way, according to Jewish law, is something that is supposed to be reserved for married people (that is, people married to one another… don’t think I don’t know what you were thinking!). There are a whole slew of ‘fences’ that have been built around this issue by generations of Rabbis, but depending on your community and religiosity, it may or may not extend to shaking hands or exchanging kisses upon greeting someone of the opposite gender.

For the sake of context, it is probably important to point out that I grew up in a family that was fairly physically expressive… kisses, hugs, etc.  My parents’ friends, many of whom were 60s-era lefties (read: hippies) were also quite touchy-feely about greetings, so I grew up fairly comfortable with the whole gambit of handshakes, kisses and hugs. We’ll set aside for the moment my feelings about the bright red lipstick mark my mother always leaves on my cheek.

When I became more observant I entered a world where greetings rarely, if ever, involved physical contact… and I had to try to sort out how I would personally address this complex issue.

In the end I decided to follow the path of least resistance – a path, incidentally, that almost everyone would agree has only a tenuous basis in Jewish Law. It is generally understood that if one will break a rule by doing something.... and will break another by not doing that same thing, there exists a ‘pecking order’ of sorts by which the less serious prohibition may be temporarily set aside. The most obvious example of this would be driving on Shabbat.  No, one shouldn't drive on shabbat, but to bring someone to the hospital it would not only be allowed, but required! 

The meager halachic hook upon which I hung my decision was a largely ignored prohibition against publicly embarrassing someone.  I reasoned that I couldn’t very well embarrass a woman by letting her stick out her hand or cheek into thin air with no response. So, for a while I would hesitate, upon meeting a woman, in order to let the her make the first move. This would allow me to respond in kind.

Voila! Nobody is embarrassed!

In time, partly because I worked almost entirely with non-Jews and/or secular Jews, I found myself reverting to the touchy-feely-ness of my upbringing, and being perfectly comfortable with whatever greeting customs held sway with the people around me.

The problem here in Israel, is that most people are aware (at least nominally) of the issue of religious folks and touching, and as a result when a religious and non-religious man and woman (or often even two religious people from different backgrounds) meet for the first time, each will hesitate in order to let the other person make the first move. The result is an awkward, flat-footed moment where a man and woman face each over a gulf of tense, empty space and both end up being embarrassed.

I shouldn’t complain, though. True, I may have missed out on a kiss from Imshin (as perfectly innocent as it would have been, I assure you). But it is a reassuring sign of sensitivity in an often-insensitive society that two people from somewhat different places along the religious spectrum would share a moment of slight embarrassment in an attempt to spare one another from, um, being embarrassed.


Posted by David Bogner on February 2, 2005 | Permalink


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"The result is an awkward, flat-footed moment where a man and woman face each over a gulf of tense, empty space and both end up being embarrassed."

...so thatis "the dance"?? Is that what you're saying? I'm confused. I need a visual help.

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Feb 2, 2005 1:46:25 PM

mademoiselle a. ... whenver you and I finally get to meet, I promise to give you a personal demonstration (although, be prepared... the moment will probably end with you being kissed!) :-)

As much as I'd like to try to capture such a moment for your Photo Friday request, I doubt I'll be lucky enough to be in just the right place and time with my camera when two strangers do 'the dance'.

Posted by: David | Feb 2, 2005 1:53:57 PM

I laughed sooo much when you described "the dance" to me. I had that same problem when I met Jeffrey (my obiter dicta). I had been nervous before meeting him about whether I should shake his hand or not. So I said hello, smiled, and, ya know, did the "dance", until I waited for a reaction from him, LOL. Then he extended his hand, and everything turned out well! Oh and he's VERY nice, by the way. You should meet him, since you're practically neighbors.

Posted by: Hatshepsut | Feb 2, 2005 2:37:17 PM

Ehrm when you described the dance generally I mean, not "to me". :)

Posted by: Hatshepsut | Feb 2, 2005 2:38:05 PM

I am very familiar with the awkwardness of the "dance." Many years ago a dear friend of mine introduced me to his fiancee. I was excited for him that I gave both of them a congratulatory hug.

He was fine with it, but it was only as I was hugging her that I realized that my exuberance had led to a faux pas. I felt really silly and foolish about it, but they played it off.

She teased me a little and told me that I was now an "unofficial brother" and that I shouldn't be uncomfortable.

It did relieve a little of the tension, but I still felt rather foolish.

Posted by: Jack | Feb 2, 2005 5:06:52 PM

the "affectionate manner" reference may deserve more attention than it got. the way I have understood the topic is that the act of touching itself is less of a problem as the intent behind the touch. if there is a crowded bakery on friday morning with men and women shuffling about in the store trying to get to their baklava or rugelach, accidental brushing up during that process is by all accounts "innocent" and not subject to any tsk-tsk's. storytime: the principal of my neighborhood orthodox elementary school lived in our town, and he was a strictly observant rabbi. I distinctly remember that his wife would make a conscious effort to extend her hand when greeting men she did not know and who she probably thought might not be comfortable with how to greet her. that nips any possibility of embarrasment in the bud. her actions stood out to me as those of a sensitive, righteous woman, for as the talmud tells us, embarrassing someone in public is akin to killing them.

as you pointed out, israel is especially prone due to the knowledge level of the whole concept, and although I refrain from touching within the observant circle, I have made it a habit to always unhesitatingly extend my hand at business meetings or other times where it would otherwise be deemed appropriate...and the smile received back tells me that it was the right way to handle the situation.

...I see the meal with imshin and bish added a dreaded pound to the scale - but it was probably worth it!!

Posted by: yonah | Feb 2, 2005 5:08:01 PM

It's a really odd thing to deal with some times. I had a shomer negiya relationship once where, in making the faux pas of sticking out a hand to shake, several of my friends had touched her and I hadn't which struck me as odd!


Posted by: Gilly | Feb 2, 2005 7:48:05 PM

I ranted at length in the previous post about my difficulty with this issue, but for me specifically it gets even worse.

A general exception to the legalities about touching exists for healthcare. There is no violation of Jewish law if I am examining a female patient. In any case, that is probably not "affectionate" touching. The problem is that the boundary between professional and personal is frequently fuzzy and that touch can be therapeutic, not just diagnostic. Meaning, a hand on the shoulder can go a long way to reassure someone who is anxious; a handshake can solidify the bond of an initial encounter and help forge a therapeutic partnership. I am never inapropriately "touchy-feely" with patients (not just for religious reasons) but I do always shake hands and frequently say bye with a hand on the shoulder. 90% of the time this is fine, since most of my patients are not Jewish, or not Orthodox, but with my religious female patients, we frequently do the dance. I may have just examined her knee, but, forgetting that she's religious, I'll extend my hand before seeing a slight grimace in her face. "Drat" I think "Knee is fine; hand is bad." I then retract my hand, smile like a goon, and after she leaves, stick my head in the trash can.

Proposed solution: small ribbon pins worn on the lapel that are color coded. Only religious Jews know the code. White: hug and kiss me; it's fine. Black: don't touch me. What do you think?

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Feb 2, 2005 8:56:20 PM

Hatshepsut... First of all, I understood that that's what you meant. :-) Also, I'm embarrassed to admit I still haven't met 'my obiter dicta' (which is really criminal since he lives withing a few minutes walk of my house).

Jack... Nicely done. You sailed right on past the handshake stage and went right for the full body hug. I'm taking notes here as we speak. :-) Lucky for you she was the forgiving type.

Yonah... I'd like to know how you dealt with the whole 'touching' issue when those young girls were throwing themselves onto the stage around your feet (yes folks, Yonah is a bonified retired rock guitarist)? That, my friend, was for mentioning the extra pound! :-)

Gilly... Does this mean you're back from the army??? Good to hear from you. For those who haven't been following along, Gilly was taken from his new bride and warm hearth and made to serve a term of reserve duty, keeping the greater Jerusalem area safe from the bad guys.

Anyway, where were we... oh yes, Gilly, That doesn't sound like a very fair arrangement. your friends got to touch your girlfriend and you couldn't. Well, thank G-d that's all in the past. I'm sure your wife will be very pleased to have you back from the IDF. ;-)

Doctor Bean... Good idea about the ribbons, but you'd have to have more than two colors. Add to the list the following:

Red: Don't even think of touching me!
Yellow: A brief handshake (if you must)
Blue: A quick peck on the cheek, but no body contact.
Purple: A kiss on both cheeks and full frontal contact OK.
Green: Big smack on the lips and a lingering hug (popular with recent, or soon-to-be divorcees)

Let me know if I've forgotten any.

Posted by: David | Feb 2, 2005 11:14:15 PM

pink = pinch my butt

Posted by: Alice | Feb 3, 2005 1:36:56 AM

Jack... Nicely done. You sailed right on past the handshake stage and went right for the full body hug. I'm taking notes here as we speak. :-)

You know me, not much for convention. :)

Posted by: Jack | Feb 3, 2005 5:08:49 AM

Reminds me of a haver who became religious, and I, living in Israel, understood the new prohibitions. But my little sister came to visit from the States and was shocked that her former tennis teacher was so aloof. (not to mention that she had grown from 10 to 16!).

good post all around and I loved hearing about the night out on the town.

Posted by: timna | Feb 3, 2005 6:53:51 AM

Alice... Just to be clear... that was a ribbon idea and not an order, right? :-)

Jack... You are a master of understatement.

Timna... thanks for sharing, I'm sure that was quite off-putting. I didn't really address the whole Ba'al Tshuva (newly religious) aspect of the equation in this entry. This is something that can get quite dicey because your family, friends and coworkers are used to you acting a certain way... and suddenly there are new rules, funny diet, different greeting and a strange schedule of availibility. Trust me when I say this is a difficult transition for all involved.

Posted by: David | Feb 3, 2005 10:18:59 AM

I probably do 'The Dance' with everyone. What can I say? I like dancing.

Posted by: Imshin | Feb 3, 2005 1:40:18 PM

oh my, Imshin! That raises another question I hadn't considered: Mixed dancing! :-)

Posted by: David | Feb 3, 2005 1:49:39 PM

"I'd like to know how you dealt with the whole 'touching' issue when those young girls were throwing themselves onto the stage around your feet"

Yes, Yonah, how DID you do that??? ; )

Posted by: curious georgette | Mar 17, 2006 9:17:47 PM

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