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
While I think that the point of the post is important, I would point out that just as the Charedim are individuals and not just a mindless group of lemmings, so too are those who are not Charedim. Just as non-Charedim engage in stereotyped thinking, so too the Charedim immerse themselves in the fiction that those who are not immersed in frumkeit lack their passion for HaShem. Each person needs to be judged on his or her own merits. When each person stands before HaShem, they will not be asked why they were not more like Abraham (or some Charedi or Chassidic Rebbe) but why they were not more themselves.
I would gently point out that Mr. Fields’ statement is further evidence of the assumption that all Charedim think alike.
There are two ways of looking at a group – as a homogenous group with some unifying characteristics, and as a group of individuals with some things in common.
For example, we have no problem talking about “Palestinian” hatred of Israel yet there are probably many Arabs in Israel who don’t hate the country and may even have some Jewish friends.
I would suggest that what Rav Rosenbloom has identified is the innate tension between the two approaches. On one hand, there is a stereotypical view that non-Chareidim have of that community. Unfortunately, there is much to bolster that impression, whether it’s another riot in Meah Shearim, another mugging in Ramat Beit Shemesh, or another pronouncement from some official-looking figure that the reason bad things happen to Israelis is because they aren’t religious.
What gets lost is that when one actually goes one-on-one with members of the community, many of them, just like anywhere else, turn out to be fine upstanding people who are sincere in the beliefs and their love of their fellow Jews.
And it does go the other way as well. For all the portrayals of the base nature of Chiloni culture that some Chareidi publications revel in producing, there are many Chilonim who are proud to be Jewish, enjoy aspects of Judaism in their life and would probably make good friends with Chareidim if given the chance.
What is needed is for people to remember that we are all individuals first and give that idea a chance when meeting someone.
“Since I was traveling “out of uniform” in a blue-striped shirt, my first reaction was to deny it”. Reb Y, clarification necessary for this line.. why deny your identity since you were traveling ‘out of uniform’? Don’t we wear attire (uniforms) depending on the occasion? sports, leisure, formal affairs, work clothes, hiking, office verus home, etc.
Sterotyping is a learned trait, usually modeled by parent, teacher or mentor. There can be a comfort and security in sterotyping, minimizing the reason to explore and engage with others that look ‘out of uniform’. Since individuals look for the easiest path to travel, avoiding strangers (not in uniform) is a comfort zone. Unfortunate as it is!!!
Rabbi YR, as editor of Jewish Media Resources, there is no surprise that a title of ‘Charedei Columnist’ is attached to your name. BTW what is a “Tzfonit”?.
” 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…”
It is also true that from the other direction, stereotypes would be much worse if we wouldn’t have the individual relationships; I have had chavrusas and acquaintances over the years from chasidic backgrounds, and I realize that I have gained from these relationships.
“On the way back from London, I was seated next to the stereotypical Tzfonit…”
I’m guessing that the parenthetical phrase about her luggage might have been inspired by the Cross Current discussion on “Plane Lessons” this past December. Perhaps other JP articles should also be tested here on CC so as to take advantage of the free criticism? 🙂
Each person needs to be judged on his or her own merits. When each person stands before HaShem, they will not be asked why they were not more like Abraham (or some Charedi or Chassidic Rebbe) but why they were not more themselves.
Comment by Derek Fields
In reading your comment about being more ourselves, I am reminded of Psalm 139. Can anyone of us really know ourself unless HaShem reveals this to us ? Do we not all stand “naked” before HaSHem who sees through our outer trappings right to the heart of the matter – our attitude toward Him ? Most of us desire to be accepted by others and act towards that desire. We become experts at presenting different masks of who we are when, in fact, we often really do not know who we are but who we want to be…..before others; we covet acceptance. Yet, it is HaSHem who created us uniquely in His image to become a person who is fruitful and who will glorify His Name. This is a not too subtle shift away from who we are toward who He is. Abraham made this move. He left his homeland – his pagan society in UR – and even his family to go where HaShem would lead him. Abraham’s journey began with leaving everything he knew one step at a time. Following HaSHem means we get to drop our masks one by one not easily but willingly. When I stand before Him at the end of my journey, I pray that I will have left all of these masks behind so that I appear before Him as who he created and changed me to be.
Your real mistake of course lies in your understanding of the ‘spontaneous’ minyan…They are a chiyuv only in 2 situations
1) the second you enter a wedding—
2) the second you fall asleep on a plane to Israel.