Mar 23, 2012
ZEITGEIST by Howard Barbanel
There is an old joke about two Jews who were shipwrecked and marooned on a desert island in the South Pacific. They were stranded there for 20 years and being Jews they were very industrious. They domesticated the wild animals, drained the swamps, tilled the soil. After 20 years they were finally rescued. The ship’s captain came ashore and the Jews gave him a tour of the island. They showed him the fields and flocks and all they accomplished and the captain was very impressed. Finally, they came to a clearing in the middle of the island. In this clearing were three huts. The captain asked, “what are these huts?” One of the Jews answered proudly, “these are our synagogues!” The captain did a double-take and replied, “wait a minute, there are two of you but you have three synagogues?” The other Jew answered, “one I go to, the other one he goes to and the third one, neither one of us would step foot inside.”
This combination of unity and divisiveness among Jews is as old as time. Even Moses was subjected to it in no uncertain terms. Just as humorously, most Jews want to be president of the company, Prime Minister of Israel but not president of their shuls, which doesn’t stop groups of a dozen shtarkers from starting their own shuls on nearly every corner of densely populated Jewish neighborhoods. Here in The Five Towns I’ve already lost count of the number of Orthodox synagogues and tiny shteiblach (minyans typically of under 75 people held in private homes).
One reason so many shuls get created is for convenience – minimizing the Sabbath walk in poor weather is always a good thing. Another reason is to create an environment where your shul or shteibel is somehow to be seen as more rigorous than the one down the road. There is a full blown competition in many Orthodox quarters to present oneself as more outwardly frum (religiously observant) than the next guy. This all may come as a surprise to non-Orthodox Jews in an era of rampant assimilation and disaffiliation, they along with non-Jews might also be surprised to learn that Orthodox religious and cultural life is far from uniform and monolithic – in fact there are a million shades of gray and in many quarters the closer you are to black the better. Many would also be surprised to learn that most of the differences between the myriad groups of Orthodox Jews is not theological in the least, but rather cultural.
Back in the 60s the Black Panther movement proffered the slogan “black is beautiful,” this could be transposed into many Orthodox circles today where a full-out offensive is underway by many Orthodox Jews to try and steer most Orthodox Jews as far to the right culturally as possible. This takes the form of peer pressure to conform to socio-cultural mores so as to be accepted by the wider community. “Black” refers to the sartorial color of choice among the Brooklyn-centered “yeshivish” and Haredi (sometimes called Hassidic or Ultra-Orthodox) sectors of Orthodoxy. Black is seen as pious, modest and “high-level.” Color alone is not enough, the cut and length of what you wear is also important along with what hat (if any) and which kipa (skull cap) sits perched atop or in front of your head. For women there is a fixation with covering as much of oneself as possible and in not necessarily a flattering way. There is pressure to eat in only certain dining establishments and buy food only from certain markets (even assuming all of your choices are Glatt Kosher to begin with), to decorate your home with certain furniture, use conforming tablecloths, vacation in the same places, send your kids to the same schools and arrange their marriages like in the Old Country. It is an ideology that says the more covered up your women, the higher the dividers (mechitsas) in your shul, the right brim on your Italian fedora, then the more “authentic” you are seen to be. It also deals with issues such as whether one has a television or computers in your home as well.
Just as a black hole in space sucks up and envelops all light, so too is the black Orthodox movement (it should be said it is an ad-hoc movement) making a strenuous effort at trying to consume Modern Orthodoxy. In Israel the “Modern Orthodox” are called the “National Religious” and can be clearly identified by their knitted kippot, their often heroic army service, devotion to Zionism and the state and participation in mainstream life. Here in the U.S. there are no elite units in the Israel Defense Forces, so the way for many to prove just how Jewish they are is to envelope oneself in the black.
The ripple effect of all this rightward running is an atmosphere where Modern Orthodox people are made to feel somehow less devout and less culturally Jewish for embracing aspects of American culture. The supposed “authentic” Jewish culture being flogged by the right wing is actually a case of misplaced nostalgia for the imagined glories of shtetl
(small Jewish village) life in Eastern Europe, principally in Poland and Russia from the 18th and 19th Centuries. The garb emulates that of the wealthy nobility of those countries centuries ago. There is also a gauzy Fiddler on the Roof nostalgia for the imagined blissful uniformity and religious warmth of that time and place.
Truth be told, those days in the Pale of Settlement were some of the worst and most oppressive times the Jewish people ever endured anywhere at anytime. Jews were compelled to live in these towns and couldn’t reside elsewhere. They were subject to no end of violent anti-Semitism which culminated in the Holocaust. Grinding poverty, dismal medieval living conditions and a severe lack of economic and educational opportunities led to hopelessness and no future for Jewish children. It’s what prompted millions of Jews to flee to America, Israel and other places. Breaking the bonds of this oppression and helplessness were one of the prime motivations of Theodor Herzl and the founders of political Zionism.
Wearing the garb of Russo-Polish nobility can be seen as a form of “Stockholm Syndrome,” whereby captives start identifying with their captors. How is this “authentically” Jewish? What if one’s forebears didn’t come from Poland or Russia? Before the 18th Century did Jews dress this way? No way. Rakish black Italian fedoras were unknown to Jews even a generation ago or during the Middle Ages or the Renaissance or to Sephardic Jews living around the Mediterranean or Middle East or to Jews in ancient Israel. Just as the Amish in Pennsylvania have ossified their attire to early 19th Century fashion, so too have many Orthodox. But this emulation of our tormentors is misplaced. Better to be grateful to America and American culture. No country or society has ever been as good to the Jews as America has been. Religious Jews should be sporting the Brooks Brothers look, not that of Minsk.
A small minority of rigorous Orthodox also are in subconscious envy of right-wing Islam in the way they manage to coerce their women into burkhas and hijabs and coerce adherence to Islamic proscriptions of alcohol, Western culture and the like. They see how whole countries can be compelled and harbor a secret wish to be able to do the same. In Israel there are actually some Jewish sects who have their women attired like Saudis. There is a perception among many Orthodox that somehow all this is to be admired and that these people “are on a high level.”
Many (if not most) Orthodox residents of The Five Towns moved here specifically to have a small slice of the American Dream while maintaining their fealty to the verity of the Torah (bible), combining participation in mainstream American economic and cultural life along with respect for and observance of millennia-old Jewish laws and traditions. They made a choice not to live in Boro Park, Williamsburg, Flatbush or Midwood. They don’t want to be told that guys wearing jeans and a button-down shirt instead of black pants and a wrinkled white shirt makes someone somehow less authentic. They don’t want to hear that wearing a knitted kipa instead of a huge black velvet one makes you less righteous or that using non-white tablecloths makes their children less marriageable.
There is a palpable cultural push-back in progress among the American Modern Orthodox where people are saying “we don’t want to be shtetl-ized,” “we don’t remember 19th Century Russia fondly,” “we can adhere to the Torah and be Americans too.” Just like Israel’s National Religious (Daati Leumi) have no religious or cultural insecurities, Modern Orthodox American Jews are starting to publicly say that forced cultural conformity has nothing whatsoever to do with one’s level of religiosity and that living in and being a part of the world is not inimical with faith and Torah observance.
Filed Under: Howard Barbanel
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