Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Jewsy Shores

There is a new ‘reality’ show on the horizon. I generally abhor these kinds of shows because they have about as much substance as hot air. The only reality is that of the producers’ own making. Situations are contrived so as to force participants into compromising situations forcing them to make controversial decisions. Often this makes them look stupid, or greedy, or having all manner of negative character traits

This new entry is somewhat different. It has not been accepted by any network yet. But it if does make it to ‘air’ - it will do what television does all too well: create or perpetuate a false stereotype of Orthodox Jewry.

The premise of this show is to follow Off the Derech (OTD) ex-Chasidim as they try to transition from the life of piety in which they were raised (and now rejected) into a modern secular lifestyle. One of participants of the show is Ms. Pearlperry Reich (pictured above with her ex-husband and 2 children - when still living as a Satmar Chasid). She now models and acts for a living. She claims that she is doing this to promote her career. I'm sure that’s true. But then she also claims that she is doing this to create a positive Judaism.

Really? How is going OTD going to do that? Unless her idea of a positive Judaism is exactly that - going OTD.

I certainly have my issues with (among other things) the overly strict, over-sheltered lifestyle of Satmar type Chasidim. But going OTD is not the solution. Nor is it normal for the vast majority of them to go OTD.

Ms. Reich’s goal to show a positive side to Judaism implies that the Chasidic way of life has nothing positive to offer. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of Chasidim love their lifestyle and wouldn’t change it for the world.

Why did Ms. Reich go OTD? I don’t know. It may very well be what causes most (but definitely not all) people to go OTD: being raised in a dysfunctional family. And her less than positive attitude has almost certainly been exacerbated by a divorce and custody battle over her children.

To blame Chasidus in general for going OTD is disingenuous at best and purposely deceptive at worst. One need only look at the massive increase of Satmar Chasidim since the original Satmar Rebbe immigrated here during the Holocaust. If the lifestyle itself was faulty, this could not have happened. There would be a lot more than OTDs than the relatively few there are.

I don’t know much about the participants in that show aside from what a New York Post article says about them. But I do know that trying to portray a community by highlighting their dissidents is about as fair as having Palestinians portray Israel.

What’s worse is that most people do not make distinctions between the wide array of Orthodox Jewry. Although there is some public awareness about the differences between us, most non Jews will generalize. They will think that all Orthodox Jews are more or less like this. But as most Orthodox Jews know, aside from the obvious fealty to Halacha - the differences between us are major. For example -even the most positive portrayal of Chasidic Jewry hardly reflects my own lifestyle. And the fact that it is renegade Chasidim doing the portrayals means that much – if not all – of it will be seen in a negative light. And that does us all a great injustice!

This doesn’t mean that some of the negative things they may say about their former community aren’t true. They may very well be. But if one is running away from that community surely the negatives will be the focus. Even if they admit to a positive side. , it will surely be downplayed. Why else leave?

I don’t know if any of the networks will pick up this show. If they do it can only do harm when people who rejected their past are the ones describing it – even if they occasionally pepper their descriptions with some positives. And I’m sure they will in order to claim objectivity.

When criticizing one’s heritage - I prefer a more balanced approach along the lines of the author of the book ‘Hush’. She pulled no punches in exposing sex abuse in the Chasidic world and the poor way it is (or hopefully was) handled. But despite her harsh criticism of the community in which she was raised, she still had warm memories of being raised in it. That came though very clearly in her book.

There is a difference between criticizing a community for its problems and rejecting it in its entirety by going OTD. Furthermore there is a danger that when it is OTD Jews who speak about their past, it will be made to look a lot worse than it is. And we will all be unfairly tainted by it.