July 23, 2024
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July 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Where Have All the Manners Gone

There’s a lot to be said for those famous southern manners and warm hospitality, which I experienced recently during a vacation and family bar mitzvah in Savannah, Georgia. It was culture shock coming from the gray, crowded, and endless lines of JFK Airport to the easy pace and sunny serenity of the Savannah Airport where our luggage was handed to us only minutes after exiting the airplane. We then glided through the airport, rolling our luggage, without hustle or bustle.

The only problem we encountered was at the car rental when presented with a shiny 2015 car. “Excuse me, but you forgot to give us the keys,” I said. To which the chock-full-of-good-manners car rental representative replied, “Ma’am, these are new cars and they don’t have keys–I’ll show you how it works.” After showing us repeatedly, never losing patience or her fine manners, we finally got the hang of it and said good bye. “Y’all have a good time in Savannah. Have a nice day.” From that point on I was “ma’am,” my husband was “sir” wherever we went. Let me just say, I took to it like a fish swimming in lovely warm water. It made me feel good. It made me feel respected.

Not only do southern folks have great manners, there’s plenty of eye contact and smiling going on. Not to mention that fabulous slow sing-song drawl as if they have all the time in the world. One morning in the lobby of the hotel, I was waiting for my family to get ready for touring historic Savannah, my head buried in my iPhone texting, when someone came by. “G’mornin, how are you?” I looked up puzzled by this smiling stranger, and mumbled a good morning. Even at the grocery store, when we had to pick up some items before Shabbat, the sales person was quick to ask, “Can we help y’all find something?”

The Jewish community in Savannah is relatively small and very friendly. On Shabbat at the bar mitzvah, people came over to us, asked where we were from, and made us very comfortable. I sat next to a woman who had spent time teaching “up north,” and after a few minutes of conversation I felt as if I’d known her a long time.

Finally, it was time to board the plane to come back home, and I was happy to return to my varied kosher stores and restaurants. While Savannah has manners in abundance, there are no kosher restaurants, and we had our fill of makeshift tuna and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. As I was eating my bagel, I wondered–where have our manners gone? Why have we gotten so casual up here in the north? When did this happen?

As a child, I didn’t go around calling my close friends’ mothers, “Marion,” “Tzippy,” or “Debby.” They were always Mrs., and my friends didn’t call my parents by their first names either–that’s just the way it was. Like many of my friends, we sometimes had fake uncles and aunts. “Uncle Harry” was a close friend of my father’s. After school, my father would take me over to Uncle Harry’s house, plop me in front of the television to watch Popeye or Rocky and Bullwinkle, and then they’d share a cold drink in the kitchen while schmoozing after a long day at work. I’m still in the habit of addressing some people by Mr. or Mrs., and wouldn’t feel comfortable calling my doctor, principal, or rabbi by their first names. It’s not a matter of age; rather, it’s a sign of respect.

So when my own kids brought their friends home and it was, “Esther, can you tie my shoes?” or, “Esther, can I have that red lollypop?”–in the beginning, there was the double take. Really? What’s wrong with this picture? I didn’t want to embarrass my children by telling their friends they must call me “Mrs.,” and Parenting 101 says “choose your battles.” Besides, I observed all the other parents responding to little children calling them by their first names too. “Monica is such a good cook; you should get that chicken recipe, Mommy.” On the phone I’d get a call, “Fred said he would drive me home from school, is that okay?” Funny, how you get used to all kinds of things after a while.

I believe, however, we can take small steps and be more aware of the importance of good manners and how they affect us personally. A few days after I returned from Savannah, I stood in a long line at Walgreens to pick up a prescription. The pharmacist looked totally hassled as she responded to all the questions about dosage and side effects, etc. When she handed me my prescription, I said–“Thank you, ma’am.” For a moment she looked surprised, then smiled, and said, “You’re welcome!” That small exchange just felt good all around.

Perhaps in shul we can all try to be more aware of new people in our midst or strangers sitting next to us. Only seven years ago I was the new person in shul and remember the way people either acknowledged me, or were oblivious. Let’s smile and say, “Shabbat Shalom,” or ask “where are you from?” After all, everyone wants to be noticed and welcomed. This is definitely something we “northerners” can do!

Esther Kook is a Teaneck resident. She’s a reading teacher, tutor, and freelance writer.

By Esther Kook

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