Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 5 September 2011

Go Back To Your Ghetto

Although many in the Chareidi community claim that their ideology is the most faithful to the authentic Jewish mesorah, there are many holes in this belief.
For one thing, Jewish life was not always and everywhere like it was in the impoverished shtetls of eastern Europe.  Jews did not always wear bekishers and shtreimls.  They did not always speak Yiddish and they did not always speak Hebrew with a specific accent.  The Talmud did not always look the way it does now and a black hat was not in common usage until a few decades ago.
But the real hole in the belief that everything new is forbidden and that they are practising just like their ancestors did centuries ago is the selectivity of their practice.  I know of no Chareidim who, like the Mennonites, eschew electricity.  They use soap and toilet paper (to the best of my knowledge) and they have no philosophical problems with driving in cars, at least on those days when they're not stoning them.  Like all of us in the Torah observant community, they pick and choose.  The difference is just what innovations they've chosen to accept and the indignation with which they view those who choose others.
Koheles warns us not to wish for "the good old days" because such idle dreaming is for fools.  This has not stopped many around the world from doing just that.  In medicine we often have to contend with "home birthers" who believe that since hospitals are full of sick people they are best avoided when giving birth.  Besides, for millenia women birthed at home so it's more "natural".  What they like to forget is that the rate of infant and maternal morbidity and mortality is far, far lower in the sterile delivery room than it is in their bedrooms.  They remember the good and purposefully forget the bad. 
Well so do these particular Chareidim.  They remember with nostalgia the wonderful aspects of Jewish life in eastern Europe -the culture, the spirtuality, the close-knit sense of community - and forget the bad - the pogroms, the epidemics, the grinding poverty, the uncertainty that tomorrow the government would issue a decree that would ruin their lives.  Do they really want to go back to that?
Well fortunately within the State of Israel they don't have to.  In Israel they can sit around, invent a beautiful past history that, for the most part, never actually happened and then pretend that they are living in that history.  They can have the culture, the spirituality and the close-knit sense of community while the State provides a vaguely menacing government reminiscent of the Czars and Kaisers of Europe while not actually having to worry that the Knesset will issue any decrees remotely similar to those that the Jew hating rules of Europe used to.  They can scream "Nazi" and "Cossack" at their fellow Jews safe in the knowledge that, unlike real Nazis and Cossacks, they will not suddenly be surrounded by armed hostiles and beaten to a pulp.  In short, they can be deluded bullies.
And deluded bullies they are, as the latest kerfuffle between radical Chareidim and the rest of reality plays out in Beit Shemesh. In short, a new Dati Leumi school for girls - not a secular school, not a mixed school - opened up in "proximity" to a Chareidi neighbourhood.
Now before going on, some things have to be clarified.  First, to paraphrase Worf from Star Trek: TNG, there are those in the Chareidi community who define proximity as anything within their field of view.  Second, the Dati Leumi community is a special threat to some Chareidim as the presense of devout, observant Jews who are also Zionist contradicts their assertion that, in order to be a devout and observant Jew, you must not be Zionist.
As a result these particular Chareidim have behaved in a fashion that can only be described as a barbaric chilul HaShem.  Dressed in what they define as Jewish garb they have occupied the school, threatened parents and children with violence and continue to harrass all those who would oppose their hatred with insults and vehemence.  All while announcing that they are doing this for God's honour and the purity of the Torah community, of course.
When it comes to the left end of Orthodoxy it is well known that we are vigilant for those who would blur the line between proper Torah observance and heterodoxy.  It is time to start looking at the right end of Orthodoxy in the same fashion.  Just as a rabbi who announces that he is not going to say a particular beracha because it offends his liberal egalitarian sensibility has to have his Orthodox credentials questioned, so even more do these animals in the guise of men have to be told "You are not Torah observant!  You are not Orthodox!"  No, the vast majority of Chareidim are not like this but the actions of these primitives cast a dark pall on their entire group and they need to be rejected from it.
And if their opponents say that while brandishing crowbars in a menacing fashion, so much the better.


JRKmommy said...

Well put, except for a small quibble:

While there are natural birth extremists (unassisted birth advocate Laura Shanley comes to mind) who are oblivious to risk, home birth can be a safe option when attended by a qualified midwife practicing in accordance with guidelines that restrict it to low-risk births in location that allow for quick transfer to hospital if needed.

Canadian study of planned midwife-attended homebirth vs. hospital birth:

Friar Yid said...

Seems to me this would be a great opportunity for some pan-movement unity in Israel and the Diaspora. No reason the dati leumi crowd should have to deal with their right flank alone.

At the same time, I wonder the datim would want help or support from liberal Jews, or if that would make them feel awkward and vulnerable vis-a-vis the Haredim.

Identity and denominationalism are very tricky things.

The Reish Galuta of the Geula said...

"To paraphrase Worf from Star Trek: TNG, there are those in the Chareidi community who define proximity as anything within their field of view."

Well played sir, well played.

I actually stayed overnight in the building last week when 4 of the ringleaders had their sit-in. When questioned about the name-calling (calling us antisemites and Nazis), one responded that we were worse than Nazis since destroying spirituality is considered worse than destroying the physical body.

So the next time he yelled and called somebody a Nazi, I calmly corrected him saying the he was not being careful with his words, and he should really be calling us "Worse than Nazis." He nodded and conceded that I was correct. A minor and hollow victory, but amusing none-the-less.

Crunchy Religious Jew said...

I stopped reading when you went off on the tangent about home-birth. Comparing violent religious coercion with natural birthing is not only ludicrous, it's ignorant and offensive.

Menachem Lipkin said...

We welcome support from anyone and there have been Chilonim at some of our rallies. Just as we've attended some of theirs. In fact, the extremists have helped several groups to form an alliance. We have Dati Leumi, traditional sephardim, and chilonim all working together to bring balance back to Beit Shemesh.

The Reish Galuta of the Geula said...

@Crunchy Religious Jew:

Garnel Ironheart is a trained medical doctor with many years of experience. His views may be (and frequently are) offensive, but they are definitely not ignorant.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Oh RGG you flatter me!

Crunchy, I didn't mean to be offensive with the home birth thing but to make the analogy of people who recall the positives of the"good ol' days" and then criticize how things are now. Home births have their positives, to be sure, but those who say that hospitals are worse places to give birth are confused about the issue.

Dr Mike said...

Friar Yid, an alliance sounds tempting but it would be for a negative purpose only. What happens once the Chareidi "threat" is defeated? The old divisions will reassert themselves immediately.
Jewish unity must be based on something positive, not on dislike of a common target.

Friar Yid said...

Dr Mike- I don't disagree. But I also think there are enough positive elements present within a pan-movement challenge to Haredi-ism that if people were motivated, they could find some good stuff there to latch onto. There are many focuses people could choose: Ahvat Israel, Building bridges within the community, etc. Heck, they could start a pluralistic Habitat for Humanity.

Just like a healthy democracy should try to have a lot of different voices, so too a healthy Jewish environment and community should too. The challenge I perceive, in the diaspora, is that it seems like a lot of Israelis do not have a lot of instances where they interact with people out of their religious stream, at least not in a social or community setting. If as Menachem Lipkin said above, datim, masortim and hilonim are already coming together on this issue, it would be a shame to lose the opportunity to further capitalize on it and take it somewhere actively positive as opposed to defensive.

The datim are fighting to keep their community from being harassed by bullies. This is a cause that liberal Jews should understand and embrace. They don't have to agree on every point to be able to support each other on this one. And after that, who knows? Maybe one instance of understanding will lead to more. It certainly can't hurt things.

JRKmommy said...

Friar Yid:

Your post reminded me of another aspect of the Selective Memory Syndrome that Garnel discusses.

Our ancestors in the shtetl didn't think or act or live like the Charedi communities today. Today, insularity is a deliberate choice. Then, it was imposed. The other big difference is that Jews living in such hostile surroundings were also very aware of being Jews first. When I look through historical family records and talk with older relatives, nobody ever used terms like "frum community". It was the Jewish community, period. That's not to say that differences didn't exist, of course. Within the same family, it wasn't unusual to find one who was Hasidic, one who had been influenced by the Haskalah (Enlightenment), one who was a Bolshevik, one who supported the Zionists, etc. Beyond the intense debates, though, was the shared kinship.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

On the other hand there are other factors at play. Both the Chasam Sofer and Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch advocated policies of separation from the rest of the Jewish community. Self-imposed isolation is not a new phenomenon.
The other reason you don't find terms like "frum community" from back then is because back then the non-frum were simply that. Today they are organized into movements that claim to be "authentic" and "traditional" like the Reformatives, hence the need for distinguishing terms.

Anonymous said...

Garnel wrote "...Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch advocated policies of separation from the rest of the Jewish community"

The general Jewish community organization in his city had been taken over years prior by Reformers who methodically shut down the traditional Orthodox institutions. Rav Hirsch did not want his new Orthodox group to continue being taxed (yes!) to support this organization, so he wanted his group to have a separate legal status vis-a-vis the secular government.

rw said...

Another aspect of shtetl life that haredim have overlooked is the part about working and having a job.
We read about Yankie the tailor, Mendy the butcher, Yossi the milk-man.... Those good old days when people understood that if you want to have money you have to go and work for it....

JRKmommy said...

Garnel: I was thinking specifically about the shtetls in the Pale of Settlement, not Germany or Central Europe. (The Fiddler on the Roof folks who fled the pogroms and arrived here around the turn of the century)

At the time, there was relatively less oppression in those areas than in Russia, and as pointed out Reform was a greater presence. That just shows, though, that what we call Orthodoxy today wasn't just "what always was", but is essentially a reactionary movement.

I've often said that in areas where the mainstream in Orthodox, Orthodoxy is mainstream. You see this in places like Montreal (not the Haredi enclaves) and South Africa, and among Sephardic/Mizrachi Jews - these are the "traditional" Jews I know who will fit in with Chabad or Modern Orthodox or right-wing Conservative settings. There's a fairly high degree of tolerance within the community, and a relatively low rate of assimilation by the Jewish community in general.

To give a quick example from Montreal: my mother's parents weren't observant at all, so I asked my mom how she knew the basic rules of kashruth. She replied that her best friend Hannah was religious, and my bubby would tell my mom things like "don't feed Hannah the ham at the back of the fridge". Think about this for a moment. A daughter of socialists was best friends with a frum girl. They lived in the same area and went to the same school. Neither set of parents had an issue with it. Hannah's parents let her come to my mom's home, and my grandparents respected Hannah's beliefs enough not to feed her stuff that was completely treife.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

First of all, Montreal is a very special Jewish community. Stuff happens there between denominations that happens nowhere else. People who are otherwise non-religious will have certain observances they practice as strictly as the Chasidim in Outremont. There's a totally different feel to the community as opposed to Toronto or Ottawa.
Secondly, you're right. Once upon a time there was a "We're family first" feeling in the community. You're a socialist, I'm a capitalist but we're both Jews. We might scream and yell at each other over politics or religion but then end the conversation with "So everything else is okay by you? How's your son feeling? I heard he wasn't well. Need any help?"
That feeling, unfortunately, seems to have disappeared in recent decades.

Friar Yid said...

JRKMommy- I have a similar story to the one you mentioned. A great-great-aunt apparently was very strict about keeping a "kosher home"-- so her ham-loving husband had a stove set up in the basement where he would go cook and eat his treif. Sometimes I feel like there's a lot we could learn from our forebears about being tolerant, staying flexible, and keeping a sense of humor about things.

As you pointed out, there have been intramural differences and rivalries since there have been Jews, of course, but even a hundred years ago there was, if not more unity, then at least less active isolation (along with the fun things that isolation brings, resentment, stereotyping, viscousness) from each other. You couldn't surround yourself exclusively with the people you agreed with because that simply wasn't an option; either the community was too small, like a shtetl, for either extreme to dominate, or it was too large and/or concentrated, like Warsaw, for people to be so selective with their neighbors.

Of course, self-isolation cuts both ways, and it would be dishonest for me not to acknowledge that in many case liberal/secular Jews will be just as self-selecting about where they live and who they choose to live near as certain groups of Orthodox Jews. The phenomenon happens more in Israel but every few years you do hear about a case in the US where Orthodox Jews (frequently Haredim but sometimes not) want to move into an area and set up an eruv or a shul and the non-Orthodox get up in arms about it changing "the face" of the neighborhood.

The irony is that I think we'd all be better off if we had more chances to interact with folks with different views & perspectives (be it intra-religion, extra-religion, cultural background, or politics). Part of why I like the J-blogosphere so much is the chance to see what I've got in common with more traditional folks I otherwise probably wouldn't meet IRL. I like to think it's helps me understand the frum-ish world and the people who live in it a lot better, and that that's also reflected back into my own thinking about Judaism, Jewish peoplehood, and trying to rein in the temptations to stereotype people.

JRKmommy said...

Friar Yid - I agree. One thing that I enjoyed from my years on Jewish mommy boards was the chance to meet Hasidic and yeshivish women that I wouldn't otherwise know.

I remember one Satmar woman, who held religious and philosophical views that were completely different from mine, whom I discovered had gone through some similar struggles with miscarriage, and who had this secret identity as a talented writer and "Friends" fan.

Another yeshivish woman lived in a different part of my city with the Bais Yaacov crowd, but we ended up discovering that we actually had a lot in common - so much so that we ended up knowing several people in common, and our families have gotten together socially.

At the other end of the sprectrum, one of the non-religious Jewish moms, who would get into some big debates with the more religious ones, ended up literally bumping into me in real life, so I've had her family over for Shabbat dinner as well.

Y. Ben-David said...

I hate to be a party pooper, but I think there was MORE real hatred between different groups of Jews before the Holocaust than there is now. Yes, there was a feeling that "we are all Jews" and there was more interaction between different groups, but it must be remembered that, for example, there was violent hatred between the Hasidim and Mitnagdim, sometimes even leading to murder. Isaac B Singer wrote in his memoirs how, in Warsaw, Jews fresh out of Yeshiva or various Hasidic movements would become Communists and sit around in coffee houses drawing up death lists of political opponents they were going to have shot after the "revolution" would put them in power. Moshe Arens, in his new book about the Beitaristim in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising describes the bitter hatreds between the Betar people and the Leftist fighters which prevented them from uniting against the common foe even in such an extreme situation.
In Eretz Israel it was common for their to be mob riots between Labor Zionists and Betar-Revisionist Zionists which led to people being killed on more than one occassion. I believe the Holocaust and our wars with the Arabs have led EVERYONE to tone down the differences. Another reason is that we now, in Israel at least, have something like representative democracy in the Knesset and everyone has representatives who express their viewpoints.
It is true there is less direct communication on a person-to-person basis between groups, but there is less extremism and violence. I guess we should be thankful for that!