August 22, 2019

Giving and Receiving a Stink Eye

“ Stink eye: A surfer term meaning a glare or lingering dirty look”

There we were, a few years ago, in the back row of the synagogue and our son with special needs started making some annoying noises, but not too loud. Most of the congregants who came fairly regularly had known our son, Danny, from a young age, and were very tolerant of his idiosyncrasies, but the older, well-dressed woman in front of us was a stranger, probably there for the family bar mitzvah that day. She turned and gave him (and me and my husband) a massive stink eye that was impossible to miss.

I wanted to try to explain that he had a developmental disability likely due to a nasty case of RSV pneumonia as an infant, blah blah, blah, but it wasn’t exactly a support group venue. Instead, the woman’s daughter, who we knew as an acquaintance, whispered something in her mother or aunt’s ear, and the older woman turned back with a small, pursed smile.

There's something chilling about that that long look of disapproval–even if you were watching a show in a foreign language and couldn't understand a word, that particular look would be easy to understand. The stink eye is very different than the curious look we receive from young children, who have never seen someone with an obvious physical or developmental disability, and are trying to figure out why this teen is moving and talking the way he is.

During a recent text study session at a Hamercaz professionals meeting, we read together a passage from the portion called Nitzvaim, which speaks of how God renewed his covenant with the Jewish people, including “your small children, your women and your proselyte who is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water…” This is a wonderful example of how to define a very inclusive community. My friend, Elaine Hall, Founder and Director of the inclusive special-needs drama program, The Miracle Project, said, “this means our clergy and lay leaders should tell congregants to keep their stink eyes turned off at shul, just like our cell phones.”

This is easier than it sounds, because we all have moments where we pass judgment and cast a dirty look.  I know I sure did when I recently walked into a crowded Coffee Bean with our son, who was using his walker. Usually, when people see Danny pushing his walker and looking for a place to sit down, they move over in their chairs and quickly make space for the two of us. One young woman was intently looking at her cell phone, leaning against the top of the closest chair. I asked if that spot was taken, and she glanced up for second and then said with an irritated edge to her voice, “that’s my spot.” A nice couple on the other side of the restaurant saw what was happening and waved us over, saying they were just getting ready to leave. As I walked over, I gave the rude woman a stink eye of my own.