Monday, March 21, 2011

What Do We Look Like to Others?

There is an interesting article in a new blog that began last week in the Algemeiner. Orthodox Jewish author Chava Tombosky tites her article in how she sees herself: ‘Unorthodoxically Orthodox’.

In researching the word ‘orthodox’ she came across 2 definitions of the word: 1) Seeker of truth and 2) normal. She likes the idea of being defined as a seeker of truth but is surprised at the description of Orthodoxy as normal.

Are Orthodox Jews considered normal? The answer is yes by their own standards. I suppose her surprise is from the fact that most of the world does not in fact see us as normal.

One of the distinguishing features of Orthodox Judaism is to not completely assimilate with our non Jewish neighbors. By not assimilating completely we maintain our identity as Jews. That has contributed to our continuity as Jews over the centuries.

We are different. And being different hardly argues for being perceived as normal. I guess that’s why she is surprised at Orthodoxy being defined as normal. It is ironic that the dictionary defines ‘Orthodox’ as normal since our religious customs practices require us to be somewhat outside the norm.

In looking at the word ‘orthodox’ in a thesaurus she sees some of the following alternative words: conventional, mainstream, traditionalist, popular, unoriginal, devout, strict.

She can handle traditional, devout, and popular. But she hates the idea of being unoriginal- conventional- mainstream and strict. Yes she is observant but she is not Machmir. Does not being strict take someone outside the definition of Orthodox?

Of course not. But here again I suppose ‘strict’ is a relative term. To non observant Jews and Gentiles we Orthodox are considered strict no matter how Mekil (lenient) some of us are in our observances.

Ms. Tombosky sees herself as a sort of non-conformist rebel within the constraints of Orthodox Judaism. I kind of see myself in the same way. Although we may express ourselves differently.

But a more important question in my mind is not so much how we see ourselves, but how others see us. Are we seen as a light unto the nations? When someone says ‘Orthodox Jew’, what image is conjured up in the mind of the person who hears it? I was taken aback by what Ms. Tombosky said in answering that question:

Even I can’t help but conjure up some image of an overbearing, judgmental, in the box, strict, dogmatic human being who smells of chicken fat. Or maybe I immediately think of a poor quiet female who never gets to go swimming or sing or speak in public, ever. Or maybe I think about some poor yutz wearing strings and a kippa who can’t make a living and spends his days “schnorring”. Either way, these are the “blink” images that can come to mind when I hear the term Orthodox Jew. Add the term “Ultra” to the phrase and you got a whole new group of negative blinks. I don’t even want to think about the “Ultra-ultra orthodox”.

This was obviously said somewhat in jest. But in truthful jest as far as Ms. Tombosky is concerned. Is this really the image our fellow man has of us? Are we overbearing and judgmental? Are we really all seen as ‘Yutzes’ because we wear Kipot and some of us wear their Tzitzis out? Are we all perceived as ‘Schnorrers’ (asking for handouts of cash from fellow Jews) instead of being able to make a living?

I’m sure that’s true in some circles. But it is a grossly inaccurate caricature of Orthodox Jews. Yes, a ‘Schnorrer’ type of Jew exists. But this is an unfair caricature with which to paint all Orthodox Jews. It is even an unfair description of those people who need charity to live and support their families. Being poor is not a crime and not a sin. It ought not to be disparaged. Not every person who asks for charity is a lowlife. Many of our poor are fine and decent people who have fallen on hard times and need to support their families.

And certainly wearing a Kipa or wearing one’s Tzitzis out should not be seen in the pejorative context she puts them.

In separating herself from the crowd she leaves behind the impression that most Orthodox Jews are indeed conformists and much like the stereotype she describes. That is the furthest thing from the truth. The truth is that no matter what kind of Orthodoxy one practices – from modern Orthodoxy all the way to Charedi or even Chasidic Judaism – we all have our exemplars and our embarrassments. One thing is certain - ‘smelling of chicken fat’ is not a description that fits any of us as a group.

Ms.Tombosky says that the image she described is changing somewhat due to – of all people – Orthodox Reggae singing star Matisyahu. She calls him ‘cool’. He may be a fine person and very popular singer but I don’t see him in any way as a the quintessential model of an Orthodox Jew. He is an entertainer - period.

She goes on to describe what she sees as the Jewish mission in life - and that’s fine. I have no real quarrel with anything she says. But this doesn’t really speak to the perception she conjured up. Which is more about behavior that about mission.

What is the model for an Orthodox Jew today? How are we really perceived in the world? How should we be perceived? And what can we do to forward that perception?

To me it isn’t about the style of clothing we wear. Nor is it about the Kipa on our heads or whether we wear Tzitzis in or out. It is how we comport ourselves in public. It is about our integrity as a people. What we do in public is how the public will judge us – and thereby Judaism itself. If Orthodox Judaism is seen as the most authentic form of Judaism then it is incumbent upon all of us to constantly behave in ways that will be a Kiddush HaShem rather than a Chilul HaShem. The more outwardly Orthodox one is, the more important that behavior becomes.

Appearance does matter - whether it is in the clothing we wear or in how we interact with others. It doesn’t matter what style of clothing one wears or how expensive or inexpensive it is – as long as you are not perceived as a slob. For this - a person who wears a Kapote is on the same level as a person who wears a suit.

And of even greater importance is whether we are perceived as honest people or as crooks and criminals. Unfortunately of late Orthodox Jews have not been faring so well in this department. Not because most of us aren’t honest. We are. But because when any one of us is dishonest – especially those seen in one type of leadership position or another, it reinforces the negative stereotype of Jews as people who cheat and steal from their neighbors if the price is right or the cause great enough.

If one doesn’t think that is an important factor in how all Orthodox Jews are perceived - all one need do is see the cover of a new book – The Jersey Sting. The image there is the way Orthodox Jews are increasingly being perceived - unfair as that may be to the vast majority of us who try and live our lives ethically. And treat our fellow man as being created in the image of God. It is human nature to see a book like that and paint us all with the same brush.

These points are too important to be left unsaid by Ms. Tombosky They ought to be on the front burner for every single one of us before we ever embark on our mission as Jews.