A Walk on the Troubled Side

I confess. I have some prejudices. Example: I want my children to marry Jews. Beyond that, I am comfortable with other people. I try to avoid racial humor, even when there is a good punch line. I’m a clinical psychologist and a professor, and I serve a multicultural population. Prejudice is not my thing.

At times, I am a realist. Example: Saturday, Aug. 9, was a time of caution for me. It was Shabbat Chazon, the sabbath that precedes the Fast of Av, commemorating a period of tragic and sad times for Jews throughout our national history. And it was a sad time for me. My father had emergency surgery that day, and I was intent upon visiting him right after morning services.

That leads me to another confession. I admit that I am a Torah-observing Jew. I do not drive on any Shabbat. Dad was within walking distance, but given the summer heat, it was going to be a schlep. So I sat down right after shul and scanned a map with my married sister, who would accompany me to the hospital. We had two choices, and both routes crossed through areas with heavy concentrations of ethnic minorities. I tend not to drive much in those parts of town and never had considered taking a stroll there. Fairfax Avenue south, or Hauser Boulevard to Venice Boulevard — those were our considerations on that steamy Saturday morning.

Shabbat Chazon has an ominous atmosphere in my circles. Even at the Friday-evening services, we chant “Lecha Dodi” to a dirge. People are a bit more on edge, cautious about going out in the nine days of Av. But my father was in the hospital, my mother was with him, and my job was to comfort and help them. We chose our route and set out. We had a direction and knew where we were headed.

It’s odd walking in the heat, wearing a suit, tie and hat. My sister’s sheitel and her modest dress were doubtless a sight for curious eyes, as well. But walk, we did. The nice part of our journey was that the denizens of these unfamiliar neighborhoods, persons of color and of ethnicities other than ours, were cordial. We were greeted with “good morning,” with smiles, with nods or were politely ignored. We offered some greetings of our own, some smiles, some nods, and we ignored no one, ever cautious about the spectrum of persons who hung out, watching us as we passed. After a couple of miles, we were touched by the scene, fully aware that we must seem a bit out of place there. No matter.

So why the essay? Our tranquillity was short-lived. The first scare came when a car cruised passed us and the taunting ensued. Not too long later, another car chanced by us, and we got some jeers. An insult here, a name there, a jibe and an affront. Now, I’m a clinical psychologist. I can take it. It’s their pathology. They’re the ones with the problem. Great.

The problem was, the jeering came from fellow Jews, who were somehow uncomfortable seeing a pair of Shabbat observers walking. Fine, it was my hat and trimmed beard that gave me away. My yellow star was my fedora. But Jews doing this? To fellow Jews? Jeering Jews using Yiddish references, accompanied by vile speculations about my canine ancestry and kindred obscenities, and we were not even guilty of jaywalking?

I don’t think that this would have happened a few years ago. I know that it never happened when I was a young man, or when I was a teen-ager studying in a yeshiva. Jews baiting Jews on a Los Angeles street? On a Saturday in August? Unheard of.

So, what do we blame it on? A psychologist might blame it on an insecurity (or a Freudian will blame it on Mother). A sociologist might attribute it to self-hate or the need to make an “out group” in order to strengthen their sense of being an “in group.” A politician might trace it to recent allegations amplified (and distorted) by the world press, and to events at the Western Wall, and call it retaliation. After all, don’t the Orthodox believe that they are the only real Jews, or something sinister like that? A theologian might say that this is the age-old enmity between Jew and Jew.

Our tradition goes so far as to say that our nation lost its homeland as a result of senseless hate against one another. I know that in our small kehilla, we devoted an afternoon and an evening of study to look at ways to rectify this ill feeling that can limit our respect for others. Patching up relationships is important. Learning to be tolerant is another essential. To me, being the target of “Go back to shul where you @&C%!’@ belong” in full sight and earshot of 50 puzzled south Fairfax pedestrians leaves me frightened. We know that diversity can breed tension, yet what are we doing to ease through the tension? Who is condoning it? Who among us wants this bitter factionalization?

My sister and I sat down to plot out a safe way through all the risks. We didn’t want to provoke any trouble or appear like easy targets in a rough neighborhood. We found a way. We got our bearings and had a direction to follow. The two of us knew exactly where we were headed.

But now I am left with the question: Where are we Jews headed?

Dr. David Fox is a clinical psychologist and graduate school professor who practices in Beverly Hills. He’s also an ordained rabbi who leads a Torah study and worship group at the Sunrise (Hashkama) Minyan at Young Israel of Hancock Park.