Jewish Multiple Personality Disorder

The media’s fascination with Orthodox Jews seems to only intensify with time. Some of us Orthodox may be discomfited by reports that television and motion pictures have come to increasingly offer up observant Jewish characters and observances; but one supposes that is simply the price of our community’s growth in numbers and visibility. Feature stories, at least those that don’t treat the Orthodox as some sort of freak-show exhibit, are generally unobjectionable. Legitimate news reports, of course, are fine.

One might question, though, whether some news stories are truly newsworthy, especially when they give vent to sentiments that regard Orthodox Jews as sinister or threatening.

A March 9 article in the business section of The New York Times may or may not have been journalistically justified. It was, though, thought-provoking.

The piece described how some residents of the Long Island community of Great Neck have come to feel oppressed by a growing Orthodox Jewish population in the village. The problem? Several stores have been closing on the Jewish Sabbath.

One woman lamented how, wanting to buy a box of nails one Saturday, she found the local hardware store dark. Another had a similarly disconcerting experience with a liquor store. The horror.

And so, the whispers (and comments spoken aloud to reporters) these days include phrases like “pressure from the religious community,” and sentiments like the fear that the neighborhood is “going Orthodox” and being “targeted” by observant Jews.

One patron told The Times, “Everyone is entitled to practice their religion as they choose, but please don’t push it on me.”

“Pressured?” “Targeted”? “Push it on me”? Observant Jews who purchased homes in a suburban community are an invading force? A merchant who decides to close his business on the Jewish Sabbath is pushy? What year is this again?

Something beyond mere inconvenience, one suspects, is at work here, some resentment with roots deeper than the need to drive a few more blocks one day a week to buy some nails. The “don’t push it on me” patron may have revealed a gnarled limb with another comment she made, simple and straightforward: “It annoys me no end that stores are closed on Saturdays.”

Her annoyance seems visceral, its source the Sabbath itself. Or, perhaps more accurately, the fact that there are Jews who insist, even in this day and age, on its observance.

The annoyed may include non-Jews, but Great Neck has a substantial Jewish population, and it has often been the case that Jews are at the forefront of objections to the appearance of Orthodox fellow-Jews in a community. But why would any Jews feel discomfited by other Jews’ honoring the Sabbath? Would they be piqued if they lived in a devoutly Christian community where merchants chose not to do business on Sundays?

What it brings to mind is the story of the Jewish fellow who found himself seated on a plane next to a bearded man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a long black coat. Unable to control himself, the clean-shaven gentleman gives the other one a disapproving look and a long lecture about how Jews today need not look or act like their great-grandparents, how Judaism has evolved, how we Jews should be Americans first, Jews mainly in our hearts, and so on.

With a bewildered look, the bearded passenger quietly responds: “I’m Amish.”

The lecturer turns crimson and apologizes profusely. “I want you to know,” he stammers, “that I so respect your determination to live by the ideals of your faith and your community’s traditions. It is inspiring to know that there are people who put eternal truths before society’s whims and fashions…”

“Just joking,” the beard interrupts, with a mischievous smile. “You were right the first time.”

Such Jewish multi-personality disorder deeply disturbs some Orthodox Jews, and understandably. Why indeed should a Jewish person fully accept a non-Jew’s choice to honor his faith and tradition yet resent a fellow Jew’s choice to honor his own?

Maybe it’s my naturally optimistic bent, but what occurs to me is that, on the contrary, something positive lies in Jewish discomfort over Jewish observance. If there are indeed Jews in the Great Neck posse, the fact that they would never even feel, much less express, chagrin over Amish folks’ or Catholics’ or Muslims’ observance of their faiths yet are “annoyed” by Jews observing theirs can only mean one thing: they truly care about Judaism. Enough to be bothered when reminders of how Jews were meant to live intrude on the complacent comfort of their lives and puncture their consciences.

Their aggravation, in other words, is just fallout from the self-assertion of their Jewish souls.

If only they would decide to think instead of fume. Then their pain could be turned to great gain.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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18 Responses

  1. One Christian's perspective says:

    Rabbi Shafran, we live in a nation where the media and many journalists promote a faith known as secularism. Where the person and their desires are greatly honored but on a platform where G-d is not welcome and people of faith are ridiculed. May G-d give you and your followers the courage, gentleness and joy to continue to display your love of G-d to neighbors who do not know Him. How else can they know about Him ? The NY Times ? Nah !

  2. Larry Lennhoff says:

    In the eyes of non-Jews and non-observant Jews, the problem arises when O Jews use their economic leverage to make stores close down on Shabbat. If a store owner closes down because he has become religious and no longer wishes to work on Shabbat, that is one thing. If a hardware store owner closes down because otherwise observant Jews will not shop there the rest of the week, that is a different matter in their eyes.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    People can buy or not buy from any merchant for any reason they choose. I draw the line at organizing boycotts, picketing, making a scene, etc., because a merchant has a different religious orientation.

    Merchants make economic decisions all the time. If the demographics of a merchant’s potential customer base change, he can adapt if he so chooses, to maximize his return under prevailing conditions. Or he can grumble if he so chooses.

  4. Ellen Lebowicz says:

    On Ave. J, in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, several non-Orthodox store-owners have closed on Shabbos because most of their patrons are shomer Shabbos, and no one comes in much anyway on Shabbos.
    Unfortunately, the above problem can exist even amongst Orthodox Jews. When my shul was trying to move to a better location a couple blocks away, the residents objected so strongly that there were town meetings with Orthodox Jew against Orthodox Jew. Eventually, the shul had to build elsewhere.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    This is an excellent article. However, the secular Jewish media follows the lead of the secular media in Ortho bashing anything that is neither LW MO or Chabad. When secular Jewish media provide their readers with zero positive news about the mainstream MO and Charedi worlds and waste their readers time and money on the profiles of the families of Arab terrorists, May their names and memories be erased, as opposed to their victims, May God avenge their blood, something is very rotten in Denmark.

  6. Yechiel Cohen says:

    I always find it funny when non ‘old’ orthodox Jews compare their committed ultra-Orthodox brethren to committed ultra religious Moslems, and yes, Christians. Haredim do not maltreat anyone, except of course in the Epic Fantasy that was dramatized in 2004. In fact it is the LESS extreme Jews whom we are constantly hearing in connection with murder and other crimes. Extreme devotion to God has produced terrific citizens in Jewry. For some mystifying reason devotion to God has produced the exact opposite result in Christianity as well as, of course, in……Islam.
    Perhaps[this is just a theory], these anxious Jews believe the only way to dismantle extreme Christianity and Islam is to, with same sword, dismantle peace-loving Haredi Judaism.

  7. Dave Weinstein says:

    Be fair.

    If a secular Jew bought a building in a business district in an Orthodox neighborhood, and established a business in it that was open on Saturday, I would be very surprised if there were not a great deal more vocal opposition than has been seen in Great Neck.

  8. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Everybody hang in there, the future belongs to the Torah as the past did. It is just a matter of historical readjustment. If we all do our part with teshuva and kiruv, it will take less time, and some of those people who squirm the most today will be sitting next to you in shul tomorrow, But the teshuva in the fullest sense of the world includes coming back to Eretz Yisrael and doing our best to see that the Jews expelled from their homes in Gush Katif are returned.

  9. Naftali says:

    The woman Rabbi Shafran alleges suffers from multi personality disorder does not question the Orthodox storekeeper’s right to close on Shabbos. She is commenting, (yes, even complaining), that the complexion of the neighborhood is changing and it is not as comfortable for her as it used to be. I similar thing happened to me, but not in a religious context, as our neighborhood gentrified and hardware stores and small groceries were replaced by boutiques and upscale shops. Now, if I want a nail or bottle of milk, I have to get into a car to drive to the closest strip mall. It bothers me, incoveniences me, and a part of me resents the influx of new yuppy shoppers who, in addition taking my hardware store, congest traffic and take up parking. I am getting over it, because I realize that this is the way of the world. I would be very unhappy if someone took my occasional venting as sign of a multi personality disorder. Rabbi Safran is taking this issue to places where it doesn’t belong, and if he continues on this path, there will indeed be cause for true resentment of Orthodox encroachment. His piece emanates from that growing Orthodox school that lacks empathy and understanding for anyone “other.”

  10. Ori says:

    Yechiel Cohen: Extreme devotion to God has produced terrific citizens in Jewry. For some mystifying reason devotion to God has produced the exact opposite result in Christianity as well as, of course, in……Islam.

    Ori: Do you know that devout Christians aren’t good citizens, or do you think so based on a few incidents, overblown by the media that does the same to make Charedim look bad? I live in bible belt Texas. I have friends and neighbors who are devout Christians. I have yet to see evidence that on the average they do not make good citizens – they have their bad apples, but not more than other people.

  11. L.Oberstein says:

    His piece emanates from that growing Orthodox school that lacks empathy and understanding for anyone “other.”

    Comment by Naftali — March 30, 2008 @ 6:42 am
    Let’s not get carried away. Rabbi Shafran does not fit into that sterotype. The reality is that in communities all over the map, the old times resent the orthodox newcomers. In my section of town those elements dominate the neighborhood association .They don’t like the fact that orthodox Jews add on to their homes, don’t manicure their lawns, have businesses in their homes, run summer camps in a residential neighborhood, don’t take in their garbage cans quickly enough and make synagogues without zoning . In short, a small minority of non orthodox Jeww and some non Jews resent the liestyle and practices of their new neighbors. The fact that their homes are worth much more and that their new neighbors do not cause violent crime is lost in their anger at the lady who sell shaitels in her basement or the teens who have a camp in their back yard. The solution is to join the community associations as we are the majority.

  12. YM says:

    Re comment 11 – R’ Oberstein: YM questions whether we should be doing all of these activities without care or concern about what our non OJ or non Jewish neighbors think. I think we should show more derech eretz and think about how our neighbors feel. R’Oberstein also didn’t mention that in many cases there is a complete lack of social interaction between OJs and our non-OJ/non Jewish neighbors. Since our missions in life is supposed to be to create a Kiddush Hashem and not (G-d Forbid) a Chillul Hahshem, we should see these areas as opportunities for Service.

  13. Garnel Ironheart says:

    > Haredim do not maltreat anyone, except of course in the Epic Fantasy that was dramatized in 2004.

    Try driving through Meah Shearim on a Saturday morning or wearing shorts in certain neighbourhoods of Ramat Beit Shemesh and then say that.

    As was said a long time ago, the business of America is business. That means the average person expects to be able to shop and get entertainment 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The thought of shutting down for 25 hours for religious purposes is, well, un-American. And for many of our non-religious brethren, that’s just plain wrong. You want to keep Shabbos? Fine, do it in your own home but if the liquor store is closed because of you, well now that affects me!

    Having said that, L Oberstein really hits the nail on the head. Both sides in the dispute could make a better effort to fit into the neighbourhood. Yes, people should be tolerant of Torah observant behaviours and needs, but the Torah observant might try to adjust a little to be less bothersome to those around them, even if the habits themselves are not objectively objectionable. Mipnei Darchi Shalom is a phrase that pops up in our literature just a few too many times to be ignored in cases like this.

  14. One Christian's perspective says:

    Extreme devotion to God has produced terrific citizens in Jewry. For some mystifying reason devotion to God has produced the exact opposite result in Christianity as well as, of course, in……Islam.
    Comment by Yechiel Cohen

    I would define devotion to G-d as love. To me, that can only be demonstrated by studying His Word, worship, singing praise and thanksgiving to His Name and service to others without strings attached. It is a journey that a frail, weak and often selfish person, such as me,is walking. It is the Holy One of Israel who brings me back to the path of righteousness when I step off of it or have doubts and fears. I am a work in process…..but, a citizen of heaven.

  15. Steve Brizel says:

    Carnel Ironheart-perhaps the proper exercise in discretion and intelligence would be to refrain from driving thru Meah Shearim and the Charedi side of RNS. Would the proponents of such conduct allow or respond favorably to Charedi and other kiruv advocates conducting their work on a weekday in their neighborhoods, malls, etc?

  16. Ori says:

    Steve Brizel, this is precisely the issue. Imagine you were a secular Jew who had an apartment in Bnei Brak (purchased back when Bnei Brak was predominately Chiloni). How would you feel about driving your car to and from your home on Shabbat? How would your children feel if they bought a house in a different Chiloni town and now had a few Charedi neighbors?

    I don’t think this is a big issue in the US, since most people are gentiles that nobody expects to obey Halacha anyway. But it could explain why Heterodox Jews don’t want to have Orthodox neighbors. We know that what we’re doing is wrong in your eyes, and we’re afraid you’ll try to make us change.

    BTW, you might want to check with Chabad in Israel. I don’t recall ever hearing of anybody harassing them or preventing their access to a civilian area. After they supported Agudat Israel in the elections they were considered a political organization, and therefore denied access to certain military bases – but that’s different.

  17. Garnel Ironheart says:

    Steve Brizel, I agree the proper exercise in discretion and intelligence would be to refrain from driving through Meah Shearim and RBS. However, that isn’t the answer to my challenge. Of course avoidance of conflict is always preferable. My point is to examine how one responds to challenges to one’s point of view.

  18. cvmay says:

    This article is highlighting ‘CHANGE’, which dictionaries define as “a different direction, opinion or perspective”, “moving forward or backwards”. Depending on your age or local, CHANGE is eternally in motion.
    The demographics of New York highlights the changing neighborhoods, farewell to East New York, Bronx, Washington Heights, Newark, etc. and welcome Hewlett, Marine Park, Bergenfield and Westchester. Blackberries & laptops have replaced hand held phones and faxes. Emails & texts are current while letter writing and message machines are almost obsolete.
    CHANGE is a hard pill to swallow, whether the move is forward or backwards. To live in Great Neck for many years, suddenly encountering stores closing for Shabbos, a new population emerging, shuls and families abound can be as shocking as Meah Shearim opening a Young Israel with a NCSY Chapter nearby. For a group to arrive in an established neighborhood, rewrite the rules while expecting adherence to a new (& unknown) mode of conduct is quite distrubing. If our motto is “derachah derchai noam” – its paths are the paths of pleasantness, much can be accomplished with cooperation and coexistance.

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