Monday, May 10, 2010

That’s Life in the Big City

How much impact does the general culture have on our Midos – our character development? The answer is - a lot. At least that’s what a front page article in the Jewish Press would indicate. This should not be surprising to the Charedi world that has made it priority number one to isolate themselves as much from the general culture as possible. The problem is - it’s not working. In fact it seems as though the opposite is true.

The writer - a Charedi woman - laments the negative experiences she has had in her own community – and it clearly demonstrates that the Midos of the street are a lesson well learned there. Here is but one example from many in her article:

Recently, I was driving down a street in Flatbush looking for an address scribbled on a piece of paper… when a car pulled up to next me. The driver honked the horn, motioning that I should open my window. It was a frum young woman wearing a sheitel and the requisite high-necked, long-sleeved blouse. Since I had been, on that same day, brooding over what I perceived as the decline in middos in the younger generation, I felt heartened - downright elated - that this woman was trying to come to my aid, clearly disproving me and my theories wrong.

My assumption - as I rolled down the car window with a broad smile, my heart literally expanding with happiness that I was mistaken, that people did care - was that she had witnessed my confusion and distress and wished to help me out. She, too, rolled down her window and bent her head out to address me. But on her face no smile appeared. Instead, she snarled at me and spat out these words: "Why don't you learn how to drive, lady?" She then extended her middle finger in my direction and sped away.

I pulled over to an empty space on the street and sat in my car, shaking for several minutes. I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. If she had been just any woman, it would have been an ugly encounter. The fact that she was frum left me devastated.

Yes, I've heard the rhetoric before and I know it by heart: Frum people are human. There are bad apples in every group. You can't judge a group from a few individuals. Yes, all of the above is true, so much so that they've become clichés. And yet .

There was something deeply disturbing about that woman's behavior that afternoon. Her outward appearance conformed to frum standards. Sheitel: check. Tzniusdik clothing: check. Tefillas HaDerech dangling from her rear view mirror: check. Deretz eretz: ZERO.

Now I doubt that there are many Charedi young women who extend their middle fingers to older people. But the lack of Midos that produced this behavior seem to be endemic to that community. Which in my view shows a complete failure of the isolationist tactics that characterize the Hashkafos of Charedism.

This is not to absolve modern Orthodox communities of rude behavior. To be sure there are plenty of bad Midos to go around everywhere. But it is the Charedim who pride themselves in being the most religious and having the best Midos. They preach isolation from the culture as the best way of achieving that state. And yet they are the ones who seem to exhibit the worst attributes of the street!

As if to emphasize how characteristic this behavior is of the Charedi world the following happened to this woman while she was waiting in line at a Pizza shop. A burly Charedi guy squeezed in front of her practically knocking her down. She describes what followed:

The woman standing next to me and I rolled our eyes at each other, but as she was not wearing a sheitel and was clearly Modern Orthodox, I felt an immediate impulse to defend the young man. "I guess he was in a huge rush," I stammered, embarrassed.

"Oh, come on, honey, it happens all the time," she rejoined. "These people are so rude."

These people! How insulting that must have sounded to her. She cringed when she heard it! So she tried to defend her community by saying that most Charedm are not like this fellow and pointed to all the Chesed organizations that they are responsible for – unlike any other community! But then came the eye opening response: Yes," (the modern Orthodox woman) said, "that's true. But chesed and middos are two different things."

How true! There is something wrong in a community that focuses so strongly on a Torah lifestyle to the exclusion of all else and yet produces behavior such as this in so many of its people. What makes matters worse is that these bad Midos are not limited to the Daled Amos of their home turf. If one can treat another Charedi person like this one can only imagine how those outside that community are treated.

Perhaps this is a glimpse into why there have been so many people from that community that have been involved in high profile financial and other crimes. I don’t know.

I salute this writer for coming forward and ‘telling it like it is’. I only regret that she felt impelled to write under a pseudonym. Undoubtedly it is because she fears some sort of retaliation for making this behavior so public.

To be sure it is a Chilul HaShem publicly exposed. But it is important to do that. Without such exposure it tends to get ignored. Or worse simply tolerated as business as usual. The attitude may as well be: ‘That’s life in the big city.’ ‘Get used to it!’

I’m sorry. I can’t get used to it. I won’t get used to it. It is a Chilul Hashem that I believe in part contributes to so many of our recent woes.

Let’s face it. Insularity has not worked. It seems to have done the opposite. The ‘Midos of the street’ are in full bloom there - the very community that preaches isolationism. I think that the Charedi leadership ought to think about that. Isolation is not a solution for all their problems. It may in fact be the opposite.