Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Difference A Friend Can Make? A Jewish "Kyle"

So I picked up a copy of the recent Country Yossi Magazine, attracted at first by the cover promoting the now-banned and thus-canceled "Big Event." But also because it is always interesting reading, particularly the Letters to the Editor and the responses from Country Yossi.

They often feature articles by Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum, who is against fake segulahs, fake mysticism, Reiki, natural medicine, and so on. And so, it was somewhat surprising to see him fall for an email forward, which he printed apparently believing it was true. Before proceeding, you may wish to click on the article pictured to the right. You will get a full-page scan of the article. See if any of this story sounds familiar.

I immediately recognized it as a story passed around by email, not about the Jewish "Yossi" but about the gentile kid "Kyle." That Rabbi Teitelbaum fell for it, despite his usual skepticism, such that he prints it under a column "Real Life," and "from an anonymous source," is interesting. It is because it promotes middot tovot, and does not promote false mysticism, I suppose. But there is an important lesson in here somewhere.

The basic story is of a kid who is carrying a bunch of books home, gets them knocked out of his hands by a bunch of bullies. Another kid comes to his aid and befriends him, and introduces him into his circle of friends. Later, the first kid becomes popular, becomes valedictorian, and to a full auditorium, tells how he was carrying all those books home because he was planning on committing suicide that weekend, and this other kid thus saved his life. Thus, we also should take time to positively impact others with friendliness.

There are various aspects of the story that don't ring true, when told about Yossi. (Read the story first.) For one, I marvel that a kid going to Lakewood would confess planned suicide in such a public forum, as that could well ruin his own chances of a good shidduch, as well as that of any siblings. Also, the bullies who knocked down the seforim onto the ground seem to be kids from the same school, and thus in this story from a yeshiva. Would they do this to seforim? Also "Today was one of those days" does not make any sense in context, as betrays some editorial hand. Also, the ending of the tale, "Friends are angels who lift us to our feet when we have trouble remembering how to fly," really strikes me as something a Christian would say, rather than a Jewish person. Plus, I remember it being told over as happening to a gentile kid.

So Motza'ei Shabbos, I look it up on Snopes, doing a Google search for one of the phrases, put in quotation marks for an exact match, and including the word Snopes. And that takes me to this page on Snopes:
One day, when I was a freshman in high school, I saw a kid from my class was walking home from school. His name was Kyle. It looked like he was carrying all of his books. I thought to myself, "Why would anyone bring home all his books on a Friday? He must really be a nerd." I had quite a weekend planned (parties and a football game with my friend tomorrow afternoon), so I shrugged my shoulders and went on. As I was walking, I saw a bunch of kids running toward him. They ran at him, knocking all his books out of his arms and tripping him so he landed in the dirt. His glasses went flying, and I saw them land in the grass about ten feet from him. He looked up and I saw this terrible sadness in his eyes. My heart went out to him. So, I jogged over to him and as he crawled around looking for his glasses, and I saw a tear in his eye.

As I handed him his glasses, I said, "Those guys are jerks. They really should get lives." He looked at me and said, "Hey thanks!" There was a big smile on his face. It was one of those smiles that showed real gratitude.

I helped him pick up his books, and asked him where he lived. As it turned out, he lived near me, so I asked him why I had never seen him before. He said he had gone to private school before now. I would have never hung out with a private school kid before.

We talked all the way home, and I carried his books. He turned out to be a pretty cool kid. I asked him if he wanted to play football on Saturday with me and my friends. He said yes. We hung all weekend and the more I got to know Kyle, the more I liked him. And my friends thought the same of him.

Monday morning came, and there was Kyle with the huge stack of books again. I stopped him and said, "Damn boy, you are gonna really build some serious muscles with this pile of books everyday!" He just laughed and handed me half the books. Over the next four years, Kyle and I became best friends. When we were seniors, began to think about college. Kyle decided on Georgetown, and I was going to Duke. I knew that we would always be friends, that the smiles would never be a problem. He was going to be a doctor, and I was going for business on a football scholarship. Kyle was valedictorian of our class.

I teased him all the time about being a nerd. He had to prepare a speech for graduation. I was so glad it wasn't me having to get up there and speak. Graduation day, I saw Kyle.

He looked great. He was one of those guys that really found himself during high school. He filled out and actually looked good in glasses. He had more dates than me and all the girls loved him! Boy, sometimes I was jealous.

Today was one of those days. I could see that he was nervous about his speech. So, I smacked him on the back and said, "Hey, big guy, you'll be great!" He looked at me with one of those looks (the really grateful one) and smiled. "Thanks," he said.

As he started his speech, he cleared his throat, and began. "Graduation is a time to thank those who helped you make it through those tough years. Your parents, your teachers, your siblings, maybe a coach . . . but mostly your friends. I am here to tell all of you that being a friend to someone is the best gift you can give them. I am going to tell you a story." I just looked at my friend with disbelief as he told the story of the first day we met. He had planned to kill himself over the weekend. He talked of how he had cleaned out his locker so his Mom wouldn't have to do it later and was carrying his stuff home. He looked hard at me and gave me a little smile. "Thankfully, I was saved. My friend saved me from doing the unspeakable." I heard the gasp go through the crowd as this handsome, popular boy told us all about his weakest moment.

I saw his Mom and dad looking at me and smiling that same grateful smile. Not until that moment did I realize its depth. Never underestimate the power of your actions.

With one small gesture you can change a person’s life. For better or for worse. God puts us all in each other’s lives to impact one another in some way. Look for God in others.
It is interesting that whoever changed it obviously thought that the message was a good one, but that a Jewish audience would, or should, not learn lessons from non-Jews. So they made a bunch of changes to the story. I could type the article in by hand and do a file compare with the Kyle story to spot every single one, but we can predict where the changes will be, and just look in the parallel text. Look at the Jewish one, and see how it was changed from the original one about Kyle. Then look at the gentile one, look for words like "damn," or references to college, or how "all the girls loved him," and see what the Jewish version does with it. It is quite funny.

Here are some of the changes. Kyle means about Kyle, and Yossi means about Yossi:

Kyle:
It looked like he was carrying all of his books.
Yossi:
It looked like he was carrying all of his seforim and books.

Kyle:
I thought to myself, "Why would anyone bring home all his books on a Friday? He must really be a nerd."
Yossi:
I thought to myself, "Why would anyone bring home all his books each day? He must really be a nerd."

Perhaps because if they are seforim, he would be bringing them to learn over Shabbos. Or more likely because of the next change, which involves playing football on Saturday, something which the editor makes sure to change consistently through the story.

Kyle:
I had quite a weekend planned (parties and a football game with my friend tomorrow afternoon), so I shrugged my shoulders and went on.
Yossi:
I looked at him, shrugged my shoulders and went on.

A nice Jewish boy would not be going to parties or a football game, certainly not a football game on Shabbos. (This is perhaps why the earlier reference to it being a Friday was stripped out, though this later removal makes the immediately preceding change unnecessary.) So he just looked at him.

Kyle:
As I handed him his glasses, I said, "Those guys are jerks. They really should get lives."
Yossi:
As I handed him his glasses, I said, "Those guys are real idiots. They really should get on with their lives."

Apparently, the editor thought jerks was too harsh, or maybe thought it was vulgar.I think the former. Which is why getting a life becomes getting on with your life, something with a different connotation.

Kyle:
I helped him pick up his books, and asked him where he lived.
Yossi:
I helped him pick up his seforim and books, and asked him where he lived.

Hey, at least the editing is consistent.

Kyle:
As it turned out, he lived near me, so I asked him why I had never seen him before. He said he had gone to private school before now. I would have never hung out with a private school kid before.
Yossi:
It turned out that he lived very close to me, so I asked him why I had never seen him before. He said he had just moved in.

We cannot have Yossi going to a private school. He goes to the yeshiva high school, just like the narrator. So instead, it is because he had just moved in.

Kyle:
I asked him if he wanted to play football on Saturday with me and my friends. He said yes. We hung all weekend and the more I got to know Kyle, the more I liked him. And my friends thought the same of him.
Yossi:
I asked him if he wanted to play football on Sunday with me and my friends. He said yes. We hung around together, and the more I got to know Yossi, the more I liked him. My friends thought the same of him.

So the football game happens on a Sunday rather than Saturday. That bears out my earlier observation about stripping out reference to Friday. And here, all weekend just becomes "around together," for similar reasons.

Kyle:
Monday morning came, and there was Kyle with the huge stack of books again. I stopped him and said, "Damn boy, you are gonna really build some serious muscles with this pile of books everyday!" He just laughed and handed me half the books.
Yossi:
Monday morning came, and there was Yossi with the huge stack of books again. I stopped him and said, "[] You are gonna really build some serious muscles with this pile of seforim and books you carry everyday!" He just laughed and handed me half the books.

The person who modified this forgot to put in "seforim and" in the first sentence of this paragraph, but managed to put it in in the next reference. More importantly, he took out the words "Damn, boy!" Obviously, we cannot have a yeshiva bachur saying that!

Kyle:
Over the next four years, Kyle and I became best friends. When we were seniors, [we] began to think about college. Kyle decided on Georgetown, and I was going to Duke. I knew that we would always be friends, that the smiles would never be a problem. He was going to be a doctor, and I was going for business on a football scholarship. Kyle was valedictorian of our class.
Yossi:
Over the next four years, Yossi and I became best friends. When we were seniors, I began to think about bais medrash. Yossi decided on Lakewood, and I was going to Brisk. I knew that we would always be friends, that the miles would never be a problem. [] Yossi was valedictorian of our class.

Note that of course, they would not contemplate college, which is traif! So Georgetown becomes Lakewood, and Duke becomes Brisk. Kudos to whoever changed this for preserving the number of syllables in each place. Similarly, if they are going to bais medrash after high school, then one is not going to be a doctor, and the other is not going for business on a football scholarship. Not many Jewish yeshiva high-school boys get football scholarships to college anyway, I would guess. They edited this from a better version, though, or else fixed the spelling errors. Notice how "miles" is correct, but "smiles" in the Kyle version is incorrect. (And it is not that the Yossi story is the original. Snopes talks about how this fake story about Kyle developed, which I will discuss later on in this post.)

Kyle:
Graduation day, I saw Kyle.He looked great. He was one of those guys that really found himself during high school. He filled out and actually looked good in glasses. He had more dates than me and all the girls loved him! Boy, sometimes I was jealous. [New Paragraph] Today was one of those days.
Yossi:
Graduation day came, [] and Yossi looked great. He was one of those guys that really 'found himself' during high school. He filled out and actually looked good in glasses. [] [New Paragraph] Today was one of those days.

Note how they took out reference to how Kyle "had more dates than me and all the girls loved him!" A yeshiva guy who is going to Brisk would not be dating extensively in high school. And "all the girls loved him" is inappropriate. If so, "Boy, sometimes I was jealous" would not make sense, and was taken out as well. Also, because jealously is not necessarily a nice emotion to have. Kinas soferim is one thing. But jealously for the other guy being a ladies' man is not so great.

But they preserve "today was one of those days," which was the beginning of the next paragraph! But of course, "one of those days" was "one of they days" that the anonymous author was jealous of him. But they stripped out the reference to jealousy from the previous paragraph, so this sentence makes no sense. I guess they did not notice since it was in a separate paragraph.

Kyle:
As he started his speech, he cleared his throat, and began. "Graduation is a time to thank those who helped you make it through those tough years. Your parents, your teachers, your siblings, maybe a coach . . . but mostly your friends.
Yossi:
As he started his speech, he cleared his throat, and began. "Graduation is a time to thank those who helped me make it through those tough years. My parents, my teachers, my siblings, [] but mostly your friends.

Note how they stripped out reference to the coach.

Kyle:
For better or for worse. God puts us all in each other’s lives to impact one another in some way. Look for God in others.
Yossi:
For better or for worse. Hashem puts us all in each other’s lives to impact one another in some way. Look for the good in others, and they will find the good in you."

God becomes Hashem, to frum it up. And looking for God in others is something a Christian would say. So it had to be changed to "the good."

The next statement, "Friends are angels who lift us to our feet when we have trouble remembering how to fly," was presumably a message added to the chain email by some Christian, but it did not raise enough flags for the Jewish person who edited it to realize and remove it.

But the thing is, it did not even happen to Kyle. Check out Snopes' writeup, where they talk about the development of this. It is a reworking of a story from Chicken Soup for the Soul:
It is a rewritten version of "A Simple Gesture," an inspirational tale penned by John W. Schlatter that appears in the 1993 bestseller, Chicken Soup for the Soul...

The key difference between the Schlatter story and what is being passed on the Internet is the ending: Schlatter's "Bill" reveals to "Mark" he'd been planning to kill himself that day, but does so in a private conversation. There is no tearjerking valedictory speech, no community just alerted to a selfless life-changing act performed by one in its presence, no shining-eyed parents just discovering what a marvel they have for a son. [Josh's Note: this is actually a misreading - it is Kyle's parents, not the narrator's parents, who are mentioned in the story.]

Other differences include:
  • "Bill's" books are not knocked out of his arms by a gang of bullies; he trips all on his own, with the story heavily implying no one other than "Mark" is around to see this.
  • "Mark" invites "Bill" in for a Coke, and they do spend the rest of the afternoon together, but not the rest of the weekend as in the Internet version, nor does "Mark" work "Bill" into his circle of friends.
  • The boys don't become best friends in this tale. They have sporadic contact with one another throughout their school lives, but they are never more than distantly friendly.
The Internet version clearly exaggerates each of the story's main points: A boy who trips over his own feet becomes a lad beset by bullies; a boy who helps pick up books then spends an afternoon with the one who tripped becomes someone who takes a less-able youngster under his wing by tending to him all that weekend and helping him make new friends by offering up his own; two lads who see a bit of each other throughout their school lives are transformed into best friends; and a private admission between just two is turned into a public lauding at a well-attended event. Whoever effected these changes must have thought they made for a better story in much the same way a fisherman looks to magnify his battle with Nature by claiming the fish was bigger, more feisty, and infinitely more crafty than any previously encountered.
There is more to the write-up. Read it all.

It is an... interesting... phenomenon that people make up stories to inspire others, and present it as the truth. This is what the original writers of the Kyle story intended, and the intent of whichever Jewish writer modified it. I wonder whether the Jewish editorial hand knew that the Kyle story was made up, or whether he thought he was modifying an otherwise entirely true story. Regardless, we should be careful and somewhat skeptical of these inspiring stories floating around. There have been a bunch of them lately. It is better to be inspired by truth. And there is a Jewish principle of midvar sheker tirchak, which should certainly inform our actions and words, even if we are trying to be mezakeh es harabbim.

4 comments:

yankel said...

Very entertaining, thanks!

yaak said...

I hope you wrote a letter to Country Yossi magazine, telling them to issue a correction and apology.

joshwaxman said...

A correction would be nice. I am not so sure an apology is really necessary. But I did not write one, yet. I might.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

very interesting!

LinkWithin

Blog Widget by LinkWithin