Cross-posted at WWPD.

The New York Times Magazine “Money” issue profiles a group of Jews who manage to be simultaneously rich, materialistic, and exclusionary on a level even Hasids would find baffling, thus confirming three Jewish stereotypes all in one. They are not only corrupt financially but, as it happens, behind the Iraq war. They’re presumed to have voted for Bush in the last election because they are “hawkish on Israel and security.” Thank you, Zev Chafets. You have singled out the group that is soon to be the most-despised community in America.

I was not caught entirely unawares by this exposé. As it happens, my father grew up within the geographic bounds of the profiled community, but his family, as Ashkenazim and non-oligarchs, were of course not a part of it. Plus, my grandmother was a teacher, and having a job outside the home is apparently as taboo as cheeseburgers to the Syrian Jewish community, where women are princesses. (Um, sign me up?)**

If the story of Harvard Law-educated Lance Suede, whose turn away from Tradition, Tradition! and towards the lures of the non-Jewish woman led to his being ostracized from the community, sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the Magazine‘s Sephardic sequel to Noah Feldman’s Complaint. Almost a reprint with names changed. There’s nothing different about the two stories, other than the admittedly odd intolerance in this case of even Orthodox conversion. Both stories are told from the perspective of someone who clearly puts liberalism and open-mindedness above all else. Why can’t these Jews just be like normal people, vote in ways that match the patterns of the Average American, and have attitudes about religion that in no way differ from mainstream Protestants? Sure, it’s not as if they’re burning non-believers at the stake, or forcing 12-year-olds to marry 70-year-old uncles, but they really need to learn the value of turning the other cheek. Who do they think they are?

* -Montesquieu, Lettres persanes
**I kid. Spending the weekend in an Ashkenazic frenzy of reading for grad school is far superior.

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  • “Both stories are told from the perspective of someone who clearly puts liberalism and open-mindedness above all else.”

    Are you referring to Suede’s account, or Chafets’ article as the whole? It seems Chafets’ was admirably nonjudgmental of the whole enterprise, just reporting it as he saw it, and probably in a way that few if any in the SY community could or would even care to deny. If readers are uneasy about the disclosures, it is because the disclosures are uneasy-making.

    Also remember that Chafets is a sympathetic chronicler of the right wing, having just written an admiring book about Evangelical Christians, and was himself longtime spokesman for the Likud.

  • I don’t know anything about the SY community. Nothing at all.

    But nothing in this article sounds so very bad.

    They work hard, take care of each other, maintain their religion and culture without anybody’s help, obey American law (except for Crazy Eddie and that other guy, but most of them, most of the time) and marry each other.

    So?

    It’s a bit particularist, but nothing very, very terrible, as far as I can tell.

    It’s not a crime to be a successful merchant.

    As far as I can tell there is nothing bad or illegal being done here.

    As for endogamy (in-marriage), well, the alternative has not been fabulously successful in community terms. Maybe in personal terms, but not in culture-preservation terms. Out-marrying happens, but it may not be a sacred right to do that. Life is choices and out-marrying has a cost, and in-marrying also has a cost, so take your pick, but don’t complain you can’t have everything because you can’t. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    I was not brought up their way. But our J-Dub way (new term for me) has troubles, which their way does not seem to produce.

    Results matter.

    It is going to be a challenge to stay Torah-aware as Ashkenazim, down the generations. Ashkenazi centers were destroyed in WW II.

    The Torah is eternal. Bagels aren’t.

  • The above remark in French is not true; the oil industry is awash in money and none of it is in Jewish hands. Also steel, shipping, chemicals and agri-businesss.

    Pas vrai, cocotte, il y a des tas d’industries tres puissantes ou il ne se trouvent point de juifs, cher pot.

  • “The above remark in French” is from the early 18th century, when Jews were indeed–though this was enforced from the outside–especially involved in monetary issues. The steel industry wasn’t what it is today. It’s also from a work of fiction, and is something said by a character who is supposed to be Persian but is effectively French… but I digress.

  • Heh, Phoebe’s “en garde”.

    Most, if not all, of my ancestors migrated here from today’s Syria ages ago (long before there were bagels), but I haven’t exactly benefitted from that.

    The only NYC Syrian Orthodox Jew I knew until I discovered Jacob da Jew’s blog was somebody with a toe fetish.

  • People forget that “The Edict” used to be in place, de facto, in all Jewish groups, including among the J-Dubs. It eroded in the seventies. To someone my age it is not as strange-sounding as to some others, perhaps.

  • Jewish Mother wrote:
    People forget that “The Edict” used to be in place, de facto, in all Jewish groups, including among the J-Dubs. It eroded in the seventies.
    – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Nope.
    The Edict actually contravenes long-established Halacha about accepting converts.

    And if I remember correctly, the original article made that clear – especially the episode where the Syrian community rejected a convert vouched for by Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi.

    There is a real clash of Jewish values here.

    There are lots of ways to preserve a Jewish community – but some of them distort the Judaism that is the community’s purpose.

  • You need not be a genetics whizz to see that there has been definite European genetic influence in Ashkenazi communities. Birth and death records from the early Middle Ages on were mandatorily only kept by the church. Geneaology researchers therefore have to rely on tombstones (if they still exist), court records, business records, private letters etc. and leave lots to speculation. Until the mid-18th century, only firstborns could legally get married in Europe (to prevent excessive population growth and thus secure food supply), so even if a religious ceremony was conducted to wed a couple, it likely wasn’t made public or recorded in any official way.

  • You are absolutely right, of course that viewpoint goes against Halacha. But the people I am referring to, the tradition- minded, but not Orthodox, J-Dubs of the recent past, were not Orthodox enough to know that, or be bound by it.

    Paradoxically, the more Orthodox you are about this, the more flexible you are. Or have to force yourself to be. There are a lot of paradoxes around Orthodoxy like this one.

    As reality is lived, there is nothing easy about accepting non-born-in people. Just ask them. Even with the whole full-court-press of year-long Orthodox study, mikvah, the whole nine yards. It’s not magic, and it’s not mechanical, like closing an electric circuit. In the soul, sure, but not necessarily in daily life.

    The SY concern that any conversion will be a wedge that leads to destruction, is, alas probably a little correct; the results are looking that way, so far.

    But note this: we do not have a Pope. The word of a local rabbi is absolute, involable law in his jurisdiction. For instance, the Vilna Gaon himself allowed himself to be over-ruled in a “is this a kosher chicken?” question when the local rabbi had ruled it was, and as there were no cell phones then, the Vilna Gaon, not knowing that had happened, ruled it was not.

    The local rabbi said, “I am not worthy to tie your shoe lace, but this is my congregation and my word is law, not yours. The Gaon said, “yes, you are right”. And had dinner with them all, and tried to eat that chicken.

    (Heaven caused his particular bowl of chicken to become treif. Some lamp oil dropped into it, in respect to his opinion, and also his modesty.)

    We don’t have a Pope.

    Let’s see who has the biggest minyans, the SYs or us, in the long term future. Maybe we will still be arguing then. I earnestly hope so.

  • So the big man from Israel was a little out of line. A little. The local guy had the authority.

  • I am suddenly aware I am contradicting myself. I am saying bagels (or SY cooking) save the day, not Torah law.

    I lost my yiddishe cooking and accent and now look at me. I am speaking from bitter experience. Maybe I should have more faith?

  • I think this a good example of how we should not be having conferences about “cultural continuity”,
    and instead, focus on avodas Hashem.

    We should trust in Hashem and try to live by the Torah as best as possible, and leave the question of cultural continuity up to Hashem.

  • ANOTHER NY TIMES SMEAR JOB

    Just like Noah Feldman misrepresented the facts to attack Orthodoxy – Zev Chafets seems to have forgotten/reinterpreted some of the info given to him:

    Letters to the Editor, Magazine
    The New York Times
    620 Eighth Ave.
    New York, NY 10018

    To the Editor,

    Jakie Kassin is the son and grandson of rabbis and a dynamic do-gooder, but he is neither a rabbi nor a scholar of Judaic studies. The statements attributed to him in “The SY Empire” (Zev Chafets, Oct. 14, 2007) are a gross distortion of Judaism as well as of the 1935 Edict promulgated in the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn. That Edict was enacted to discourage community members from intermarrying with non-Jews. It acknowledged the reality of the time that conversions were being employed insincerely and superficially. Accordingly, conversion for marriage to a member of the community was automatically rejected.

    However, it is important in this regard to clarify the policy of the community rabbinate and particularly that of the long-time former chief rabbi of the community, Jacob S. Kassin (the originator of the Edict), and his son, the present chief rabbi, Saul J. Kassin. I quote from an official formulation of the Sephardic Rabbinical Council of several years ago that reflects their position: “1. A conversion not associated with marriage that was performed by a recognized Orthodox court – such as for adoption of infants or in the case of an individual sincerely choosing to be Jewish – is accepted in our community. 2. If an individual not born to a member of our community had converted to Judaism under the aegis of an Orthodox court, and was observant of Jewish Law, married a Jew/Jewess who was not and had not been a member of our community, their children are permitted to marry into our community.” Based on these standards a goodly number of converts have been accepted into the community. Genetic characteristics play no role whatsoever.

    No rabbi considers sincere and proper conversions “fictitious and valueless.” (The comma in the English translation cited in the article that gives that impression was the result of a mistranslation by a layman, a matter I made clear to Mr. Chafets when we spoke.)

    In addition, the quote claiming that even other Jews are disqualified from marrying into the community “if someone in their line was married by a Reform or Conservative rabbi” is a totally false portrayal of community rabbinical policy. Many Ashkenazim whose parents were married by such rabbis have married into our community.

    Sincerely,

    Moshe Shamah
    Rabbi, Sephardic Synagogue
    511 Ave. R
    Brooklyn, NY 11223

  • BTW, anyone else bothered by the characterization of Syrians as sephardi? Isn’t mizrachi more appropriate?

  • Middle – the letter was SENT to the NY Times, and posted publicly by the author to get their side out.

    It’s up to the Times to decide to publish it.

  • Zev Chafetz is married to an evangelical Christian named Lisa Beyer.

    This might help to explain some of his viewpoints.

  • If anyone wants i know of people who give out free copies of Shmiras Halashon/shemirat halashon by Chofetz Choim/Chafetz Chaim. Ill judge you all favorablly and say that none of you know about the prohibitions of Motzi shem ra. whether you agree or disagree with a community’s ways, is up to you (although personally i cant seem to understand how people are attacking the gedolim who wrote it who were from 2 generations ago, people that we would never dare open our mouth to; its just that people are comfortable hiding behind a computer screen. hide as you like, but if any of you are really G-d fearing jews, you should be more scared of what Gd has in store for you who are mevaze talmide chachamim [R’ Yaakov Kassin and all the rabbis who keep on reaffirming the edict] which the Gemara in Bava metziah clearly says “en chelek leolam haba: no portion in the world to come” so think before the next time you time derrogotory statements again.)

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