What Does “No One Sees The Hump On His Own Back" Mean?
Keyner zet nit zayn eygenem hoyker.
I have a special fondness for this particular proverb. (Yes, I know, I’m playing favorites—you can wipe that judgmental look off your face! Just mark this tendency of mine down as yet another reason why I should probably never have children.) But why am I partial to this proverb? You’re probably surprised, considering it’s pretty much old news. Haven’t I heard? People in glass houses shouldn’t yada yada ... something about The Stones gathering moss … Well, Keith Richards does look a little downy if you ask me, but what do you expect? They’ve been touring for half a century! Anyway, that’s beside the point.
It’s not the admittedly-clichéd wisdom behind this particular proverb that charms me, it’s the way said wisdom is articulated and, by extension, what that says about us Jews.
First of all, unlike in the aforementioned “glass house” example, we Jews aren’t gettin’ all up in your business and telling you what to do. Nope. In our proverb, we’re just stating a simple fact about human nature, take it or leave it. That may seem odd coming from a people who have 613 commandments, but let me take this opportunity to explain: all those rules and regulations are not blindly imposed but willingly and thoughtfully embraced. We opt in to our faith, much like a timeshare in Boca Raton. It has been said that not only are we the Chosen People, but we are the choosing people as well. In fact, we have a rather intense policy against recruitment.
Fun Fact! Did you know that it’s customary for a Rabbi to turn an adamant potential convert away three times before the conversion process can begin?
This proverb is wonderfully Jewish in that it just lays it all out on the table for you. The rest is up to you. Throw a stone! What do we care? It’s your house! (With this said, we can therefore safely assume that this proverb was not coined by anyone’s mother-in-law.)
The second aspect of this proverb that I find especially intriguing is its choice of metaphor. There are a gazillion ways one could paint this picture, so why the hump? In anticipation of your guesses: No, Quasimodo wasn’t a Jew; and yes, the word “hump” is wonderfully effective at inciting fits of immature giggling. But I have another theory: I find it fascinating that the Jewish adaptation of this proverb asserts that the massive metaphorical goiter we all possess—and ignore, and criticize others for—is not only unsightly but also a great burden. We are saddled with our shame and must go through life schlepping the weighty load. In the end, proverb vs. proverb, I propose that the hump beats the house (glass, that is) any day. For what it lacks in bossiness it makes up for in arresting and thought-provoking truth.
Rhoda walks in the kitchen, throws her handbag on the table, and plops down in a chair with head in hands. Abe looks up from his bowl of kasha and turns to his wife. …
Abe: “Something the matter, Ahuvi?”
Rhoda: “Oh Abe! 45 minutes I sat there listening to that woman.”
Abe: “Why do you bother with that yuchna??”
Rhoda: “Abe, I like the book club! Ida’s in it! What choice do I have?”
Abe: “Alright, Rho, out with it. What did the ‘Great Luminary’ have to say today?”
Rhoda: “Oh Abe, she was in rare form! There she was, perched on her armless chair, wearing that shmata of a moo moo, and in between bites of Marcy’s chocolate babka, she has the audacity to tell me that I look as though I’ve ‘put on a few pounds!’ You know I haven’t seen her since we got back from our cruise? Well, she went on to lecture me about how maybe I’m ‘not cut out to go on cruises, because one needs a great deal of self-control around all that food’ and that I should ‘look into one of those “health retreats” instead!’ You know what that means! She wants to send me to a fat farm!?!? It was so embarrassing! How can she say such things when she—ugh!”
Abe: “Oh Ahuvi, you know the old saying! No one sees the hump on his own back. Which is especially impressive in this case because Ida wears hers in the front!”
Rhoda: [laughter] “Oh Abe! You’re too much!!”
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