Charedi Like Me

Back in 1961, a man named John Howard Griffin, a white native of Mansfield, Texas, published a remarkable book. “Black Like Me” was his account of six weeks of travel by bus across the deep south—as a black man, which he wasn’t.

Two years earlier, Mr. Griffin, with the help of a dermatologist, took large doses of a drug that darkens skin and spent up to fifteen hours daily under an ultraviolet lamp to intensify the effect. He closely cut his hair and even shaved the backs of his hands before setting out to experience what it was like to be black in that era and place. He recounted the “hate stare” he regularly received from whites and the myriad indignities of black life at the time, like the difficulty of finding a public restroom to use.

Later, even as he enjoyed some celebrity for his gambit, he received so many threats to his life that he moved to Mexico.

In a somewhat less brave experiment, two secular Israeli television reporters recently video-documented something similar, beginning with their transformation—aided not by drugs but a professional make-up artist—from typical secular Israelis to bearded, kaftan-ed charedim. With the help of a charedi “consultant” to guide them in matters of mannerism, the two men metamorphosed into an entirely passable charedi pair—and sallied forth to see if, as some have charged—charedim suffer discrimination and worse from non-religious Israelis.

The two undercover reporters walked through and rode buses in secular neighborhoods; they made inquiries about renting a house and about joining a gym.

It wasn’t exactly gripping documentary journalism, but it did have its moments of interest. While the pair, at least in the footage included (and, presumably, with a cameraman noticeably present), encountered only politeness from secular Israelis, one would-be landlord seemed to have no explanation for why the asking rent was considerably more that had been advertised. Another person answering the door of an apartment for rent claimed she is only the current tenant and promised to have the owner get back to the pair, which apparently never happened. On a bus, non-religious riders chose to stand rather than sit next to one of the “charedi” men.

None of which amounts to anything more than the softest of bigotry. Most likely just wariness in the face of the unfamiliar. The interactions were all entirely friendly and civil.

Which is what most of us would expect. Israelis can, to be sure, evidence a certain bluntness—often interpreted, at least by Americans, as gruffness. It is likely the product of the general tenor of the Middle-East coupled with the fact that Israelis live daily with the thought that millions of people near and far would like to erase their country—and them—from the face of the earth. But even that bluntness was not evident in the film. The ersatz charedim were stared at here and there, but largely ignored.

Does such a decidedly unscientific experiment indicate that charedim as a group are truly accepted as brothers and sisters by all other Israelis? That they in fact are not belittled, resented, and even hated? No. It just means, at most, that the belittlers, resenters, and haters are a minority, not readily in evidence “on the street.” They tend to hang out elsewhere, like at the Knesset and the pages of Haaretz.

Still and all, it’s heartening to imagine—and I think it is true—that charedim are not subject to abuse in daily life, even when they venture into other neighborhoods. Most Israelis, even if they have opinions that clash with their charedi co-citizens, are tolerant of those who choose to live more intensely traditional Jewish lives than they do.

And, of course, the same is true in the other direction. While there may be charedim who harbor ill will toward their secular fellow-Jews, they are the exception. In fact, the regularly heard canard that “the charedim” despise other Israelis might be a good topic for the intrepid reporters’ next investigative journalism foray outside their studio. They could visit some religious neighborhoods or towns and try to interact with the locals there, to see if they experience any such animus.

And they won’t even need any makeup.


[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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