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What Will the Neighbors Say?!
an interview with Dale Atkins & Edythe Mencher

Aron Hirt-Manheimer (editor, Reform Judaism magazine): “Shanda” is the Yiddish word for “shame or disgrace in the eyes of another.” Do Jews have a particular sensitivity to how we are perceived by the outside world, and if so, what cultural, historical, sociological, and psychological factors have contributed to this?

Dr. Dale Atkins (psychologist; author; TV commentator; member of Temple Israel in Westport, Connecticut): The common Yiddish expression is a shanda far die goyim. In other words, don’t give ammunition to non-Jews who might seize the opportunity to hold a socially unacceptable behavior against all Jews. If a Jew does a bad thing, we may all be judged and punished for it.

Rabbi Edythe Mencher (URJ Faculty for sacred community, clinical social work psychotherapist): Actually, I think we’ve worried much more about looking good to the Goldsteins than to the gentiles. Often the expression used is “a shanda un a charpeh —a shame and a disgrace”—which refers both to acting inappropriately in front of non-Jews as well as other Jews, and in our own eyes.

I first heard the word shanda used in relation to a father who beat his son—it was a shanda that he treated his son in such a way, or alternatively a shanda that he did not live up to Jewish standards. The shanda label was also a way for parents and community to control unwanted adolescent behaviors: If a girl wore a revealing dress, if a boy drank or smoked, it would besmirch the family name and actually even the whole community’s honor.

Coming of age in the break-free 60s, most of my peers dismissed attempts by our elders to label what we chose to wear a shanda. Yet we did not reject the notion that certain actions or beliefs, such as violence, poverty, mistreatment of children, racism, and antisemitism, were shandas. We saw the value of shaming as moral assessment but resisted it as a way of enforcing what we construed as stiflingly middle-class values.

Dale: When a shanda involves an ethical violation, an entire community may be at fault. For example, if the Jewish community covers up a case of sexual abuse, both the act and the cover-up may constitute shandas.

Edie: Yes, but the very concept of shanda may also be at the heart of the problem. When the shame is associated not just with the perpetrator but also the victim—such as in societies where the person who has been raped or molested is treated as soiled and ruined—people understandably hide incidences of abuse. In the same way, if a whole religious group is liable to be attacked broadly because some of its leaders have been sexual predators, then people on the inside who cherish the faith tradition will conceal those abuses. The challenge, then, is for society to attach the shame to the crime and to the perpetrator without having it spill over onto the victim and the whole group. In such an environment cover-ups are unlikely to be tolerated by the community.

Joy Weinberg (managing editor, Reform Judaism magazine): What did our biblical ancestors consider shandas?

Edie: The word shanda derives from the Germanic word “scandal” or the French “escandale,” referring to ignominy or disgrace. The Hebrew root “bosh” figures more in Jewish tradition. It is used in the Bible in the context of shameful, disobedient actions that are displeasing to God, such as idol worship, Sabbath desecration, dishonesty in our dealings with others, the disregarding of sexual and dietary prohibitions, and violations of purity codes (proximity to blood or to the dead).

In the Torah, shaming served a specific purpose—to urge individuals and communities towards repentance; following sincere repentance, a state of well-being, cleanliness, and security would be restored.

These days, research has shown that shaming and criticizing tend to have less impact on future behavior than more nuanced approaches to encouraging good behavior. People who are shamed about a particular behavior may tend to continue to behave that way in private, hiding the original behavior to avoid public ridicule. Instead, the goal of religion, childrearing, and education is to have people internalize moral and ethical values that are not dependent on external approval. Shame can function as a step along the path of developing a moral conscience. Someone with a working conscience will feel guilty when s/he does wrong and experience a sense of inner comfort when s/he does right. Responding warmly to moral and ethical behavior in others is an important way of providing reinforcement.

Aron: Looking at modern times, what constituted a shanda in the first half of the 20th century?

Dale: In my family it was marrying out of the faith. Even if the person converted and became a religious Jew, s/he was not fully accepted.

Also, many people believed that women who worked outside the home were neglecting their kids. This criticism even applied to women who had to work to help support their families during the Depression. I think this perception began to change when the United States entered World War II and large numbers of women joined the workforce as part of the effort. Yet even today, the stigma remains that women who work outside the home are not able to attend to their children as well as those who stay at home, despite the research to the contrary.

Edie: Another perceived shanda was being sexually active at an older age. For example, my great-grandmother was in her early 50s living in a small town in Austria when she gave birth to her last child. She asked her 17-year-old daughter to stroll withthe baby in the neighborhood because she felt embarrassed that her late-in-life motherhood revealed she was still sexually active. Her married son and her other daughters pointed out that the neighbors might think that the 17-year-old was the mother—another shanda! The family had to decide which was the greater shanda: a sexually active grandmother or a 17-year-old unmarried mother. In short, any sexual behavior that was not seen as occurring at the right stage of life and with a spouse was regarded as a shanda.

Joy: In my mother’s family the shanda was poverty. During the Depression, everyone lost their jobs and the family had to move to a less expensive neighborhood. My mother felt so ashamed, she didn’t even tell her best friend. For years the two met on a streetcorner to walk to school; one day my mother just didn’t show up.

Edie: Great shame was associated with being poor, even when it was through no fault of your own. Partly, I think, the shame came from a fear of being perceived as not having enough sechel (smarts and practicality) as well as the chutzpah (gumption) to make it in the real world. If you couldn’t take care of your family, people would conclude there had to be something lacking in you.

Dale: For a long time, cancer was another hush-hush. Families wouldn’t even utter the word; they called it “C.” Today, in some families, Alzheimer’s and mental illness are big shandas: “What does it mean that I have this in my family? Will this make me less attractive as a marriage partner?”

Edie: This attitude harkens back to ancient times, when the Israelites could bring only unblemished offerings for the Temple sacrifice, and priests had to be physically perfect—free from illness, skin blemishes, missing limbs, or any disfigurement. The prophets tried to shift the object of societal admiration from physical to ethical perfection, as in Isaiah 58.5-7: “Is this the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?...No, this the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness…to let the oppressed go free…to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home….” According to this view, there was little value to ritual adherence that did not lead to more ethical behavior.

As our tradition evolved, it placed greater stress on good character and compassionate behavior toward others—understanding, for example, the biblical commandment not to kill as also instructing us not to shame another. The Gemara (Bava Metzia, 58b) explains: “Whoever shames his friend in public to the point of making him turn pale, is as if he sheds blood....for we see that the red drains out of his face and is replaced by white.” Reform Judaism embraced this focus on ethical precepts as the route to tikkun olam, repairing the brokenness in our world.

Unfortunately, however, our Jewish community has retained the sense that a person with an illness or disability is somehow impure. Tzedakah activist Danny Siegel tells the true story of a non-Jewish woman who devoted herself in the 1990s to finding homes for orphaned children with Down Syndrome in the New York area. None of the adoptive families, including hers, were Jewish, but 90% of the babies were. Because it was a perceived shanda, Jewish families were far more likely to give up (and not adopt) so-called less than perfect children.

Joy: Some people have turned what many consider a shameful act into societal good. A beloved son, for example, commits suicide and the mother becomes an outspoken suicide prevention activist dedicated to helping others avert a similar tragedy.

Edie: Yes. She is saying, “Don’t attack and ostracize me for this. Let me tell you about my pain and my child’s pain so perhaps together we can reduce stigma and diminish suffering.” In that process she also helps other people to minimize their pain, shame, and isolation.

Aron: Jewish illiteracy is yet another shanda-prone area among our people. Many Jews who want a Jewish connection but have minimal knowledge of Jewish practices may feel too embarrassed or ashamed to enter a synagogue.

Dale: I understand this. Even though I love the experience of being in temple, I can also feel somewhat intimidated. Over the years I’ve made halted attempts to become more literate in Hebrew and familiar with the prayers, but I’m still reading the English and not the Hebrew. And even when I’m getting a lot out of it, I think, I should be able to read the Hebrew and get that, too . As if the English is not good enough in the house of God.

Joy: How can individuals reduce their sense of shame?

Edie: Shame is really the experience of feeling we are not lovable and acceptable as we are—that we are soiled, bad, not good enough. If we find ourselves struggling with these deeply entrenched feelings, we have to talk about it in order to minimize its impact. Where do we begin the discussion? Sometimes we cannot initiate it with our families because we do not feel a sense of safety there. Better choices may be in therapy, with a rabbi, with friends, with a support group—people who listen but are not going to judge and further shame us.

As part of this process, we need to closely examine what induces shame in us and determine whether it is justified. We can ask ourselves: “Should I feel ashamed/guilty according to my own moral code? Or is it my grandmother’s/parent’s/child’s wagging finger in my head?”

If we conclude, “Yes, I have done something deeply wrong,” working through the shame may involve more than conversing with a support person or group. We need to ask ourselves: “How can I come back to loving myself? How do I make reparations?” Psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan teaches that if we feel we have acted wrongfully, we will only reduce our shame and guilt if we accept responsibility and take reparative action. For example, a soldier who regrets committing a wartime atrocity can mitigate the shame by acting on behalf of wounded victims of war. The Jewish understanding of teshuvah (repentance) includes both self-assessment and positive reparative action. If we have done something wrong, atonement is accomplished only when we have done everything we can to seek forgiveness, make repair, and resolve not to repeat the wrongful action in the future.

If we decide that our shame is based on old teachings that we no longer believe have validity, Dr. Linehan advises that we assess whether it is safe now to openly acknowledge our past in keeping with our current morality. For example, if a person is ashamed of being gay because he was taught it was a sin and now lives in San Francisco, to fight against his shame he can take every opportunity to acknowledge who he really is until the shame lessens and finally disappears. If a person who has longhidden that she was born out of wedlock comes to realize this is an inappropriate reason to feel bad about herself, shecan continue to share this information with others until the associated shame and even societal stigmas are reduced.

If, no matter what we do, we are still ostracized or belittled, then, Dr. Linehansays, we are better off moving to a more open community, making new friends, or keeping our situation private while working internally to reduce our sense of shame. In a negative external environment, prayer can help us to communicate the truth about ourselves and feel lovable and worthy just as we are.

Dale: The only method that seems to work with teenagers brought before juvenile court is their being asked, “What do you think you should do in reparation?” and then doing it. In one instance, a kid who had knocked down older women to steal their purses offered to and then was ordered by the court to work with elderly people at a daycare center. After several months of volunteering, he became understanding of older people’s needs and remorseful of his earlier actions. He also shared his new perspectives with other young people he knew who were attacking older people in the New York City subway.

Joy: How can congregations and communities be sensitive to individuals struggling with shame?

Edie: Jewish life is ultimately about recognizing that every one of us is made in the image of God—each of us unique and capable of covenant, moral behavior, and love. We as congregations can reduce stigma around shame if we treat people with honor and respect. Even if we disapprove of another person’s actions, we can communicate our confidence in his/her capacity to develop positively. And we can help people recalibrate what is truly important in life by encouraging them to grow as individuals and dedicate themselves to helping others. In essence, I’m hoping our congregations will assist people in doing a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, and then help them take empowering, reparative action for self-liberation. This might entail hosting an AA or Overeaters Anonymous group, or holding discussions about how parents can speak to their children and children to parents to foster mutual understanding. It might also mean developing communal structures by which congregants can easily reach out to sick and lonely people rather than harboring shame for not having visited those who are less fortunate. Our sense of self-pride is increased and our sense of shame decreased when we look and give beyond ourselves to the wider world. So, let us set reasonable goals for ourselves and then, in an environment where shame/shanda is less of an issue, coach one another to accomplish them. When we help people find routes to feeling effective, moral, caring, and cared about, they experience self-pride rather than shame, and in turn help to create a world of dignity, justice, and hope.


Union for Reform Judaism.