hermon.jpgIn my literal and figurative travels I have encountered many an open-minded, inclusive individual who is actually, as it turns out, only open-minded and inclusive to those who are also open-minded and inclusive in a very similar way to themselves, ie, not really open minded or inclusive at all.

One place in which this happen quite often in the Jewish world is in regard to the Orthodox.

The Jerusalem Post today published a criticism of the journalistic integrity of Hella Winston, author of Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, a book about those who have left the Hassidic fold.

When Wendy Shalit in a notable Sunday New York Times Book Review essay sharply criticized several Jewish novelists for their stereotypical writing about Orthodox Jews, the fictionalists were able to respond that, after all, they were writing fiction.

No such fig-leaf is available to journalists and those with scholarly credentials whose writing is permeated by distortions born out of hostility toward religious Jews.

There obviously are Orthodox who do wrong. There are scoundrels and immoral people. That’s life, the unavoidable consequence of human failings that multiply as social interactions expand.

This truth provides no justification for the lies, stereotypes and other tools of the trade of bigots who also have a pen.

When the Orthodox challenge those who depict their community as steeped in wrongdoing, they are further accused of a cover-up, notwithstanding the further truth that there isn’t another sector in Jewish life that comes close to the Orthodox in reaching out and attempting to deal with those whose behavior is dysfunctional. Sadly, too many Jews, most of whom are bedecked with liberal and humanitarian credentials, eagerly lap up everything that is hostile to religious Jews…

If another writer would write in a similar vein about Italians or Blacks or other ethnics, there would be the serious charge of bigotry.

Alas, Orthodox Jews and especially hassidim are fair game.

Having participated in the discussions on Jewlicious for almost two years now, I certainly see where the author is coming from, even if I don’t agree with every point he makes in his article.

While my own lifestyle would be questionable to some (pants! oh my!), and some of my views nothing short of heretical to others, I yet feel more a part of the liberal but decidedly orthodox community here than any other.

Despite my plethora of issues with the orthodox machinery and the many problems I see in most Heredi lifestyles, I would like to think that even if this were not my chosen community, I would yet come to the defense of those groups subject to vicious stereotyping, and of those who cannot defend themselves, given the forum of the conversation.

Something to think about, I suppose. Now off to call my birthright israel participants. The trip begins in 7 days – stay tuned!

About the author

Laya Millman

19 Comments

  • I often find myself in this position. Just the other day I was taking a bus to Haifa and when a Charedi Jew with a kipa etc. cut me in line (as opposed to all of the secular Israelis) I felt myself swell up with anger. As much as that was being selective, I think that there is a better reason for this pervasive inclination. By wearing a kippa and openly identifying oneself as an orthodox Jew, you are saying that there is an ethical code of law by which i live my life. And although halacha does not say – thou shalt not cut in line – there clearly is an expectation of common decency not to push yourself past me when there is clearly room for everyone or refuse to speak to me when I give you my seat so you hae a place to sit in the full bus – my second wonderful experience of the day. (I think this all fits under the category of kiddush/chilul Hashem.) And while I expect everyone to be decent human beings, it just seems all the more vulgar when you claim to have moral superiority (and might even use your sense of moral superiority to look down on others) and, in fact, you are no better than the rest of us. I do not expect Charedim to be perfect (there are always going to be immoral people in any soceity) – there are theifs in Meah Sharim, just like there are theifs in Chicago – but an orthodox Jew’s claim to an eternal and correct morality contrasted with some of their members actions, makes their actions stand out more clearly in my mind and memory.
    I am not at all saying that as a general rule Charedim are less than or even equal to the general population in terms of pervasiveness of moral actions – in fact, I do not know much about the subject but I have heard that with infrastructures like the gemach and tzdaka and hachnasat orchim, less of the poor go hungry, indicating an even more moral soceity – the imperfections are there and when contrasted with ideology they turn from imperfections to hypocrisy – which for some reason holds more of a bitter taste in my mouth than the criminals of our morally relativist soceity.

  • Oh, by the way – I think that secular soceity can be claimed to be at least more open-minded and inclusive than orthodox soceity – if only for the fact that you can never call me a heretic.

  • rel – you use the term “ethical code of law” If ONLY that was always the case!

    In a perfect world, obviously it would be. It’s endlessly frustrating that it isn’t.

    I am in agreement with you (and pirke avot), that im ain derech eretz ain Torah – if there isn’t human decency, there isn’t torah.

  • I suggest you all read the book in question. If you do, you will see that it is Dr. Schick who is engaging in steretyping. He is doing precisely what he accuses the author of. Very dishonest, IMHO.

  • I read the book, and felt – from very personal expericence – that there was very little stereotyping at all. I think she actually presented a very balanced view – surprisingly so, at times. It could have easily been a total bashing of the community she was dealing with, but many times spoke about the good things she found.

  • Glad to hear the book isn’t all that bad. It is quite possible that the author of the article was being a little knee-jerky about it. Nonetheless, I understand his sensitivity, as Hasidim (and orthodox people in general) are an easy target, and often victims of gross over generalizations.

  • Rel raises a really challenging issue — how to not read proclamations in people’s clothing. The Haredi guy on the bus is just a person: yes he is choosing to wear a uniform which communicates certain things, yet what those things are becomes a projection of the looking person, depending on whatever “movie” that person has stored in his/her brain filed under “Haredi male.” It thus becomes a kind of spiritual exercise to become aware of when you’ve turned your own “movie” on about a person you don’t know. For me, tatoos and tongue-piercings really set my internal “theatre” in motion.

    What can really turn around all these projections and stereo-types is when you actually know someone in the group. It can help the spiritual discipline of refraining from judgment to visualize the person you actually know who is that group.

    Two one liners come to mind. A bumper sticker I saw when visiting LA recently went something like, “Definition of an enemy: Someone whose story you have not yet heard.”

    and

    Philo: Greet each person you meet with compassion, for it is likely that he[she] is fighting a great [internal] battle.

    Shai

  • Rel’s articulates the point very well, but I think it can also be expressed in a single phrase: self-righteousness, a quality that, along with hypocrisy, lands at about the top of the list of repellent character traits of which human beings are capable. If this post incorporates the entire editorial, its authors could have taught Nixon a great deal about non-denial denials; it has a lot to say about distortion, stereotypes, bigotry and lies, but doesn’t cite a single factual inaccuracy in this ostensible latter-day blood libel. And then there’s the specific claim that there isn’t “another sector in Jewish life that comes close to the Orthodox in reaching out and attempting to deal with those whose behavior is dysfunctional.” Bullshit. Though some of us in the non-Orthodox community participate in organizations whose missions aren’t limited to addressing the dysfunction of Jews only, I have no reason whatever to believe that we don’t “come close” to the incidence of such participation among the Orthodox.

  • d – this is not the whole editorial but I provided a link. You seem a little riled up about it, so let’s just try to agree on a few points –
    1) self righteousness happens in every community
    2) judging an entire community because you can point to a few despicable members within it is inaccurate.

  • laya,

    Thanks for the references. I wholly agree with the points you’ve made, but I’m not really clear as to how they apply in this circumstance. As to your second point, is it the writer of “Unchosen” that has supposedly judged an entire community based on the presence therein of a few despicable members? If so, I’d be acutely interested, as I’d been previously been informed that this book was an incisive, fair, and intellectually honest account of how dissidents (or apostates, if you prefer) are treated within the Hasidic community. The Post obviously rejects that assessment, accusing Hella Winston of being a lying bigot whose work is compromised by distortion, stereotypes, and hostility toward the subjects of her study. If that’s true, it seems only fair to ask, once again, for an example of any of the factual inaccuracies that would inevitably follow upon Winston’s hatred and bigotry. If, on the other hand, it’s not true, then the editorial not merely a rejection of Winston’s work, but an ugly character smear.

    Yes, I suppose I am somewhat riled up about the issue, but not, as far as I can tell, inappropriately.

  • r – your comments are much appreciated, but I really don’t have the koach to get into a big debate about anything right now.

    I’m a little jew-ed out. On so many levels.

    We agree on those two basic points, that’s enough.

  • Laya, Tznius is a big thing in Orthodoxy. However, it doesn’t mean a wit about how genuinely moral you are. Look at some people wearing all the long clothes and growing a beard and then they break contracts.

  • I believe that the article is a character smear. I have read the book and I see no evidence of Schick’s claims at all. I think the Post should be ashamed for printing this.

  • Right of Response: Sociology at its best

    Hella Winston, THE JERUSALEM POST May. 17, 2006
    In his recent op-ed which discussed my book, Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, Marvin Schick grossly distorts my work and its aims, accusing me of indulging in stereotyping and implying that I and/or my subjects have lied in reporting their experiences.

    As I clearly state in the introduction, the narratives presented in the book are those of a handful of men and women struggling either to live within or leave their native hassidic communities.

    I clearly indicate that these are the stories of individuals and make repeated efforts not to generalize to the entire community when describing their experiences.

    Indeed, I am somewhat amazed that I have to point out to Dr. Schick that presenting the experiences of individual people based on extensive interviewing and participant observation is established and legitimate sociological practice.

    While I certainly believe that it would be fruitful, as Schick suggests, to compare my findings to those that deal with defections among the Amish or Mormons, the fact is that this research was on hassidic “rebels.” Other scholars have and will continue to research these other groups, adding to a body of literature that will facilitate such comparisons.

    HOWEVER, what seems to disturb Schick the most is his fear that some people might read what I have written and make generalizations about the larger Orthodox or Jewish world. The fact is, one cannot completely control how or by whom one’s research is used.

    However, in my view, this does not justify suppressing one’s findings, particularly when they have the potential to help the very people whose experiences Schick is so willing to dismiss as fiction.

    I would like to give Schick the benefit of the doubt and attribute his reactions to some of what I wrote to a lack of familiarity with contemporary hassidic life.

    Indeed, I spent nearly three years conducting my research, interviewing close to 80 “rebels” and contented hassidim combined, as well as dozens of researchers and social service professionals who work closely with members of these communities.

    I find it astounding that Schick claims that it is “inane” and “false” of me to assert that most young hassidim are formally taught almost nothing about sex before marriage. The fact is, not only is this confirmed by the findings of many other researchers, but by the explicit policies and practices of these communities themselves.

    Further, I am not sure how he can argue that reporting on some young men’s reactions to learning about sex is “stereotypical writing at its worst.” By his own definition, stereotyping is making an “accurate statement about wrongful behavior committed by one or more members of a group that is presented as characteristic of the entire group.”

    While I cannot for the life of me see what about sexual ignorance constitutes “wrongful behavior,” my use of the word “some” clearly indicates that these reactions cannot be generalized. (And I would also ask who is stereotyping when Schick declares that most liberal Jews are hostile to hassidim and concludes that because I am a liberal Jew, this must be the case for me as well?)

    What’s most troubling are Schick’s allegations that I and my subjects are not telling the truth. He has nothing on which to base these very serious accusations, other than his “guesses” and “assumptions.”

    Indeed, the fact that he believes that someone who uses “foul language” and has a “raging libido” must be a liar betrays a serious flaw in his thinking.

    Either that, or it represents a calculated attempt to take the focus off the message by discrediting the messenger.

    (That he also refers to this individual as “dysfunctional and repugnant” demonstrates a stunning lack of compassion).

    Sadly, this is a tactic very familiar to those I have written about, many of whom were – and in some cases continue to be – subjected to similar accusations aimed at undermining their credibility and keeping them silent.

    Schick declares that the problems in the hassidic community should not be swept under the carpet, but treated “truthfully and with empathy.” On this, I wholeheartedly agree.

    However, his reaction to my book – which I believe does just what he advocates – leaves me wondering how this is possible if he is unwilling to grant any credibility to those who speak about such problems.

    Perhaps Schick would like to read the dozens of appreciative letters I have received, particularly from hassidim themselves, thanking me for bringing these stories to light, and lauding the courage of those who were willing to share them.

  • Laya is SO smart. WHO is good enough for her? Post 3 is great.

    “I am in agreement with you (and pirke avot), that im ain derech eretz ain Torah – if there isn’t human decency, there isn’t torah. ”

    Wow. She would make a terrific rebbetzin.

  • Forget rebbetzin. I actually think Laya’d make a decent rabbi. But that’s beside the point.

    Everyone stereotypes everyone else, because we all need to categorize what we see and experience. This happens in dating, in business, in every realm–we witness one thing and say, oh, that’s a so-and-so, not necessarily allowing for nuance. But as I’ve said on other blogs this week, no opinion is without baggage, and I would even say that no compassionate journalist can be objective about the community that he or she is a part of. There’s a natural instinct to expose exploitation and protect the things and people you love–and those are biases that come through in investigations of Jewish communities.

    If I decide to write a book about something, whether or not it’s an objective treatment, I do so because I’m interested in it. And I’ll likely approach that subject with my own prejudices and biases.

    Haven’t read the book–it’s on a very long list of things I have to read.

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