How you should read a personal essay

The subtitle to this essay should read: the post in which I vent about people being mean to writers other than myself

I don’t just frequent Tablet as a writer, I frequent it as a reader. So, when an article went up today by someone I’d heard about earlier this week (thank you Pop Chassid for your link to Altar online), I decided to read it.

It was an essay by Tova Ross about why and how she stopped covering her hair. Now, anyone who has bothered to look at my photo to the right of this post will have noticed something: my hair is covered. I have covered my hair ever since my marriage and do so joyfully.

Reading a personal essay isn’t about judging, it’s about considering a different viewpoint

For Tova Ross, this mitzvah was not so joyful. If you want more details, go read her essay.

The story almost immediately went viral, but not for good reasons.

In case you don’t remember or didn’t read my post, I have a particular type of comment that I completely and totally hate to see on blog posts and articles. What I call the #3 type commenter typically spews whatever is on their own mind into their comment box, rather than actually ingesting and contemplating the author’s opinions.

Nearly every comment hijacked Tova Ross’s essay for their own purposes. Hardly anyone seemed to be reading what they said in its entirety; they only saw whatever components reinforced their world view.

I had to comment on the article, because I was so upset by this phenomenon. To spare you the effort of scrolling through the comments, I’ll quote what I wrote here:

While my personal practice is exactly the opposite of Ms. Ross’s (I’m a devotee of hair-covering, not just doing it because someone guilted me into it), I think she should be allowed to say what she has to say without judgment. Half the comments claim Ms. Ross says that she objects to the Torah and mitzvos and that they are oppressive (hijacking the essay for the commenter’s own liberal agenda) and half of them assume nasty things about her because she’s left behind a particular halacha (reflecting the commenter’s own conservative agenda).I wish people would read the article without trying to spin it. Ms. Ross’s essay provides plenty of food for thought for those of us who are Orthodox. For example, are we teaching our children to connect to G-d through mitzvos instead of just teaching them to conform to social conventions (that sometimes have no basis in halacha, such as the preference of some communities for wigs instead of hats/headscarves, or requiring opaque tights to be worn even if a skirt hits the ankle)? Also, we should realize our actions and personal conduct affect other people.And, finally, we should realize that shaming people into conforming (even to halacha) is neither effective, nor appropriate, in our current cultural climate.

 Discussing this situation later with my husband as I prepared dinner tonight, he came up with this gem:

How to Read a Personal Essay

by Mr. Klempner:

“Imagine the author is sitting at your table. You are enjoying a delicious and relaxing Shabbos (or substituted the occasion of your choosing) meal with friends, and they are just one person sharing a personal story with you. How would you react?”

I sure hope you wouldn’t tell them they are hopeless, stupid, or otherwise call them names.

So, dear readers, what rules do you have for reading a personal essay?

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One thought on “How you should read a personal essay

  1. I don’t necessarily have rules for reading personal essays. However, it is important to understand that people are very complex, and that categories like “frum,” “frum from birth,” “religious,” “Modern Orthodox,” and the like are rather shallow descriptors when applied to actual human beings. It’s important to understand where another person is coming from, and to consider the whole person, when reading or hearing his or her personal account. Mrs. Ross’s “frum from birth” upbringing differed significantly from the “frum from birth” upbringing of a child living in Los Angeles, California. Apart from geography, a myriad of additional factors – including (but not limited to ) family, health, economics, social life, education, and community participation – shape every child’s attitudes. Both within a specific community and among different communities, norms and experiences vary widely. For example, Mrs. Ross said that she attended a Bais Yaakov-style school. Her use of the term “Bais-Yaakov style” conveys some information and still omits a lot of information; the reader may not be aware that such schools do vary from each other quite a bit, or that each individual Bais Yaakov-style school is shaped uniquely by the individuals who run it. Not only do the schools vary, but every student’s experience is different. The partial information conveyed through the essay neither enables the reader to form judgements nor justifies criticism.

    Conveying to our children and to ourselves depth and beauty underlying mitzvos is a challenge that parents, educators, community leaders and the rest of us face daily. At times it seems insurmountable, due to the extreme shallowness and crassness that characterizes much of the surrounding culture and can often invade Jewish communities and homes. While I differ with the author’s conclusions, I can sympathize with her struggle to find meaning in a world populated by so many judgmental people and hypocrisy. We also need to be understanding of others and open to hear or read their perspectives.

    I suspect that those who commented rudely on the article have chips on their shoulders regarding the whole of Tablet magazine, not just the author’s subject matter or personal essays.

    Thank you for pointing out this interesting personal story and for providing a thoughtful response.

    Like

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