It so happened that as I was coming down in the elevator from the 20th floor of a Tel Aviv office building, the doors opened on the 18th floor and a young woman with blond dyed hair stepped in. Wearing low cut pants, a belly shirt, chewing gum and holding a cell phone to her ear she pressed the button to the third floor. In the corner of my eye I noticed that she had noticed me as well.
As she was speaking with someone on the other end and unexpectedly bumped into me - the frequent traveler - she somewhat lost her equilibrium and told her telephone partner, and I quote verbatim: "…so I told him to respect him and suspect him, namely, none of your honey and none of your sting, and I'll buy the challah bread for Shabbat later on."
I pondered on this empty sentence uttered by my elevator partner all the way down to the 12th floor. She lowered her voice and continued saying whatever she was saying into the mouthpiece. But I knew that that her "respect and suspect" and "none of your honey and none of your sting," were uttered for my benefit alone. Because I was there.
I am against prejudices, unless they are true and accurate. And I am also against labeling people according to their appearance, style of dress, language and posture. I am against it, against it, but nonetheless I will state here that the woman in the elevator doesn't usually use such language with her friends, not in real life and not over the phone. But next to the "religious Jew" she felt an uncontrollable need to demonstrate a command of her quasi "religious" Hebrew. If she had suddenly bumped into Avshalom Kor, Israel's best known Hebrew linguist, she would probably have said something to the effect of: " I am not of the opinion …because I have no desire to…and had she bumped into Israeli comedian Zion from the "Ma Kashur" threesome, she probably would have said something like "oh my God, you are, like…so cooool."
But there was a religious Jew in the elevator, stuck to the mirror between a pretentious woman and slight guilt pangs at having diverted her conversation from its tracks. It was a conversation that had gone awry, because of me but at no fault of my own. My joining her conversation as an incidental listener that was forced on me, made the woman revert to a different register of Hebrew, where "respect and suspect" became intertwined with "honey and stings and the Shabbat challa."
A skullcap in the glove compartment
Every religious Jew has at some time or another encountered a secular colleague who refrained from using rude language in his presence. Sometimes the rude jester adds to the audience's applause by saying "you, block your ears." On the other hand, there are secular Jews who begin wishing you Shabbat Shalom as early as Wednesday, or bless you with something they think is very appropriate for the time of year. Religious Hebrew for a secular Jew is like a skullcap in the glove compartment. If there is suddenly a funeral, take it out and place it on your head without asking too many questions. Don't get caught without it.
The person on the other end of the phone probably asked her what type of challa bread she was suddenly talking about and she blurted out: "Never mind we'll talk later." And when the elevator stopped on the 10th floor she skipped out, seven floors before her designated floor. And I immersed myself in another thought about the presence of a religious person and his subconscious influence on his surroundings; and how the fact that you are standing next to another person makes him or her adapt their words and manners, sometimes exaggeratedly and grotesquely.
Yet perhaps all this is nothing but a proverb, when and how we can influence another person in an elevator. What is said in our presence and what is not. Does our actual presence prompt an action or are we just an inconvenience on the routine lives of others.
On reaching the ground floor I escaped the elevator, full of passing thoughts on strange relations that go up and down, between religious and secular Jews. It is after all a matter of respect and suspect. So I bought a few loaves of challa bread for Shabbat.