Sunday, September 26, 2021

Is There a Charedi Underground?

Image from The Atlantic
Religious art is not an uncommon find in Orthodox homes. In fact more often than not, one will find only religious art in such homes. Scenes of rabbis studying the Talmud, or Jews praying at the Kotel are ubiquitous in the homes  of Orthodox Jews of all persuasions. Including and perhaps especially in Charedi homes. In fact in Chasidic homes like Lubavitch one will almost certainly find portraits of their late Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn. Some are just copies of photographs. But in many cases they are large images of him painted on canvas; beautifully framed; and occupying a conspicuous place on the wall. 

I therefore found Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt’s article in The Atlantic intriguing. Therein she implies that becoming an artist is viewed with disfavor. Artists are considered non-conformist. This is how she described the experience of one woman that grew up in Monsey, New York, a heavily Charedi mostly Chasidic community. 

Growing up in a large Orthodox community in Monsey, New York, Golin-Cahn, who’s 53, felt like an anomaly when she decided to pursue fine arts professionally; community members looked at her askance. “It was like art was too materialistic, like I was too concerned with portraying the world around me, what it felt like, the colors and the textures,” she told me over Zoom. “People felt like it wasn’t frum [religious], like it was too world-based.”

I do not believe that is a totally accurate description about the Charedi attitude toward art. Although I agree that becoming an artist is not the usual profession chosen by a religious Jew – even among Charedim that actually work for a living. It is a lot more  common them to choose a filed like accounting or law. Or even medicine. But becoming an  artist is not unheard of. I recall as a teenager during my time in Telshe Yeshiva, there was a very talented artist who was an Avreich (a young married man who studied in the Telshe Kollel) who was advised by the Roshei Yeshiva to pursue his talent by enrolling in an art school. Which he did.

At the same time I can understand why there is a reluctance to accept art as a profession. Not every piece of art is religiously themed.  As Chizhik-Goldschmidt notes: 

When Shoshana Golin-Cahn set her sights on attending fine-arts school almost 30 years ago, she did what many Orthodox Jews do when faced with a big decision: She called her rabbi. He told her the one limitation she would face was that she was not to draw live male nude models, because the rabbi felt that doing so would be immodest for a single woman... 

But even so, becoming an artist has become more acceptable. Although not entirely. In a world where even a photo of a woman that is dressed in the most modest way possible is considered immodest I am hard pressed to see anything but a very limited acceptance of art. But that does not mean it doesn’t exist. At least in the ‘underground’: 

(R)eligious artists continue to face the challenges of finding free expression in a culture that is conservative by design. In my conversations with them, some of the artists told me of secret works kept tucked away in home studios—women’s portraits, portrayals of rabbis as human beings who struggle rather than hagiographies, as well as the art that lingers in their minds, the work they wish they could create but wouldn’t dare to. For now, a basement gallery hums with the activity of a new generation—artists telling stories, pushing boundaries, yearning for more, one brushstroke at a time. 

It’s important to note that these artists have not gone OTD. They are all observant Jews that are well integrated into their respective Charedi communities. With that in mind, allow me to speculate a bit. I suspect that there are many Charedi Jews that privately do not exactly follow the party line. Even though they appear to do so publicly. 

Where that concerns me the most is in how their children are educated. In this one area, private decisions are impossible. Especially if they publicly espouse the party line. I wonder how many Chasidim in places like Williamsburg will  publicly declare their support for their educational system while privately being dissatisfied with it.

It’s no secret where my sympathies lie. I believe it is criminal to not provide a decent secular education for children. Inevitably when I discuss this issue, I will get a lot of pushback along the following lines: Why not let parents decide how their children are educated? If they are satisfied with the status quo of no secular education... leave them alone! Their choice of a religious only education is after all protected by the First Amendment.  

Perhaps it is. But if what they say publicly is not what they feel privately? Is there a critical mass of  Chasidic parents that feel differently? Artwork can be done clandestinely – leaving the public persona in line with community values. But educating children is a horse of another color. There can be no underground Chasidic schools that offer decent religious and secular studies.

Although there are a few Chasidic parents that have publicly expressed their disfavor with the status quo I suspect that there are a lot more that feel the same way but aren't willing to say so pbilcaly for fear of being ostracized. 

There is another indicator that might demonstrate how members of these kinds of communities actually deal with issues that their leadership frowns upon. Like the internet. When that first became an issue, the internet was banned. But that has now changed into requiring filters. I suppose most homes do have filters on their internet content. But I would not be surprised if most of the smart-phones are not filtered at all.  It isn’t too hard to find people in these communities with smartphones. In fact I’ll bet a huge number of Chasidim have them. I wonder how many of them are filtered? I’ll bet a lot of them are not. Although I doubt that they would admit that publicly. 

If that is the case, then there is hope that things can turn around. But it will not be easy. It’s one thing to see things differently than their leadership privately. It is another to do so publicly. Because that might come at the expense of being ostracized. 

This is where courage comes in. If I am right and there are a lot more Chasidic parents that would like to see a better education for their children, then they should organize and come out of the closet. If there are enough that do… I don’t see a them being ignored. Maybe… just maybe their leadership will join the rest of the Charedi world and finally allow their schools to offer a dual curriculum of religious and secular studies for their Chasidim. You never know.