Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Orthodox Jews Are Not All Charedi

Netflix poster for 'Unorthodox' (RNS)
We’re a hit!  By ‘we’ I mean Orthodox Jews. That may sound strange at a time where there has been such an increase in antisemitism.. But that does not make the fact that we are a hit any less true. In fact it might be the reason (or part of it) for the increase. 

That very point was made by Yonat Shimron in Religious News Service. There has been somewhat of an explosion of TV series about us on a variety of streaming platforms. Most notably on Netflix. But being a hit does not translate into a positive – or even accurate image of us. As shows like Unorthodox and My Unorthodox Life have demonstrated. On the other hand there are some shows, like Shtisel that do portray a more sympathetic image of us. But a series in Hebrew about an extended family in Jerusalem does not in my view say much about what an American Orthodox Jewish lifestyle is like. 

Shimron points out, that the Orthodox Jews portrayed in these shows are Charedi. I would add that they are almost always Chasidic. There is of course nothing wrong with being a Chasidic Jew. But that is not how the majority of Orthodox Jews look like or live like. 

While it’s true that in all cases, Orthodox Judaism is about living our lives according to Halacha, there is nevertheless a wide gap in how we look and live our lives. The Chasidic Jewish community is just one segment of Orthodox Jewry – albeit a very large one.  On the other side of the Orthodox spectrum there are modern Orthodox Jews. Other than observance of Halacha, the two communities could not be more different.   

The former are insular and reject most of the culture That is one of the reasons they look so different. It also helps them keep insular which in turn helps them steer clear of the culture. The latter are not insular at all; accept much of the culture, and do not look all that different than anyone else. Although there is a degree of separation even among modern Orthodox Jews for purposes of halachic observance (for example not being able to eat out in non kosher restaurants) and for purposes of avoiding intermarriage - it would hardly be noticeable to anyone outside of the community. 

Why have shows about Chasidic Jews becomes so popular? As noted by Shimron, part of it has to do with the current pandemic.  Especially at the beginning of it, where people were stranded at home and more inclined to watch TV. On the other hand Professor Samuel Heilman suggests that former President Trump’s daughter converting to Judaism might have spurred interest. I personally tend to doubt it. Ivanka Trump’s modern Orthodox lifestyle is hardly the model for shows like Unorthodox or Shtisel. It is those differences that make us so interesting

As I have said in the past, it is understandable why it is only the Chasidic world that is portrayed. There is nothing interesting about being the same as others. It is our differences that are interesting. The greater the difference between us and the rest of the world, the more interesting we are. When such shows are positive, they highlight the common humanity in all of us. When they are negative, it feeds the antisemitic stereotype.

There are in fact some Orthodox Jews among us, that would say we shouldn’t’ care how we are portrayed. That we should lead the best lives we can as religious Jews and not care what the outside world thinks of us. The more right wing, the more the thinking is like that.  The corollary to that is that ‘The Goyim hate us anyway!’ ‘So why bother?’ Better to be as different as possible and stay as insulated from that world as possible. 

But that thinking cannot be more wrong. 

If Orthodox Jews are always portrayed as Chasidic (even when it is positive) it gives the false impression that Orthodox Jews all odd in comparison to everyone else. Now people can choose to look and act any way they wish. They can isolate to their heart’s content.  But that is not necessarily the best way for us to be seen.  

Why? Consider the following. If a non Jew or secular Jew sees Orthodox Judaism has thoughts about becoming on Orthodox Jew, it might be too much of a lifestyle change for them to undertake if being a Chasid is the only way they think they can do it. Which might discourage them from even trying.

In my view that kind of thinking is un-Jewish. Goyim do not ‘hate us anyway’. Sure - some of them do. There are plenty of antisemites in the world. But I firmly believe that the vast majority of the non Jewish world are either indifferent to us – or have a favorable view of us. It helps our cause if we are portrayed more favorably.

The Torah tells us that if we follow the laws of the Torah the world will proclaim how wise we are as a nation. Following the laws of the Torah means being exemplary citizens and living the most ethical lives. The Torah does not mean that the world will see our wisdom in how we dress. It will not see our wisdom in our beards and Peyos. Those are peripherals that do not matter. They might even be counterproductive as noted above. 

I don’t think there is anything we can do to change how the entertainment industry portrays us. But as I said in an earlier post, it would help if non Charedi characters were included in the wide variety of scripted shows and portrayed as are the show's primary characters. Being ‘normal’ is a great asset in getting the world to see us as a wise and Godly nation. Which is of course primarily by living up to the high ethical, moral, and charitable standards the Torah demands of us.