Of all the stereotypes of charedim, probably none leaves us so shaking our heads as that of mindless, interchangeable automatons, marching lockstep to the commands of our rabbinic leadership. Because we view our friends and neighbors, not to mention ourselves, as individuals, with unique strengths and weaknesses, we assume the stereotype must be the product of malevolent hatred.
Yet some recent experiences suggest that judgment is off base. As I was waiting for my luggage in Heathrow Airport recently, some chassidim proposed making a minyan for afternoon prayers. I pointed out another four or five from their group who could complete the minyan, but the latter preferred to wait for their bags.
I found myself perplexed that six of the group wanted to do one thing and four something else. Subconsciously, I had assumed that all those wearing the same “uniform” must think alike. What I had done was no different than what secular Israelis do when they see a yeshiva student in a black suit and fedora, and assume that his entire life is guided by remote control.
The error of this type of thinking is apparently one that we must relearn all the time. When I mentioned my own stereotyping at the Shabbat table recently, one of my sons pointed out that I had written a column on the subject a few years back, after attending the final session of a Dale Carnegie course made up almost entirely of young chassidim.
One described how he had come to the course to learn how to make friends more easily; another to gain the confidence to give a talmudic discourse in front of a group of peers; a third to be able to lead the daily prayers; a fourth to improve communications with his wife; and yet another so that he could talk more easily to his children.
I was astounded to learn that a Belzer chassid might feel embarrassed or uncomfortable to enter a Belz study hall where he did not regularly learn or pray. Weren’t they all the same? And I was no less surprised that chassidic parents would be concerned with such modern concepts as developing their child’s self-confidence or improving interpersonal relationships, especially given the cost of the course.
And I’m not a complete stranger to the chassidic community. Of the four or five Torah leaders with whom I speak frequently, all but one are chassidic. And I have a number of close chassidic friends, who no more resemble one another than my Litvishe friends. So if I still have a bag full of stereotypes about all those chassidim whom I don’t know personally, how can I expect a secular Jew, who may never have had any real personal interaction with a haredi, to do any better?
HAVING OUR bag of stereotypes battered can be one of life’s little pleasures, but one must be open to it. For those who are, airplanes are an excellent opportunity to meet those from a completely different background.
On a recent flight to London, I noticed a chassidic man who neither took off his beaver hat nor lifted his face from the tractate in front of him. I was thus taken aback when he approached me two hours into the flight and asked me in perfect English, “Aren’t you Yonoson Rosenblum?” Since I was traveling “out of uniform” in a blue-striped shirt, my first reaction was to deny it. Once I admitted to the fact, he started talking to me about some of the biographies I have written, whose contents he knew better than I. Yet prior to our half-hour conversation, I would have picked him out as the least likely person on board to have read English-language biographies.
On the way back from London, I was seated next to the stereotypical Tzfonit. Yet before we had even taken off, she astounded me asking me if I would like her to switch places with the young chassid in the row behind. Since she had a bulkhead seat, that offer was as generous as it was unsolicited. (Maybe offering to help put her bags overhead had something to do with it.)
The young chassid who replaced her – after she had departed for business class – introduced himself as a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet. Perhaps my eyebrows shot up because he quickly added that he was not “one of the Hamasniks.” When I mentioned that I had written a column in the Post that week highly critical of his neighbors, he mentioned that he had subscribed to the Post for a while to learn English. Further inquiry elicited that his English studies had nothing to do with business but only his curiosity. So much for all I thought I knew about “zealots” raised in Mea She’arim.
No one likes to feel that he is viewed as just one more member of an undifferentiated mass, and that the person to whom he is speaking cannot see him as an individual. A recent response to one of my columns began, “Charedi columnist Jonathan Rosenblum…” I am the only columnist in the Post whose name is regularly prefaced by an adjective in this manner.
Mind you, the column in question had nothing to do with religion at all. The argument drew on George Will, Ari Shavit and Daniel Pipes, none of whom are known as charedi spokesmen – okay I confess I did quote a midrash and make a reference to Chanukka. Nor did the respondent have a word to say about anything I had written, just about the fact that I, a charedi, had done so.
“Just as each person’s face is different,” say our sages, “so is each person’s way of viewing the world different.” As both individuals and a society, we’ll be a lot happier the more we open ourselves to discovering that truth.
This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on January 25 2008