Once, when I was around 20, I had lunch at the 2nd Ave Deli. This would have been the 1970s, when the deli was still at its original location at 2nd and 10th, under its original ownership. The portions were bigger than your head and the waiters were all older men who didn’t take crap from anyone. I can’t remember what I ordered to eat. I’m thinking corned beef on rye with a half-sour pickle, but I could just as easily have gone for the knishes. What I do remember, with hideous clarity, is how proud I felt of myself as I pulled myself up and casually added to the waiter, “And could I have a glass tea?”
He didn’t miss a beat. He gave me a look that would have curdled milk and firmly put me in my place. “You’ll have a cup of tea.”
Okay. No one likes a poseur. I got it then, and I get it still. His message was and remains cringingly clear. Because God forbid I should spend the next 30 years believing I had every right to order tea as if I were straight from the shtetl. On the other hand, would it have killed him to let it go? What would it have cost him to have shown a little kindness?
I can tell you one thing it would have cost him. Had he passed up the opportunity to put me in my place like that, he and the glass tea would be long gone from my memory, just as I’ve forgotten what I ordered that day for my meal. But I remember him all too clearly: the long, sour face, the skinny arms, the slight stoop in his posture. And I have told the story of my presumptuousness and his rudeness lots of times.
What sort of impression do we leave on the world? The question came up earlier this week in a class I’m taking at Temple Emanu-El about Midrash. A midrash is a story or commentary written by the ancient rabbis to draw lessons from biblical passages. The other day we were looking at midrashim explaining Genesis 12:1-3. “The Lord said to Abram, Go forth from your native land.”
One riff we read related the verse to one from the Song of Songs. “Your ointments yield a sweet fragrance. Your name is like the finest oil.” Rabbi Brachiah compares Abraham to a vial containing the juice of the balsam tree, which is fitted with a tight lid and left in a corner, where no one can smell it. But take the vial out and carry it around (with its lid loosened, presumably), and its sweet scent will disseminate. When God tells Abraham to leave his home, it’s in order that he disseminate his sweetness.
The rabbi teaching the class left us with the homiletic thought: What’s your perfume? And of course I thought, my writing. Which was frustrating, because I’ve been having a hard time with it, lately.
Yesterday’s work left me feeling especially discouraged. I knew I needed to climb back into the saddle and just get back to it – that my best cure for bad writing to more writing. Instead, I spent my writing time reading folk tales. Browsing through the 1988 YIVO collection Yiddish Folktales, I found and fell in love with this gem:
What Makes Tea Sweet: An Exercise in Logic
A yeshiva student said to one of his fellows, “The sages ask: What makes the glass of tea sweet? If I reply that it is because of the sugar, then I must ask: What is the teaspoon’s purpose? The answer: To sweeten the tea, for which the proof is as follows: When you put sugar in to the tea, it does not turn sweet until you have stirred it with the teaspoon. In which case, why do we need the sugar at all?”
The second student replied, “Indeed, it is true that the tea is sweetened by the spoon. Now, why do we need the sugar? My reply is that sugar is necessary because it’s only when the sugar dissolves that we know it is time to stop stirring.”