Posts Tagged ‘manners’


Bill is turning out to be a charming boy.  At 21 months he is smallish and skinny, but with hazel eyes, a winning smile, and an irresistible giggle, he has also begun cultivating the social graces the Cap’n and I hold so dear.  (Read about ’em here, here, and here.)  When I sneeze, he says, “Ah-too, Mama.”  When he asks for more of something and I prompt him, he says, “Peez, Mama.”  And he regularly says “da-da” (infantese for todah, or “thank you” in Hebrew) when given something, with no prompting.

So for those out there who think teaching children manners can wait until they’re in school, or in the army, or never, I would like to point out that not only can babies be taught manners at an early age, but that even boys are educable.  (That last was the Cap’n’s observation.)

So parents of eligible daughters, begin placing your bids for my boy now.

And enrollment in Auntie Shim’s Etiquette Boot Camp begins this summer.


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Table manners

I decided early on that one of my jobs as a pedantic parent is to teach my children table manners.  The Cap’n and I figure this goes hand-in-hand with our philosophy that kids will live up or down to parents’ expectations, and that it is never too early to establish the foundations of good manners.  When our kids were still early talkers, we taught them the formula, “May I please…” and now have merely to remind them—in their occasional lapses into “I want…”—that “That is a ‘may’ question.”

As far as the Crunch family is concerned, table manners for young children consist of the following:

1) Sitting at the table for a reasonable duration of the meal.  During the week, this means the 40 minutes or so of dinner, which consists of eating and hearing a short summary of everyone’s day.  On Shabbat it means kiddush, motzi, and whatever of the appetizer course appeals.  They are then excused to play until the “real food” is served.

2) Putting their napkins in their laps, using a fork or spoon for their food, keeping elbows off the table, and chewing with their mouths closed.

3) Asking others politely to pass them things.

4) Not interrupting conversations, but saying “Excuse me” and waiting until the conversation is ended (or paused) to be acknowledged.

For many families, table manners are something parents just don’t have the koach (strength) to enforce.  True, correcting the same children on the same poor habits can be a bit like banging one’s head against the proverbial brick wall.  But consider the consequences of giving up: Rearing up a child who as an adult holds a fork like a shovel, belches loudly at the table, announces, “I’m done” the second the food is gone from his plate, lifts his cereal bowl to scrape the last few cornflakes directly into his mouth, and eats salad with his hands.  That might not bother some people, and people with manners like that have been known to get married, but I aim a little higher for the Crunch children.  They understand from the categories on their chore charts (for which they receive daily stickers and an allowance commensurate with their week’s performance on Friday afternoons) that good table manners are as much expected of them as cleaning their rooms, setting the table, folding their laundry, and doing their homework.

In general, I enjoy eating with my children much more when they use good table manners.  They’re neater eaters, dinnertime is more quiet and orderly, and I sometimes get to entertain the illusion that I’m eating with other human beings rather than barely-tame baboons.  They occasionally take their knowledge of table etiquette too far, though, and have loudly corrected their visiting grandparents’ table manners (which was kind of cute) as well as those of friends who hosted us for a Shabbat meal (considerably more horrifying).  The trick here, it seems, is to teach them manners as we would teach house rules: Adhere to what we observe, but don’t try to force it on others.

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Cleaning and nostalgia

Well, not really.

But I do remember the dean of faculty at my high school telling me (after learning that I’d sweated through the previous summer at McDonald’s for minimum wage) that whenever he saw restaurant experience on a teaching candidate’s resume, he was always favorably impressed.  He told me, this is someone who is used to being overworked and under-appreciated.

I was reminded of this not because I’m working in a restaurant right now, but because I actually think the cleaning profession rivals that of slinging chow for bone-crushing misery and thanklessness.  I gave the Crunch house the first good clean in a long time this morning, and as I had ample time for thinking (hands are occupied, but mind is free), I found myself recalling some of the more disgusting jobs I’ve done.

The one that takes the cake is the one I did two summers after McDonald’s.  For both summers I worked at Camp San Luis Obispo–not at all a summer camp, but a National Guard training facility.  Groups of Guardsmen would come through, check in, and go play war games in the hills each day.  Even the lowest grade of soldier was given the option of paying a little extra per day to have his bed made, floor swept, bathrooms cleaned, and ashtray dumped.  Ordinarily, this was a simple enough procedure.  Once my back muscles had gotten in gear from all the hovering over unmade beds and unscrubbed toilets, the work became fairly straightforward.  I had some great supervisors, especially the second summer (when there were fewer smokers on staff), including one who used to talk about “warshing the floor,” then “rinching out the rag,” and another who would guzzle down a case of Tab a day.  (Remember Tab?)  I learned one or two valuable skills, too, like when one of my coworkers, a burnt-out hippie named Tom, showed me for the first time in my life how to fold a fitted sheet.  (The Cap’n still can’t figure out how I do it.)

There were a few bad days, though.  Like the week each summer when one group would come through and invariably accuse us of stealing their stuff.  (That meant we were observed by a supervisor the whole time we did our chores, which slowed us down significantly.)  Or the day some wise guy decided to defecate in the shower.  When one of my co-workers found it, she was actually worried we’d be expected to clean it out.  Fortunately, our supervisor was as disgusted as we, and simply reported the incident.  Despite the fact that the toilets and sinks hadn’t been finished, she said, “Leave the rest of the bathroom undone.  See how the bastards like it.”  Or the time I picked up an ashtray, expecting to wipe it out, and saw someone’s Biblical “seed” swimming in it.  (Grossed out yet?  I sure was.)  My supervisor told me to throw if away and not give him another.

I don’t care for untidiness.  I like a good clean if it makes life more comfortable.  And it always amazes me when people don’t appreciate that from others who clean up after them.  The old Ethiopian man who swept the sidewalks in my neighborhood in Beit Shemesh (a thankless job if ever there was one) didn’t speak much Hebrew, but I think he understood enough to know I was thanking him when I would pass him on the street walking Peach to gan in the morning.

My favorite story, though, is about Rav Moshe Feinstein.  When he was in the hospital near the end of his life, he would chat with the Black woman who would come in every day to tidy his room and empty the trash.  He asked her about her family, her health, and was genuinely interested in her answers.  At his funeral, this woman stood outside the innermost circle, silently paying her respects.  The Yidn at the funeral were puzzled about what a Black woman would be doing at Rav Moshe’s funeral.  When some of them asked her what she was doing there, she told them about Rav Moshe and his kindness.  I hope they learned that one final lesson from Rav Moshe that day.  It may be the most important one they ever learn.

There have been a number of divrei Torah in the last year given by the rabbis in our neighborhood about the importance of hakarat hatov (showing gratitude).  Having been on the soapy side of the cleaning/cleaned-up-after relationship myself, I always try to thank those charged with the task of cleaning for my benefit, and to tip them when appropriate.

Because as we all know, cleanliness is next to godliness.

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In last Friday’s Jerusalem Post, there appeared an article in the Magazine section in which a macrobiotic chef claims she cured herself of cancer through a dramatic change in diet and lifestyle.   A woman I know claims her child with Asperger’s Syndrome has responded dramatically to a gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free diet.  And when I was an aide in special ed. reading classes, a substitute teacher claimed that none of those kids would be in there if they were on proper diets.

It’s very bewitching to think that our health—including disease, mental illness, and learning disabilities—can all be controlled through diet.  Despite many great medical advances, many disorders are still not fully understood and the feelings of frustration and helplessness that accompany being—or caring for—ill or disabled people can be overwhelming.  It gives people hope to believe that they can cure themselves of all kinds of maladies, and for those disappointed by the healthcare field (and there are many), taking matters into their own hands through altering their diet gives them back the control they regret ceding to physicians, psychologists, and learning specialists who (for whatever reason) have been unable to help them.

There is only one problem: Since these disorders are still not fully understood, there is nothing to suggest that a change diet is all that is needed to cure them.  I know a woman who, like the woman in the Post article, tried to save her mother from a wasting cancer by putting her on a macrobiotic diet.  She failed.

I have no objection to someone adopting a regimen they hope will help them, especially if it’s going to contribute to their overall health.  I had a psych professor in graduate school who advocated a multi-pronged approach to any mental illness—behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, and medication, if warranted.  Had someone suggested to him dietary therapy, he would likely not have shot the suggestion down.

What I DO object to is people who insist, loudly, anytime anyone is listening, that anyone who is sick is to blame for eating the wrong foods, and should adopt their personal regimen for perfect health.  We know that high-fat, high-sugar diets can lead to obesity, heart disease, and Type II diabetes.  We know that whole grains, fiber, pulses, fresh fruits and vegetables are nutritious and benefit everyone.  But it’s also true that someone like my grandfather can go through life, eating whatever he pleased, smoking, drinking to excess, and still live to a pretty respectable age.  Some things come down to genetics.  Some things come down to a hardy constitution.  Some things come down to regular exercise.

A friend of mine with a child with PDD (pervasive developmental disorder) blogs that she has not found most online resources to be useful to her, since some of them are written by what she calls “hawks,” or people who believe they have THE answers to their children’s problems, if only people will listen to them.  Some of these people, I have little doubt, are skeptical of the value of traditional healthcare solutions (as well they should be) and advocate alternative, sometimes simplistic solutions, of which they should be equally skeptical.

I believe a sensible diet is essential for overall health.  Avoiding foods for which one has no tolerance, substituting adequate nutrition from other sources, and exercising regularly are beneficial to everyone.  If someone has certain needs and those needs are met by a specific diet, they have my blessing.  But pontificating ad nauseum about what works for one person, or against one disease, or in one situation, and proclaiming that as the new gold standard of diet is preachy, bossy, and well, a bit much.

My doctor in the US told me after my kids were born that the best parenting book I can read is the one I write myself.  I would apply this same wisdom to what people eat.

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Saying “please”

The Cap’n and I are sticklers for the word “please.”  From the time our children learn to talk, we teach them the formulas for requests, such as “May I please have/do…” and “Would you please do/give me…”

We have both had occasion to notice that many parents do not teach this little word.  Many is the time my children have had young guests over who, when I’ve served a snack, just stare in expectation, or bellow the Israeli formula, “I also want!”  We have also had the very great pleasure of having the occasional young guest who, while he or she might not use the word regularly at home, is ready and able to use it in our house.

One thing I learned from working with challenged kids of various types is that they need adults to have expectations of them, and they in turn will live up or down to these expectations.  To decline to teach a child proper table manners (napkins in laps, no elbows on the table, chewing and swallowing before speaking) makes them rude, unsavory company at table.  To believe that a child cannot learn to ask with a “please” is to sentence him or her to years of barbarism, and eventual “please” training fraught with resistance.

I must also distinguish between a polite request (“Would you please pass the potatoes?”) and a barely softened command (“Pass the potatoes, please”).  The former is unassuming, and good manners.  The latter is entitlement.

I love it when my children say “please” and “thank you.”  Not only does it give me some pride in my own children’s manners; it also proves that children are as capable of kindness and consideration as adults.  As a mom who runs her own household, I sometimes feel a bit like an indentured servant.  When my children say “please,” I feel like a human being again.

For heaven’s sake, if Dumbledore can say “please” to Severus Snape in his final moments, a child can certainly say “please” when asking for a second helping of strawberry shortcake.

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I’ve already said my piece about smoking.  The litter, the smell, not to mention the deleterious effects on a person’s health are evident to all.  And yet some people still choose to smoke.  Fine by me.

What is not fine by me is the chucking of still-smoldering cigarettes by smokers to fall wherever gravity takes them: out car windows, on sidewalks, even in waterparks patronized by children.  Yes, Ima Crunch was well and truly pissed off this afternoon when Beans and Peach returned from camp, Peach hopping on one foot and sporting a mesh bandage from the first aid station at the waterpark they attended today.  Some smoker (epithets deleted) flicked a lit cigarette from her or his fingers onto the walkway and strolled on.  In a place swarming with children from all over the center of the country, this person, who wouldn’t dream of stepping on a lit cigarette with a bare foot, nonetheless thought it not unreasonable that a child should do so.

Or just as bad, thought nothing at all.  Given the many irritating and damaging effects of smoking, it seems to me that to become a smoker, one must necessarily have portions of one’s brain deactivated, including the one that actually, you know, puts out fires before moving on.  Do such people scatter rusty nails on sidewalks? Lit matches in dry brush?  Discarded paring knives and razor blades on beaches?  Then why the hell don’t they think to extinguish their smoldering fags before tossing them at the feet of children?

You don’t have to answer that.  There is no answer.

Peach has asked why people do such things.  I explained that I really don’t know, but I also took the opportunity to explain karma to her, the upside being mitzvah goreret mitzvah (one good deed causes another), and the downside being the opposite.  I told her we don’t know who discarded the lit butt, or what happened to him or her later on.  But sometimes people who do thoughtless, rude, or evil things themselves end up on the receiving end of other people’s thoughtless, rude, or evil deeds.  We don’t have to wish them ill; sometimes ill befalls those who do ill all by itself.

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Fourth child

After bringing three girls into the world, there seems to be an impression that the Cap’n and I had a fourth child in order to have a boy.

In my grandparents’ day, boys were valued more than girls. (I often got this feeling even in my day, as well.) I have a letter my grandmother wrote to her parents from college in which she reported that one of her classmates’s siblings had recently given birth to a little girl. But my grandmother was all too happy (in a feline sort of way) to report that she had trumped THAT piece of news: her cousin had given birth to a BOY.

It always annoys me when strangers presume to understand a couple’s motivations in having a child. Some people seem to think that a couple is yotzei (fulfilled their obligation) once they have a child of each sex (I think this exists officially in Judaism), and that their sole motivation in procreation is toward that end. It rarely dawns on strangers or casual acquaintances that a couple could choose to have a fourth child because they want four children.

Israeli society is still like this, unfortunately. Boys elicit a hearty Mazal tov! while girls get you the equivalent of “Better luck next time.” And nothing is more maddening than the look of disbelief and skepticism in the hearer’s eyes when I say we would have been just as delighted had Bill been a girl. (Not least because I’ve always wanted to name a child Wilhelmina Delphinium Crunch.) The way they see it, after all the brachas strangers gave me on the street that Beans should be a boy, the fact that she was a girl was the luck of the draw (oh well, it has to happen sometimes). But people who think like this are the same people who probably think Peach and Banana were similar failed attempts at a boy, and that Bill is the first successful product of our union (at last).

And people wonder why girls have low self esteem.

In truth, the first child I could have whose sex would not necessarily be seen as the motivator would be my fifth. *Sigh*

Well, I have a message for such people: Families whose children are all boys often get dreamy-eyed when the subject of girls comes up. In our experience, families whose children are all girls never seem to pine for a boy. Whether this is because the latter families are conscious that such facial expressions are hurtful to their daughters, or because they are grateful that their daughters will have a choice about going into the army or not, or because we fortunately live in a time when it’s not unheard of for the groom’s family to contribute to the wedding costs, I don’t know.

All I’m saying is that each child is an individual: mild or wild, fiery or calm, sweet or sassy. Each of my children could just as easily have ended up the opposite sex and still had the same personality. They’ll encounter different challenges as girls or boys, but they’ll still be my children, and they’ll still be wonderful people.

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Nosy questions

A woman once wrote to Miss Manners (aka Haragamam) with a story about a man she had sat next to on a plane trip.  In the story, the man had asked her, “Are you a career girl?”  What should she have answered? asked the woman.  Miss Manners answered that she was perfectly within her rights to answer in the affirmative (since she was indeed a “career girl”) and, in the spirit of friendliness and reciprocity, ask the man if he was a “career boy.”

I’m all for turning the tables on people who ask jarring questions.  And one of the silliest questions I and other converts to Judaism are asked is, “Why would you convert to such a nutty religion?”  If the asker wants to discuss the ways in which Judaism is nutty, well and good; I can partake.  But if the question is really just a thinly-veiled insult (another way of saying, “How could you have been so stupid?”), a snappy answer may be called for.  Here are a few responses to consider for those who want to answer the question in the same spirit:
1) because the Jews have all the money;
2) because the Moonies rejected me;
3) because Jews control the world.  Just read the papers;
4) because the Scientologists are too nutty, and the Unitarians aren’t nutty enough;
5) because I heard Jews aren’t supposed to ask nosy questions.

One can also ask the asker, “Why would you ask such a question?”  After all, why a convert did what she or he did is not anyone else’s business.  (This retort also works for people who ask if your triplets are “real,” how much money you make, and why you don’t cover your hair.  Thanks to Heather for the tip on this one.  Another Miss Manners response, I believe.)

Of course, one is always welcome to plumb the depths of one’s soul and come up with a real answer if the asker is someone with any right at all to know.

But I have a fourth way to deal with this situation.  Converts or potential converts should try asking born-Jews why they stayed Jewish.  If they think it’s so nutty, why don’t they convert to something else?  Bet they haven’t thought about that one.  (If you get the opportunity to ask this question of a born-Jew who has opened the subject, please come back and write about what happened.)

How do you think one should answer a question like this?

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Many years ago, my brother developed a pithy answer to the question, “Mind if I smoke?”  He would respond, “Not at all.  Mind if I fart?”

This raises my main issue with smoking in public.  I respect the right of smokers to engage in a habit that is bad for their own health.  I respect the right of smokers to turn their teeth and fingernails yellow, make their voices gravely, and carry around with them the stale reek of an overflowing ashtray.  I respect the right of smokers to challenge the research leading to warnings about second-hand smoke.  And I respect the right of smokers to patronize establishments alongside non-smokers.  I just don’t respect their right to smoke there.

Why not?  Because sitting in a smoke-filled room feels no different from sitting in a closed garage with the car motor running.  Because when an unwashed person enters a room and then leaves, you can open a window and air it out.  Because when you fry your dinner in grease and set off the smoke detector, you can open a window and by the next day, the smell is gone.  But let smokers do their thing in a room day after day and you’re ripping up carpet, replacing curtains, and scrubbing tar off the walls to get the smell out.  In short, it’s offensive and disgusting.

While apartment-hunting in Jerusalem, I once saw a furnished place that stank of cigarette smoke.  The landlady asked what I thought, and I told her someone had been smoking there.  “But the smoker is gone,” she said.  I told her it still smelled like cigarettes.  “But the smoker is gone,” she persisted.  Not entirely, I thought.

It’s not easy having a canine sense of smell.  I smell things other people don’t, and not just when I’m pregnant and that sense has gone haywire.  If M. Night Shyamalan had written the Shimshonit version of “The Sixth Sense,” the memorable line would have been, “I smell dead people.”

I don’t want to sit in a restaurant with people who sit at their tables and sing opera or recite “Howl” at the top of their voices.  I also don’t want people slamming into me as they pass by my chair, or wearing unsightly clothing or makeup.  Why should the sense of smell be treated with so little compassion compared to the other senses?

I support smokers having designated areas and special restaurants, bars, and places of entertainment where their habit is permitted.  But I consider it a basic necessity to be able to breathe air free of noxious odors, so let smokers, wearers of Giorgio, and people with uncontrollable flatulence have their own place to eat, drink, and listen to music.

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Thank you

Among the many chores that get added to a new mom’s already lengthy list is that of writing thank-you notes for gifts and meals from friends, neighbors, and family.

Many people are put off by writing thank-you notes, as attested to by the dearth of thank-you notes the Cap’n and I have received since buying all the baby, bnei mitzvah, and wedding gifts we have given others.  I try to be modern and do not take offense at this lapse in etiquette, since I suspect the handwritten note has gone the way of the Surrey (with a fringe on top) in the era of computers.  I readily accept an email or a phone call in lieu of a handwritten thank-you.  One thing I hate, though, is a pre-printed thank-you note.  (I received one of these after writing a heartfelt note to a man I hardly knew who had lost his father.  I would rather have waited five years for two hand-scrawled lines on the back of a shopping list than received the pre-fab card that arrived.)

But not to acknowledge a gift or a gesture of kindness in any form is just bad manners.  According to Haragamam (HaRav HaGaon Miss Manners), even a hangover is not an excuse.  (In her Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, she writes, “Actually, during a hangover is an excellent time for a nice, quiet activity such as writing thank-you notes, if one can stand the sound of the pen’s scratching on the paper.”)  I once worked with a man who admitted to me that he and his wife still hadn’t written their wedding thank-yous, and they had just passed their third anniversary.  To this I say, It’s never too late.  If he and his wife were finally to write those thank-yous and mail them out, their recipients might be baffled or even amused, but I can guarantee that their belated gratitude would be accepted.

Excuses abound for not expressing gratitude in writing: “I don’t know what to say,” “I don’t even know this person,” “I returned/exchanged/gave away the gift,” “I don’t have her/his address.”  The resourceful recipient can always find a solution to these problems: say “Thank you for the lovely [name of gift]”; write “Dear [name of person]”; thank the person for their gift and don’t mention what you did with it; get the person’s address from someone who knows it.  It’s not that complicated!

The most important thing to remember when planning a simcha is that time must be factored in afterwards to write notes of thanks.  It takes some time and effort (not to mention money) to choose a gift for someone.  It takes less than five minutes to write a thank-you note.  I’m not a mathematician, but by my calculations the recipient still comes out on top time-wise.  If someone who cares about you (or has known your mother since the third grade) takes the time to select and buy a gift, it’s appropriate to spend a few minutes thanking them for their kindness.

I hope the thank-you note will come back into fashion soon, if for no other reason than to wipe the shocked look off people’s faces when I hand them a thank-you note and get them to stop coming over to my house and saying silly things like, “Thank you for that sweet note.”  I saw a neighbor in the pharmacy yesterday who made me a delicious tuna noodle casserole last week (the first I’ve had since my mother made them for me) who said, “You really didn’t have to write me that sweet thank-you note.”  I replied, in my broadest Southern drawl, “Actually, I did.  My mama told me I do.”

Everyone does.

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Professional curiosity

A man finds himself sitting at a Shabbat table lined with religious Jews next to a physician whom he’s never met. This is an informal, social occasion. Yet when the physician learns that the man sitting next to him has triplets, he asks, “Oh, did your wife have hormone injections?”

A physician sits at the dining room table in the presence of children telling them stories about their father. While the children eat, she tells them about a time when their father was ill, giving graphic details that clearly disgust the children and nearly drive one of them from the table altogether.

A man in the psychology field notices that a child in the room mispronounces certain words, and begins a commentary on the topic in the child’s hearing that continues intermittently for days.

A couple in the medical field, sitting in a restaurant, notice that a patron who has just walked in has a limp. They stare, confer together in whispers, and stare some more until the patron walks out, then begin a discussion of what sort of health problem the patron must have.

All of these situations involve what the active parties would class as “professional curiosity.” The oddities, imperfections, and even misfortunes of others, if they correspond in any way to the parties’ professions, offer boundless opportunities for amusement for the parties themselves.

However, there are two key facts that these “professionals” overlook in their indulgence of this form of amusement. One, that their subjects have ears, and two, that their subjects have feelings. Outside the lecture hall, therapy room, or examination room, their professional lives continue regardless of the fact that their subjects of interest are not consulting or paying them. The fact that their commentary and questioning embarrass or gross out their subjects of interest escapes them. They don’t seem to notice.

“Sorry, I just can’t help it,” one individual said to me when I requested a cessation of the uncalled-for medical commentary. “I just thought you’d want a medical opinion,” I heard on another occasion. A third was, “I have a professional interest in this.”

Discretion and good manners are Jewish values, but not exclusively. Confidentiality is expected of every medical and mental health professional. Every hospital elevator I’ve been in for the past decade has had notices posted reminding patients and visitors to avoid all conversation pertaining to a patient’s status to preserve confidentiality. And patients in the U.S. are given a form to sign acknowledging their rights to privacy and knowledge of how medical information can be shared according to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

Professionals who teach or care for the sick are a necessity in any society. It is even understandable that their professional interest carries over into their civilian lives. However, no professional has license to breach the dictates of good manners, or to walk the earth criticizing, analyzing, embarrassing, browbeating, or humiliating others out of “professional curiosity.” In Judaism, to embarrass others is considered equal in severity to murdering them. Professionalism is best kept in its professional milieu.

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