Monday, January 27, 2014

The 'Fraier'... An Israeli phenomenon

Growing up Jewish in Canada, my siblings and I were always reminded by our parents to behave properly in public.  Our parents, grandparents and teachers were constantly teaching us the dangers of causing a 'chilul Hashem', loosely translated as 'desecrating God's name'.  God forbid we behaved in a way that would cause our Canadian neighbors to look at us, shake their heads and think something negatively about Jews.  We had to be vigilant about being a light unto the nations, remember who we were at all times and be a shining example to those around us.  We were always polite when getting on and off the bus (and quiet and well-behaved while on the bus), taking the time to smile and thank the bus driver for taking us to where we needed to go safely.  We would stand quietly in the checkout line when our mother took us shopping and help her bag the groceries and lug them to the car.  We were quiet in libraries and museums and didn't (or tried not to) fight with our siblings in public.  We were taught to let the old lady standing behind us in the supermarket checkout line take our place ahead of us so she would not have to stand on her feet longer than necessary and to graciously let someone into our lane if they indicated that they needed to switch lanes.  

Then I came to Israel.  I know this doesn't really make any sense, but the vibe I got almost immediately is that there is no reason to worry about not causing a 'chilul Hashem' because we are all Jews.  No need to worry about what other people think of us.  We ARE the other people.  And then there was that new word that cropped up every once in a while, usually used in a derogatory fashion:

No, it's not some stainless steel monstrosity of a machine that you dunk your 13 pound turkey in in order to deep fry it for Thanksgiving and it's not the black-robed monk that might live in the monastery nearby.  I don't know if there's a direct accurate English translation of the word, but for lack of a better one, I'll use this: patsy.

But you could substitute it for doormat, sucker, pushover, sitting duck, easy mark or another half dozen words.  To call someone a 'fraier' is the ultimate Israeli insult.  It has all sorts of negative connotations, from being a wimp or weakling, to being not strong enough in your convictions, but mostly it means that you consistently allow everyone to step all over you.

In the average Israeli's attempt to not be a fraier, they've forgotten about etiquette in public places.  They don't know you, so what do they care if they smoke in your face?  Putting out the cigarette because you politely informed them that the smoke is bothering you would be like they were backing down.  Hence: fraier.  Allowing you into the lane in front of them would be letting you win.  Hence: fraier.  Allowing you to skip ahead of them in the checkout line because you have three items to their hundred items would be showing you their weakness.  Hence: fraier.

About three years after I made Aliya, I went to the supermarket with my husband a couple of nights before Passover.  Obviously, the place was nuts.  You'd think that we were about to be cut off from food and water for the next six months.  We finally checked out and had just loaded our groceries into the trunk of the car when we noticed a skirmish in the parking lot.  With only one lane to pass, there was one car attempting to leave the parking lot while another car was attempting the same thing but coming from the other direction.  They were hood to hood, headlights to headlights and neither one of them was agreeing to back up in reverse to allow the other one the right of way.  We stood there, the two of us, flabbergasted at the nonsense that was going on in the parking lot.  Everyone who exited the supermarket attempted to get involved, giving their opinion about who they thought was in the right, who was in the wrong and who should back down and claim defeat.  Within minutes, you had a parking lot with about forty people, screaming at one another while the two drivers were leaning on their horns without pause.  Honestly, it was one of the most ridiculous thing I have witnessed in my life.  And all because neither of these drivers wanted to be labeled as the 'fraier'.  I've seen more than my fair share of screaming matches occur in the supermarket checkout lines because of some stupid fight about 'not being the fraier'.  Everyone within a mile radius of the fight always seems to have an opinion about what happened and they are not quiet about sharing their views.  No matter what the fight is about, the results are all the same.  Basically, all hell breaks out.  Chaos ensues and everyone goes home frazzled.  

My usual reaction when I'm on the receiving end of such rudeness is by making a snarky comment to the aggressor.  My brother who has lived in this country for about a decade less than I have has managed to find quieter and more interesting and effective ways to respond to Israeli rudeness.

I was sitting with him at a cafe on Derech Beit Lechem.  We were sitting outside - it was a warm spring day and we had just ordered from the menu.  Along came a loud-mouthed woman who plunked herself down at the table right next to us, proceeded to light her cigarette and then not just smoked it, but kept turning her face towards our table and blowing the offensive smoke directly into our nostrils.  My brother saw that I was getting steamed up about it and he didn't say anything except fiddled with his phone for a bit.  Then he placed his phone in the center of the table, put a finger to his mouth and said, "just laugh at whatever I say, but don't look at her."  I complied and we pretended to laugh about something.  Just then a ping went off from HER phone and she picked it up, read the text and then looked anxiously around her.  She then put out her cigarette, jumped up and stormed off.  Now I was shocked.  My brother started laughing so hard that he could barely catch his breath.  And then he explained.  He had recognized her as one of the local real estate agents that had shown him some apartments a couple months earlier.  He still had her number programmed into his phone.  Instead of getting into an altercation with her about her smoking, he simply scrolled through his contacts, and (anonymously) texted her the following:  "you are being very rude by smoking in everyone's faces.  Please either put out your cigarette or leave."  Flustered and probably spooked as to who had texted her, she quickly did as she was asked.  It was the highlight of my day.

Years later, we were flying to Poland together to meet our parents for a roots trip.  On the LOT flight, my brother got the aisle seat, I was in the middle and an ultra-Orthodox woman was sitting by the window seat.  She had unilaterally decided that she should take possession of both arm rests and that sticking her elbows out to the point where they were sticking into my rib cage was her absolute right and no amount of asking her nicely to please move over was working.  I told my brother that I was going nuts.  He smiled and got up.  "Get up," he said.  I stood up and he switched with me, angling his body towards the woman by the window.  Being ultra-Orthodox, she freaked out and plastered herself to the window for the entire four-hour flight.  Without saying a single solitary word, he managed to put both of these rude women in their place and showed them that he was no fraier....

But what I find interesting is people's reactions when you do step up and make a kind and thoughtful gesture towards someone you don't know.  I was recently in the supermarket with a shopping cart filled to the rim with food.  A man stood behind me in line with a French baguette, a tub of humus and a cucumber.  He didn't say a word, but was waiting patiently for me to check out.  I took the initiative and asked him if he wanted to go in front of me.  He seemed shocked.  "It's okay?  You sure?"  I assured him that it was fine and he happily took my place in line.  Not a minute later, an older woman came into the line with just a couple of things.  I nodded to her and told her that she can go before me too, if she wanted to.  Again, shock registered on her face.  "You're so lovely, thank you," she said.  In the end, I probably lost less than five minutes of my time, but knowing that I did the right thing made up for it tenfold.

Did they think I was a fraier?  Probably.  But it must have confused them since I seemed happy with being labeled as such.  I guess what I'm trying to say is that despite the fact that we are all Jews living together in a Jewish country, we should still be vigilant about causing a 'chilul Hashem', and that we should strive to behave with dignity in public.  We should forget about possibly being labeled a 'fraier' and focus on trying to do the right thing.  Letting someone into your lane doesn't make you a fraier.  It makes you a nice person.  Maybe we'll turn the tables around and over time we'll redefine the word.

My name is Chavi, and although I'm definitely no pushover (ask my husband....) I am sometimes called a fraier.  And I'm proud of it.

1 comment:

  1. Very well written, but I think it will take a very long time before "fraier" becomes a compliment here, especially on the road! Proud that I taught you to be "a fraier" ie polite!