Friday, April 15, 2016

Being Different

Chasidic activist Ezra Freidlander (left) and Governor John Kasich (JTA)
When I say we are in the silly season, I’m not kidding. Yesterday I saw a couple of videos of Ohio Governor John Kasich touring Orthodox sections of Brooklyn. One was in a book store and the other (courtesy of Rafi’s ‘Life in Israel’ blog and available for viewing below) was in a Matzah factory. I say silly because of the way Mr. Kasich looked throughout that tour. I don’t think I have even seen a facial expression that looked more like ‘get me out of here’ than I saw on Mr. Kasich’s face. Not to mention the absurdity of his comments about Jesus in front of all of those Chasidic Jews.

Now, I am sure that Governor Kasich is not an antisemite. But that didn’t make him look any less uncomfortable in that environment. The question is why? Why would a group of obviously religious Jews make him so uncomfortable (or at least look that way – even if he wasn’t)?

I think that the answer is the distinct cultural look of these Chasidic Jews. They look radically different from most of the American mainstream. He probably felt like he was on a different planet. 

Please do not misunderstand. I would be the first one to defend the the right of any group or individual to dress in any manner they please as long as it was lawful. The freedom to be who we are and express our differences is one of the values I hold dear about this magnificent country in which we live.

But that doesn’t mean that it won’t make you uncomfortable to be surrounded by a group of people that look so radically different than the rest of a society. Of which you are a part. So it is not the religion, or the Orthodoxy that makes him uncomfortable. It is the specific look of a specific segment that might.

The irony is that part of the reason that Chasidim look this way is specifically to be different. They do not want to look like the rest of a society whose culture they perceive as decadent and reject. They take literally the biblical admonition of Lo Selechu B’Chukas HaGoy (do not follow in the statutes of a non Jew) and Uv'Chukosehem Lo Selechu (in their statutes you should not follow).

Another more mainstream interpretation of this Halacha is that it applies only to the immoralities of their culture. Not to all of it. But for Chasidim anything a non Jew does, should be avoided by a Jew.

So to Chasidim - if a non Jew wears a suit, we must wear a Kapote or Bekeshe. If a non Jew wears a normal looking fedora, we need to make a hat that looks different. If a non Jew speaks English well, we must not.

I hasten to add that wearing a Kipa - which almost every Orthodox Jew does - makes Orthodox Jews stand out and look different, too. But I think it is a question of degree.

For Chasidim - so strong is their desire to not follow the culture that they try to isolate themselves. What better way to accomplish that, then to look and sound so radically different.  Their thinking is - if you don’t look and sound like a ‘Goy’ you won’t act like one. Which is a terrible way to behave. Wear your own distinctive clothing and speak English only when necessary (Yiddish being the preferred language) so that you will not be tempted to join them since they will look at you as weird anyway.

However, if you look at the video of Governor Kasich and these Chasidic Jews, there is a very definite attempt by the Chasidic activists accompanying Mr. Kasich to get him to like them… to appreciate their culture. They go out of their way to explain the beauty of Judaism as they understand it and live it. They fully understand that making a good impression on a possible future President is important. It is always a good idea to have a national leader look favorably upon a constituency.

For his part Governor Kasich understands the kind of voting power that exists in Chasidic world. That’s why he’s there. To get their block vote. But I’m not sure it worked out for either of those goals. Kasich kind of blew it with his Jesus comment. And I don’t think the Chasidic Jews succeeded in making a favorable impression on him either.

In one of those videos, Kasich asked some Chasidic Yeshiva students what they were studying. They answered the Talmud. He said that he meant what specific material they were studying. They answered they were studying about ‘Shabbat’. I have to wonder if Kasich even knows that many Chasidim do not have a secular education at all… which is one reason they do not speak English well. That the only subjects they study are religious subjects. How would he feel about that if he knew? Would he even care? …as long as he gets their block vote?

At the end of the day, no one did anything wrong. Aside from my issues about their lack of education (which leads to a whole slew of other problems) I have no problem with choosing the lifestyle they lead, including the way they look and sound. God bless them for living the ideals of Judaism as they understand them as long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. That – like I always say – is what America is all about. 

Chasidim should however realize that there may be negative consequences to that. I doubt for example that Governor Kasich or any non Jew that has this kind of encounter would ever say that their way of life is one that should be emulated.