Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Chasidim and the Amish

There is a very funny scene in the movie Frisco Kid - a comedy about a newly arrived Chasidic looking rabbi from Poland to mid 19th century America. He had just been badly beaten by a gang of ruffians. He spots a group of people dressed the way he is, runs up to them and yells “Landsman!” …and starts telling them in Yiddish about what befell him.

The bearded fellow he was talking to had a puzzled look on his face and responded, “What didst thou say?” The Rabbi - puzzled by that response suddenly notices a Bible with a cross on the cover in the fellow’s breast pocket - and then passes out. The people he encountered were the Amish. The Amish are known for their kindness to strangers. The rabbi was nourished back to health and he thanked them for that kindness before he left.

The Amish people are Christians - a group of people who look and dress very similar to the way Chasidim do. Many of them have long beards and wear dark clothing. Their religion requires them to eschew modern technology. Like automobiles – preferring the horse and buggy for transportation. And they generally do not educate their children past 8th grade.

They generally live in their own closed societies and limit their occupations to those that will not require them to violate their anti technology principles. Carpentry is one such field that they are famous for.

And yet despite the similarities there are light years of differences between the two groups. And I’m not talking about religious differences.

There is an old joke that goes something like this. A woman spots a man that looks like a Chasid and complains bitterly to her friend about how disgusting and different ‘those people’ are. Her friend informs her that the person she is talking about is Amish. She then responds “Oh, they are such fine people”.

The point of that joke is to show just how ‘anti Semitic’ some Jews really are. But is that really true? Does that joke really illustrate “Jewish anti-Semitism”? I don’t think so. The question immediately arises - Why do some Jews seem to hate Chasidim and yet when it comes to the Amish – who are Christian and just as different - they think the world of them?

I think the answer lies in how each community behaves in public. The Amish are a gentle people who live their lives as they will without imposing their views on anyone else. The Chasidim are pretty much the same in that sense. Both communities are kind and generous with their acts of kindness to others.

But there are enough of Chasidim who do things in public that are so bad that it reflects poorly on all of them.

The picture above was taken during a protest. It shows a group of Chasidim wearing Shtreimlach. They were protesting the opening of a parking lot on Shabbos in the old city of Jerusalem.

Then there are all those other incidents involving people who look like that. Including the ongoing harassment of little girls at a Religious Zionist School in Bet Shemesh. Not to mention the incident where the Skverer Rebbe’s young ‘Hoiz Bachur (personal valet) took it upon himself to set a house on fire because of what he saw as defending the Rebbe’s honor - and ended up giving 3rd degree burns to the owner of that house. The list goes on.

It is not enough to say that these are a small minority and do not reprsent “us”. The minority is not that small. Saying that the vast majority of Chasidim may be peace loving Jews who want nothing more than to live their lives in isolation - wanting to be left alone and leave the rest of the world alone is not enough to counter that image. There are enough of them who want to impose their ways on others - that negative images of them abound. That makes it difficult to separate the good from the bad. Nor does it help when spokesman for those communities see criticism as Charedi bashing and lash out at the media for painting them with a broad brush.

It should therefore be no surprise that a joke like that exists. The woman symbolized in that joke cannot really be faulted for her very positive attitude about the Amish and the negative one about Chasidim. I do not see her as a Jewish anti Semite. She just reacts to the images presented by far too many of them. Like the one in the above picture.

You will never see a picture like that about the Amish. You will only see it about Chasidim (…or Yerushalmim – who look and dress like Chasidim and are even more isolated from civilization and more strident in their demands).

I think that all those protestations by Charedim who feel persecuted by the Jewish media - declaring things like “substitute Jews for Charedim and you would call it anti Semitism” are misplaced. They ought to realize that there is a reason the many in the Jewish world feel this way. It is not because of “Jewish anti Semitism”. It’s because there is a significant number of them who feel absolutely no compunction about acting like hoodlums to get their ‘holy’ ways.

And it’s also because there is precious little if anything being done to stop them. In some cases they are actually told to protest. This was the case in that picture above where the Eida HaCharedis directed them to do so - If I recall correctly.

I do not believe for a minute that the Jewish woman symbolized in that joke is innately anti Chassid. She is just reacting to the real images in pictures like this one. Is that fair? No. But it is a fact of life that could be reversed if only their leadership wanted it badly enough. I don’t think they do.