Earlier this month, I responded to a letter in the Yated from a father who complained that Pesach (and the assorted Pesach outings that one must take his kids on) were bankrupting him. I responded with a list of ten things that could be done in New York City at little or no cost. One of the things on my list was a trip to FAO Schwarz (which I misspelled in my original post).
Shortly after it appeared, I received a letter from Efrex, one of my readers. His letter said as follows:
I came by your blog fairly recently (you quoted a piece of mine from the blogosphere), and I wanted to respond to a post that you made a few weeks back.
In your piece on "Living in one's means," you listed a few things that a budget-conscious frum family could do on Pesach. On your list, you mention visiting FAO Schwarz without buying anything. This sounds innocuous, but is one of the sources of a HUGE chillul hashem that happens annually. My wife worked at FAO as a toy demonstrator for the first two years of our marriage, and she could regale you with horror stories of frum families who used the store personnel as their personal babysitters for hours on end. When, in a single day, dozens of frum families parade through the store, handling everything and buying nothing, I can assure you that none of the workers is thinking about the twenty other non-Jewish families who did the same thing; rather, they're thinking quite a number of unprintable things.
Frum families are EXTREMELY conspicuous in the city during Pesach time, and they need to be aware of the impression they make.
Sadly, I'd say that I have to agree with him. I, too, have seen public behavior by members of our community that makes me cringe. While I'm willing to believe that most of us are capable of behaving ourselves in public, the sad fact remains that the few of us who don't stand out and make a big (negative) impression on the rest of the public.
And, to be perfectly fair, I have to even add myself to the list of troublemakers. I recently attended a Broadway show (Macbeth) with my lovely wife. We sat in the balcony in the first row. At one point during the performance, I leaned forward (since I was in the first row, there was no one ahead of me) to get a better view of the stage. After a few minutes of sitting leaning forward, I received a tap on my shoulder from the person sitting behind me asking me to sit back because I was blocking her view. Of course, I gave a quick (and quiet) "I'm sorry," sat back and watched the rest of the show. After the show, I turned around and again apologized, telling her that I had no idea that I was blocking her view (if I knew I was, I certainly never would have leaned forward). While she didn't yell or curse or do anything outwardly hostile, I could also see that she wasn't going to be gracious about it either. The point is that I'm sure that I didn't just end up in her mind as the jerk who was blocking her view, but the Jewish jerk who was blocking her view.
Is it necessarily fair that our misdeeds stand out more than the "average Joe's?" No, not really, but as my mother reminds me (and I remind my kids), life isn't always fair. As Orthodox Jews who are very conspicuous to the public eye, we have to do our best to maintain proper behavior in public. As Efrex points out in his letter, it doesn't matter that twenty other non-Jewish families do the same annoying things that the few Jewish families did - it is the Jewish families who will be remembered.
I suppose it would be nice if we put the same effort into encouraging proper public behavior as we do in encouraging the latest tznius chumra or silly ban.