Them and Us

By From Within

BTs. FFBs. So much has been written about how different we are, and, at the same time, how similar.

And that’s just it, right? If we were just either one – so similar or so different from one another – there would be no conflict, no comparison. All the attendant feelings, on both sides – and the counter-reactions or defences to those feelings from “the other side” – just wouldn’t be an issue.

Much has been made of the FFB’s failure to understand that as much as we are different from them, we’re also that similar, too. Some FFBs clearly think BTs are from a distant planet in another solar system. Some hide their lack of understanding better than others. Some BTs have a great, boulder-sized chip on their shoulder and scorn all those who didn’t have to take the hard route (as if they had been given any more of a choice than that FFB, that they can take credit for coming up with this character-building exercise, all on their own…).

The funny thing is, I can’t figure out who Them or Us are. And I’m feeling like if we could just crack this problem and see who we are talking about – or talking to – we might be on to something. Maybe we could eliminate the tension. Get rid of the comparisons, for better or for worse. Just stop it all and help everyone get on with it so they can get what they need to advance – because, after all, that’s one goal we can all agree on.

So, who are these mythical Them?

By nature, an epithet like this means they are separate, identifiably unique from Us. So, let’s try to identify the players here:

Ask a conflicted BT and he may say, an FFB is someone who doesn’t have the internal struggles that I do. I’m not sure I really want to be like him but maybe I should be jealous. He took it all in with his mother’s milk and his choices are so much easier than what I deal with every day…

Ask a conflicted FFB and he may say, a BT is someone who thinks every single thing in life has to be meaningful and I can’t stand to hear him go on and on about how much he is shteiging…

Ask a supercilious BT and he may say, an FFB is the guy who never thinks about anything, he just does whatever Tatty and Zeidy did, whether he understands it or not – or ever even bothered trying to understand it…

Ask a supercilious FFB and he may say, a BT is someone who doesn’t begin to understand what difference Mesorah and zechus avos make in your life and that, try as hard as he might, he’ll never have that.

Ask an insecure BT and he may say, an FFB is the guy who helps me in the store who promised that the angle of my hat is just perfect now, he wears his just like that too, and he said he’d never have dreamed I am a BT…

Ask an insecure FFB and he may say, a BT is the guy who seems to always be trying to catch me on a shvere Tosfos, and gives me dirty looks when I talk during chazaras hashatz. Doesn’t he know I learned those halachos way back when, while he was still eating cheeseburgers?…

Ask a well-adjusted BT and he may say, an FFB is the guy who is way far ahead of me in what I know right now in Gemara, but maybe one day we can learn together.

Ask a well-adjusted FFB and he may say, a BT is the guy who’s trying so much harder than I am, I can’t come to his toes in my avodas Hashem. I love talking to him because he injects me with some of his enthusiasm….

And the funny thing is, each one of us can be all of these people at different times of our life/year/day.

So. Where has this imaginary sampling gotten us? How can we expect to understand, identify and agree with BTs if we are FFB – or vice versa – when we can’t even agree with our own reps?

The other issue that has me confused is that the lines are just so blurry. On one hand, both sides of the game seem to agree (while putting this admission on opposite sides of the same argument) that BT or FFB status is not something that can be instantly shed or acquired. BTs feel sad that they can never get away from the label, never feel they’ve finally arrived to some extent, when they still feel so compromised and comparatively disadvantaged. FFBs feel BTs can’t just expect to walk the walk and talk the talk (even with the proper pronunciation) and, presto! – you have been transformed into a kadosh merechem…

But most stunning of all is another little issue that I’m not sure anyone else noticed. I don’t understand why no one else has been talking about it, but it’s pretty major. That is – They are Us.

Take a look around you and for one moment, step back and try to put everyone into one of two boxes: BT or FFB. How easy a task is that?

Ok, well, sure, there will be a couple of easy ones, the people whose backgrounds you know well enough to classify them clearly. And lots of people you think you know…But do you really?

Looking around in my life has netted me the understanding that there are many less pure laine FFBs than many people would have thought.

Many more of us have morphed along the way than you might have thought. For sure, more than most FFBs think…Look again: The woman who teaches your child’s preschool class, the special ed Rebbe, the guy who runs the local kashrus organization – you know, the ones you are always comparing yourself to? Well, they sat next to me in day school.

The BTs of my school years weren’t those college kids-cum-yeshiva students we hear about today. The Discovery Seminars we attended weren’t as condensed as the ones running now – the first segment back then lasted eight years, with another four years as sequel. There was one – count ‘em, one­ – kid in my class whose mother covered her hair. Most weren’t shomer Shabbos. (What a sensation it was when Abie’s bar mitzvah featured a belly dancer, of all things…) And my experience is no where near being unique. There are lots and lots of people like me, whose education Baruch Hashem continued and continues and you may never know whether we wore kippahs or yarmulkas or kapplach when we were your son’s age…How did kids like this get to day school, you may ask? Well, that depends. Hakadosh Baruch Hu had so many different schemes to get us there. Regional differences played themselves out. For our family friend Reb Mordechai, for instance, it was a teacher’s strike in public school that brought his parents to enrol him in the day school. For mine, it was the racial tension in our city, where a little black boy threatened me on the school bus when I was in second grade…

Some of us were yet further blessed and we made our way over to Yeshiva or Bais Yaakov and on. Today, people with educational resumes just like mine and my classmates’ are very well represented in all fields of askanus, and especially in chinuch. Is it that we feel we must give back? That we yet feel that tug, which brought us to where we are, and so must in turn try our own hand at pulling it, too?…

In any case, you wouldn’t know this about me if you had not heard it from me. Try to put me in one of your boxes, and I’m not sure you’d have an easy time of figuring out just where I should go. I know I don’t find it easy.

That’s why I think it’s hilarious when I read all these nice, Jewish Observer-ease articles written for “the greater frum public” (me and you included) about kiruv, where they speak of the topic as if they were approaching it from a point far removed from the actual subject. And every time I read one of these, I wonder – how much longer will everyone – FFBs and BTs alike – still think it’s “us” and “them”???

We are them, and they are us. Period. L’chaim!

6 comments on “Them and Us

  1. Well, judging by your categorization, I guess most of the time I’m a “well adjusted” FFB. It’s only when “supercilious” BTs start harping on our faults, comparing the worst of the frum world with the best of the secular, when I turn into an “insecure” or “supercilious” FFB.

    Great post.

  2. How about a “normal” FFB and BT? Why do so many of these articles that struggle to pigeonhole so many Torah observant Jews seemingly don’t use that term?

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