It’s 2022; What Happened to Shame and Its Consequences?
It was an all too common refrain: “shaymish nisht” — don’t embarrass yourself, and by extension, your family and your people. Carry yourself in public with the knowledge that what you do, and by extension, what you don’t do, will have an impact not only on yourself, but all of us. And not just today, but for the foreseeable future.
How often did I overhear my parents debate whether a certain individual’s public transgression would be “bad for the Jews”? European history is replete with hostility and violence directed at the Jewish populace for an action, perceived or otherwise, that was deemed criminal, unethical, or anti-Christian?
I grew up in a home where shame, or more exactly, its possibility, hung over us like a dense fog.
It was in synagogue this past Saturday, the Sabbath before the new Hebrew month of Kislev, that we read the prayer welcoming the calendar’s change: “Grant us a long life, a peaceful life with goodness and blessing… a life free from shame and reproach… a life in which our hearts’ desires for goodness will be fulfilled.”
“Shame and reproach.” A human condition that seems to have nearly vanished, experienced by only a few.
We live in a world where public behavior has devolved. Where people’s life savings are lost because those people put their trust in others who use greed as a weapon.
We live in a country where politicians can openly lie, act brazenly and unethically, break the law, and still be elected to office — where celebrities, with followers in the tens of millions, can disseminate obscene conspiracy theories, claim the earth is flat, or that the Holocaust never happened, and get away with it.
People don’t care. There is no shame, or consequence for shameful and disgraceful behavior.
Instead, we live in a world where ordinary people seek fleeting Internet fame by posting bizarre, explicit, and embarrassing videos, and where neighbors turn their backs on the poor and less fortunate.
Perhaps my parents and their generation took it a bit too far — but who could blame them? They knew that without the knowledge of how one’s action would be perceived, and the absence of shame — our lives would no longer be free from reproach. And although it is the Almighty who grants us a “long life,” it is our responsibility to live it correctly.
Anything less would be a shande.
The son of Holocaust survivors from Ukraine and Poland, Steven Tenenbaum is a retired surgeon who records his encounters with memory and legacy on his website: memorycarriers.com