Back to basics series
Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that a Jewish couple who asked about getting a train home late one night overheard the CityRail customer service manager telling his staff, “They won’t mind getting a taxi because they have plenty of money. They live in Bondi where a lot of rich Jewish people live.” In response to the passengers’ complaint, the manager was given a six-month suspension without pay.
The Jewish couple hoped he had “learnt his lesson,” but when asked if he regretted his statements, the manager said: “I’m just happy it has all been sorted out now.”
Was the lesson learned a sense of shared humanity or empathy for stranded strangers, as the couple might have hoped, or simply what one can and cannot say aloud?
I have to wonder if the manager’s answer would have been different had he, instead of being punished, been invited to play with the Jewish couple.
Play? Absolutely. “Scientists report that playing a game like Rock Band (cooperative music video game) can make you more caring — and the reason touches the core of what it means to be Jewish,” writes Rabbi David Markus.
That core, the most-repeated ethical principle in the Hebrew Bible, is empathy expressed as “love” or “do not oppress” the stranger because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
How does science explain the connection between play and empathy, ultimately validating the ethical wisdom of the Bible?
“Smile and the world smiles back” contains some truth at the cellular level, according to new discoveries in neuroscience.
Mirror neurons, unique brain cells triggered when an individual performs an action, can also be ignited by just watching others perform actions or express emotions. Furthermore, these cells appear to be key in psychologically identifying with or vicariously experiencing the feelings or thoughts of others: emotional contagion or empathy.
However, neurobiology has also demonstrated that emotional contagion is not an automatic response, but is significantly influenced by relationships between people.
According to a landmark study at McGill University, humans tend to experience less empathy for strangers because they elicit stress. Reducing that stress — making the stranger “less strange” or “more like us” — increases empathy, a modern discovery that echoes the ancient biblical command to love the stranger by remembering we too had the experience of being strangers.
Surprisingly, generating empathy is not complicated. Numerous studies have demonstrated that even a short play experience among strangers — from Rock Band to thumb wrestling to unstructured play — decreases “stranger stress” while increasing the trust, positive emotions, and bonding necessary for emotional contagion.
So what exactly constitutes play? Dr. Scott Eberle, a scholar on the topic of play, writes, “Play is a moving target. We may know it when we see it…(but) play is problematic of definition.” While the possibilities for empathy-building play are endless, here are some starter ideas for pairs or groups of children, adults, or seniors who are not all acquainted.
• Imaginative or pretend play. “Dress up” or have a costume party to try on different interests, personas, and experiences. Make up a story and act it out. Get involved in theatre or bibliodrama. Engage in brainstorming and imagineering. Join the Pokémon GO craze. Share a play or movie.
• Storytelling or word play. Tell favorite family anecdotes. Play road trip games like I Spy, the Alphabet Game, and license plates. Use the mobile app Words with Friends. Join a storytelling or book club. Make up stories as a round robin (each person adds a part) or fractured fairy tale (different viewpoint). Tell jokes. Connect on Facebook.
• Social play. Rough and tumble play. Team or pick-up sports. Ice breakers and team building exercises. Playgrounds. Fort-building. Camping, hiking, traveling, exploring. Yoga or racquetball. Water cooler conversation. Museums or science centers. Dancing.
• Object play. Pull out some board or card games. Get busy with an upended tub of Legos or buttons. Create a home-grown Chopped (cooking) event. Play a video game with others. Collect and share for hobbies.
• Creative play. Sculpt or paint with found items. Scrapbook. Jam with a band or sing karaoke. Explore technology tools. Try something new — a class, an activity. Doodle.
When commanding us to love the stranger, God is not expecting something outside of our capabilities.
God even tells us how to do it: recognize that we are alike in sharing the experience of being a stranger.
It took more than 2,000 years for science to reach the same conclusions. Mirror neurons give us the biological capability for empathy, but emotional contagion is triggered only when we reduce “stranger anxiety” by discovering we have something in common.
Unexpectedly, one of the most simple and successful strategies to make strangers “more like us” is a shared play experience.
In this season of introspection, perhaps we might consider improving ourselves and the world around us by adding more play with strangers to all our lives.
Literature to share
Rosh Hashanah is Coming by Tracy Newman. Published just in time for the holidays, this whimsical board book uses clever images and rhymes to illustrate key rituals of Rosh Hashanah for the preschool set. Its focus is on the sensorial experiences rather than the meaning of the season, which could easily be introduced while reading. Make sure to have the ingredients on hand so the book’s sights, sounds, and tastes come alive.
Bubbe Isabella and the Sukkot Cake by Kelly Terwilliger. All of the features of Sukkot are woven into this delightful tale about a cake, a parade of animals, and making flags for Simchat Torah. It’s easy for young children to learn about these fall festivals when their celebrations are woven into a story.
The Bible Doesn’t Say That by Joel Hoffman. In the introduction, Hoffman describes five ways in which the Bible is frequently distorted, even by thoughtful readers. He then examines 40 familiar texts, exploring their original meanings and the ways in which they have been read through history, and the resultant historical and religious consequences. This is a fascinating book for those who enjoy studying and debating the Bible and its implications.