July 8, 2020

We all have things that we are ashamed of. If you’re reading this and you don’t think you do, seriously, you should be ashamed of that.

Some of the things that we are ashamed of are truly shame worthy. Some are voices in our heads, things that people have said or that society has succeeded in making us feel bad about. 

There are things I’ve done in my past that I am ashamed of. Some things I should be ashamed of. Others just bring up silly shame. Shame is such an incredibly powerful feeling. There really isn’t a lot we can do about it.  

But, if it’s something that is bothering you and you can change, change it. If it’s something you did in the past, you need to accept that you did it. Do not do it again and figure out what you need to do to move on. Not an easy task and incredibly easier said than done.

Before the pandemic I went to speak about The Advot Project’s work to a senior home for Jewish women. I brought a man with me to speak. He actually was not really a student of mine. He is someone I met through my work, through a sister organization that I love.

This man is a really wonderful person who every now and then does odd jobs for The Advot Project, mostly consisting of driving people and things from here to there. 

I knew he had a compelling story. I thought it would be a good story to present to this older group of Jewish women that I had been asked to speak to. The event was about change makers. When they asked me to come to speak, I told them having just me speak was not enough. They should have someone who has totally changed come, too.

“Do you really think that is necessary?” the woman who was organizing it asked me. 

With no shame I answered, “Absolutely. I don’t think I should come without someone who can talk about change firsthand.” 

“Okay,” she said.

I could hear in her voice that she wasn’t totally convinced.

So, I asked this man to join me.
I waited for him outside the venue.

I haven’t seen him in a while. We shared a long embrace and caught up on each other’s news. When he told me that he is off parole, I was elated.

We walked in together and sat together.

I spoke first and talked about the work I do, and why I believe this work is so important. 

I talked about being a facilitator to others making change. I made it clear that we provide the tools for the kids we work with to make the change in their lives.

I introduced my friend and told them I want them to hear about change from someone who totally turned his life around. Then he told his story.

He talked about being incarcerated for two decades. With his head bowed down, he talked a lot about his previous lifestyle and the crimes he had committed.

He talked about his shame, his deep sense of shame.

I started to think that maybe I shouldn’t have had him speak.

Usually when I bring people to share their stories, there isn’t this much shame. Although I had talked to this person in the past, he had never sounded like this.

“Young man,” one of the older women in the group said, “You have got to stop being ashamed. You are incredibly inspiring. Look how you have turned your life around and look at all the good you are doing now.”

He then told her that something changed for him recently when he got off parole. He feels free, but also, he feels the burden of his crime more because he is no longer being punished, if that makes sense, and he smiled. 

This one is special; I knew it when I met him. He has such a gentle heart.  He spends a lot of time giving back to society and he is working hard going to school.

I sat there a little helpless, ashamed that I didn’t talk to him more, that I didn’t know what was going on with him.

There was a moment of quiet and a woman got up. She had to be in her 80’s, if not older. She leaned on her cane and looked right at us sitting at the podium.  

“Young man,” she said in a strong voice even though she was tiny.

“Number 1. You were given a bad deck of cards; you played the game that you were taught.

Number 2. You got caught, you sat in jail. You do not have anything to be ashamed of. 

Number 3. You can feel bad for the people you hurt, but it sounds to me as if you are doing everything in your power to do the right thing now. That is lovely.

Number 4. You are young and strong. Use your shame to fuel the good you are doing. 

I am 88 years old. There are so many things I could have done better and differently in my life. I have a big mouth. I am extremely moody. I have buried three husbands; I was only loyal to one. I stole my sister’s share of our father’s inheritance, but she deserved it. I then gave her the money back with interest. 

We all do stupid things; we all do bad things. I am aware that some are worse than others, but no one can change the past. 

We can only live in the present. 

Believe me, I am around a lot of old people who wish they did things differently and guess what! They can’t! You, my friend, are truly inspiring! You could choose to be bad and mad and make money doing illegal things. You could choose to continue to be a bandit, and here you are going to school and being a mensch. 

Did she teach you what being a mensch is?” She pointed to me and said, “You explain to him later. Take your shame, give it a good kick in the ‘tuchus’ (rear end) and love yourself.

Love yourself because no one else will. Well, maybe she will.”  She points at me again.

“She loves everyone, but I’m not sure what that is about. Let me give you some advice. Shame will melt when it meets love. You must love yourself and let others love you. That will help you stop with the shame. Okay????” 

She waved her cane in the air and she sat down as everyone clapped.

My friend stepped down from the podium and walked over to the lady and gave her a hug. Everyone in the room was standing and watching. 

Shame on me for judging anyone and anything about this event.

We stood outside my car and shared a long laugh about what had happened. The event was a smashing success. 

He asked me, “What is that word she said about me?”
“Mensch,” I told him. 

“Is that a word you call people who were in jail?” he asked me. 

I laughed out loud and told him, “No, no! A mensch is a good person, someone who is responsible, good hearted, dependable, and an all-around solid human. It is a Yiddish word for good guy,” I add. 

“She said that about me?” he asked. 

“Yes,” I said, “because you are such a mensch.” 

Now he laughed and said, “I know a lot of people who wouldn’t think that about me.” 

“Well,” I said, “it would be a shame if you listen to them and not what you heard today.”

He smiled at me. He really is a special mensch, this one.

I recently found out that he and the old lady exchanged phone numbers. He has been checking in on her during this crazy pandemic. She has checked in on him during the protests. 

She told me on the phone that it is a shame that people don’t know how great he is. 

“They should know. People are so stupid sometimes.”

I told her not to worry. 

They will.  

Now I can tell her that they do.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.