03 June 2012

Novhardok, Keep Portland Weird!, and Not Caring About Public Opinion

I'm going to go off on a tangent and tell you another Novhardok story, one that is common knowledge in these parts, just because this is basic Jewish history that everyone should know I love Novhardok.

If you're doing the right thing, it doesn't matter what other people think of you - but how do you practice not caring about public opinion?
The students of the Novhardok yeshiva used to practice by going into a store and asking for a product not sold there - e.g., they would enter a pharmacy, and ask to buy a hammer.

As the joke goes, if you try this in America, the pharmacist will ask you, "What size?" but in the specialized shops of pre-war Europe (Rav Elya Pruzhiner's family shop, for example, sold only yeast and salt) it was a truly ludicrous request.

How can this story be true? I asked one day, a few years after I heard it. Isn't it problematic to give the clerk the impression that Torah students are crazy?

"It is true," answered the rav at whom I threw the question. "I knew the daughter of an old Novhardoker, and she said that when her father came to America, he would try to pay for his groceries with Monopoly money. And when the clerk would say, 'Sir, you cannot pay with this,' he would assume a confused air, and ask, 'Why not?'"


I do not own this image

I was enthusiastically describing the unusual individualism of P-town's alternative culture (Keep Portland Weird!) to an elderly rebbetzin of Jerusalem, and she exclaimed, "That's not good! There's no normal to keep people on their toes."
Which is the flip side of not caring about public opinion.

Dostoevsky said, 'Where there is no God, everything is permitted', but where there is no objective definition of Good and also no normal, what, save fear of the government, is to prevent the selfish from committing any crime they want?
Keep Portland Weird and Idealistic!

Evidently you have to care even in a Torah society: the Netziv once chided his nephew for not caring whether the post office staff would laugh at him for including extra information in an address, saying that a person immune to public opinion has lost a useful motivation to behave properly (and to tell the truth, and so is disqualified from testifying in court).

You have to not care about public opinion... but you also have to care. It's probably one of those things that should be swung either way and eventually allowed to settle somewhere in the middle.

Anyway, wouldn't you just love to gather up all the self-conscious teenagers of the world, hand them a wad of Monopoly money, and send them shopping? Such a powerful lesson.


  1. My observation is that the very invocation "Keep Portland Weird" (which, by the way, originated in another city) implies a standard of normal; that standard of normal being something unlike the standard of normal in other cities - or neighborhoods.
    My friends and I are amused and only occasionally annoyed by younger citizens who pride themselves on, and importune others to emulate, their tolerance or fervid embrace of all races, creeds, gender preferences, political views, personal adornments (tattoos, piercings), self-medication, and living arrangements EXCEPT the ones they disagree with.
    Consider, for example, high school students in "punk" or "goth" attire being defiantly noticeable among the suits or khakis of any American downtown - but doing so walking five abreast. "I am not like you. I am an individual!" silently scream all five in chorus. They defy majority "normal," but they do so in society, in minority "normal".

    I'm not sure I share your enthusiasm for sending teenagers into the marketplace with Monopoly money. I guess I am looking at this from the clerk's or shopkeeper's point of view. The clerk or shopkeeper cannot pay the rent or feed his/her family with Monopoly money. Customers who insist that Monopoly money be regarded as acceptable currency are ignoring the shopkeeper's needs and absorbing time that could be given to customers who use legal tender.

  2. I was also wondering why it's not considered a nuisance for the shopkeeper. IIRC according to halacha you're not allowed to enter a store without intent to buy something, for just this reason... I'm guessing they bought something before leaving. As for time, in a neighborhood makolet with no one else in line I can see where you might just be giving him a good story. I don't imagine you could string out a conversation about imaginary currency for too long. Dunno. But I trust the Alter of Novhardok.

  3. I was referring to 'Keep Portland Weird!' in its meaning of 'don't be afraid to be different'. When it becomes 'be different purely for the sake of being different', it becomes self-contradictory ("the herd of independent minds"), it's no longer about a higher purpose, and I fail see the point of it.

  4. The "Keep Portland Weird" bumper sticker has been appropriated for a descendant bumper sticker, "Keep Portland Beered".
    The city does have a healthy population of microbreweries, as has the state of Oregon, for which we are famous in many other places. The variety of flavors in these small-production beers is inventive and satisfying. So "Keep Portland Beered" is positive.
    On the other hand, "Keep Portland Beered" is easily understood to refer to quantity, not quality; as 'keep Portland drunk'.

    The danger of bumper stickers, and of witticisms that fit on bumper stickers, is that they acquire meanings that contradict the intended meaning (assuming ambiguity was not the original intent - which it may have been).

    Picking through with a knitting needle, how many different meanings can we find in "weird"?