Holden Caulfield and the Lack of Observance

Note: A few of the thoughts and ideas that make up this post have been sitting in my Blogger Dashboard since 08/09/06, after I sent an email to someone regarding banned seforim and authors.

I heard on CBS radio that J.D. Salinger had died. As a former fan of fiction, avid reader of THE NEW YORKER, and someone who thought, once upon a time, of going into writing, I had to pause and give some thought to Mr. Salinger and, of course, The Catcher in the Rye. The primary thing that comes to mind whenever I think about The Catcher in the Rye is the fact that, sometimes, it takes just one written work to make an impact. Culturally, this book was one of the first written works to speak to and about teenage life in post World War II America. As often noted, while the book was intended for adults, many young adults felt that it spoke to them and reflected their feelings of alienation. It was published in 1951 and banned very quickly due to language, adult situations, promotion of smoking and alcohol drinking, etc. The book continues to be banned.

Even though I attended what was know as a “top” public school in Kansas, this book was never required reading. In fact, it wasn’t until I was 22 (summer of 1992) that I first read it. Holden Caulfield, the main character, was a mouthy teen who had been expelled from four schools and was rather discontent with society, adults, and especially people who were “phony”. Holden saw the hypocrisy within his society and in many of the people he encountered. In many ways, not so different from some individuals that would be labeled as “at-risk” or “in-risk”.

One of my favorite quotes (of all time) can be found in chapter two. Holden says, “People never notice anything”. I have always thought this to mean that Holden felt that people didn’t understand him and that they were not even willing to attempt to understand him. It is that lack of observance (not the Torah u’Mitzvos kind), that feeling that we are not important and what we say doesn’t matter that can often lead to a lack of observance (yes, the Torah u’Mitzvos kind). Most people want to be recognized and valued. When parents, teachers, family members or the community give the impression that someone isn’t important or “worth the time” it can have a devastating effect on a person. Of course, when a teen or adult gets to the point that they even contemplate the idea that Hashem forgets about them, then we get into a situation that might bring about that lack of observance.

“People never notice anything,” is a mindset that seems to go against many Jewish values. Part of the reason I like the quote is because I see how it resonates with many people. That’s I attempt to notice things. I try the be first to wish others a “Good Shabbos Kodesh” or give a “Yashar Koach”. I attempt to take an interest in what is going on in my life of those around me. Lately I have become keenly aware of when people have a birthday coming up (mostly thanks to Facebook). To simply ask someone how they are doing, but not push beyond the answer they give is really going only half the distance.

I know this personally, because friends will ask me how I’m doing, and my first reaction is to say, “everything is fine”. Mostly I do this because R Yisrael Lipkin (Salanter) held that “one’s face is a Reshus HaRabim”, a public area (I believe the story goes that he saw someone looking obviously very serious during Elul and commented to this person, that showing distress might bring others down, as well). I’m slowly realizing that if a good friend asks how I’m doing, the they do deserve a better answer than, “fine”. This is sort of like R Dessler’s idea that even though we want to be givers and not takers, sometimes you can be a taker, like when someone really wants to give you a gift, and by taking you are giving to that over person.

“People never notice anything,” just isn’t true. It’s easy to think that, in the big picture, our actions don’t really make a difference. I fall into this mentality quite often as of late. Usually, it’s really before I’m about to do something nice for someone or prior to actually making a difference. If a novel, movie, song, or other aspect of what’s called “pop culture” speaks to our youth, I think, for myself, that it is important to find out why. If you meet a teenager and they are into an author or a musical artist then there’s something (even if it’s completely off base) that “speaks” to that person. This isn’t meant as an academic critique of Mr. Salinger’s book, but I’ve often wondered to myself, “What if Holden had felt that an adult understood him?” Had that been the case, we would have had a very different story.

Originally posted on Neil’s blog here.

9 comments on “Holden Caulfield and the Lack of Observance

  1. I agree. Most people, when they ask, “How are you?”, aren’t really asking how you are. It is just another way of saying, “Hello”. But, when I ask, “How are you?”, and they invariably say, “Fine.”, I respond, “I hope so” and I mean it. I’ve lived through,and I will live through again, some really nasty times and I hope my friends aren’t in such a time.

    My response is an attempt to differentiate myself from the crowd. I am really glad if things are OK right now, but if they aren’t, I would like to be able to at least be someone who will take whatever time they need to unload about it. If I see, by the tone of voice or body language, that something is amiss, I will say something like, “You seem a bit anxious, or upset today. What happened? Wanna talk about it?” Sure, I’ve had my problems, but when I’m in a good place, I don’t take the attitude that, since I’m OK now, I not interested in dealing with problems, mine or anyone else’s. That seems so selfish and cold to me. How can I sit by and watch a friend suffer and not want to help him?

    I’ve learned a thing or two about how to manage and cope with problems. I’m not done learning about it, but I’ve made some progress in the last 10 years of so. Maybe I can share my experiences with a friend so he will be able to deal with it better. If nothing else, I at least want him to know that I really do care, and often, that is enough, that is all another person needs to make it through the tough times. Sometimes, a hug is all you can give and sometimes a hug is enough.

  2. At one point in the book, Holden Caulfield talks about a boy in his school with the initials J.C. (I think the boy’s name is James Castle, or something like that) who jumps out a window and dies to escape a group of boys who were coming to “get” him. Obviously this is meant to be one of the “Jesus Christ” figures that pops up frequently in Christian literature. Stephen King named one of his central characters in a prison novella “John Coffy.” The irony to us as Jewish readers of Christian literature is the focus on the death of one tragic figure whereas in Jewish literature the entire Jewish nation takes part in the tragedy. It also goes back to the old “Jews killed Jesus Christ” accusation, although neither J.D. Salinger nor Stephen King say anything outright about Jews or the perceived Jewish guilt.

  3. I appreciate what Nathan said.

    When you attribute the choices that a person makes, or his personal preferences, or his unique personality, to the fact that he is a BT or a teenager or a woman or a man or a gair or overweight or an orphan or Russian or Morrocan or Litvak, then you are robbing that person of his individuality and reducing him to a mere stereotype.

    This may sound trivial, but nobody likes when it happens to them, because it feels like an insult.

  4. Nathan,
    For what it’s worth, I’m sorry about your experiences.

    Observant society can be,as a culture, “cookie-cutter”. It’s easy to say, if a guy wears his tallis a certain way then he must be…(chassidsh, yekkish, lubavitch, wrong).

    One of the points of this “posting” when I wrote it was that it’s important to go beyond the surface when it comes to people.

  5. Teenagers are not the only people who feel that people do not understand them. I am old enough to have teenage children, and I do not merely feel that people do not understand me, I know as an absolute certainty.

    Decades of experience have shown me that even the very few people who I thought listened to me, were most not listening to me at all most of the time.

    Frum people tend to label others very quickly: Baalei Teshuvah, Russians, Gerim, Chassidim, Singles, Israelis, Sephardim, etc. Once you receive a label, everything you do or say becomes interpreted as being caused by the subcategory or label you belong to.

    For example, if a Sephardic Jew enjoys eating fruit, then people will say that he enjoys eating fruit because he is Sephardic, even though most Ashkenazic Jews enjoy fruit also.

    Another example: If a Baal Teshuvah or single is feeling sad, then the reason he is feeling sad is because he is a Baal Teshuvah or single, even though many FFB and married people also feel sad.

  6. True and some people do only ask “How are you doing” to yotzei (full their obligation).
    There is a fine line b/t spilling our guts and not complaining.

    Examining the guideline of chessed can help us understand how to be better friends.

  7. There’s a fine line in how to reply to a friend or acquaintance who asks how we’re doing. Sometimes they ask in a formulaic way and expect a formulaic answer. Other times, they really do want to know. But, even in the latter case, they may not be prepared for us to spill our guts about whatever is on our minds, so exactly how to reply is not always so clear. If every reply is a stream of complaints (even justifiable ones) people stop asking.

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