In My Own Words: Culture shock

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I couldn’t believe it. That one sentence completely overthrew what I’d known as a fact since childhood. What could have caused such culture shock? It was a simple statement in the latest issue of the AARP’s magazine. I was skimming an article about dentistry when I came across this mind-blowing statement: it’s recommended that you wait for an hour after eating before brushing your teeth. What? I grew up with dentists impressing on us the importance of brushing after every meal. I quickly got online and searched for the American Dental Association to see if the information was correct. Believe it or not, it was. My waiting until after breakfast to brush my teeth was completely wrong.

I realize this is a small, unimportant thing (well, except for all the fillings in my teeth that might not be there if I’d known it), but it felt shocking because I’d never heard anyone refute what I thought was an established fact. I don’t know when the recommendation changed, but no one ever mentioned it to me. Was I supposed to have known this on my own? Were there articles in the newspaper that I missed? 

Thinking about tooth brushing habits made me realize I learned this when I was young and never thought to question it. That’s true with large portions of my life. If I learned to do something one way as a child, I generally continue to do it that way unless someone mentions and/or I read that what I’m doing is wrong. This may be because I thrive on routine: for example, I do things in the same order almost every morning. That way, not only do I never forget to do something, I don’t have to waste energy thinking about something that’s not important. I am now trying to incorporate brushing my teeth before breakfast into this routine (although I still use a dental pick after I eat to get the bread crumbs out of my teeth). 

This made me think that not only our actions, but our opinions, are often formed in childhood. However, my attitude to many important issues have changed over the years. That’s because I’ve lived through the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, the Feminist Movement, the Gay Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement. Each has allowed me to see the world from a different perspective and realize that my childhood reactions were often wrong. Some of these movements have had a direct effect on my daily life. Without the Feminist Movement, I doubt that I would be a rabbi: that option was never discussed when I was growing up. The other movements didn’t affect me as personally, although they have all affected me politically. I view our political, social and cultural systems in the U.S. differently after learning from each movement. 

Note, please, that I didn’t say learning about each movement, but rather learning from each movement. Just as my Jewish learning never ends, so, too, does my ability to expand my understanding about the lives of others and the changes I can make to help create a better world. That’s very important because this is also a Jewish principle known as tikkun olam (repairing the world), which underlies my understanding of Judaism.

Am I done with learning and culture shock? I very much doubt it. Just as we read and reread to the Torah each year to discover new meanings, so will the world continue to teach us new lessons, but only if we are open to receiving them.