In a recent essay in the Forward, I made the case for jettisoning the time-honored (if, to me, less than honorable) term “ultra-Orthodox.”
I argued that, like “ultra-conservative” or “ultra-liberal” in domestic politics, the prefix implies extremism, something that isn’t accurate about most Haredim.
What best to replace it with is less obvious, as “haredi” is a foreign word, and euphemisms like “fervently Orthodox” insult non-haredi Jews, many of whom are as fervent in their prayer and observances as any haredi Jew (not to mention that some haredi Jews are far from fervent).
I suggested using the unadorned word “Orthodox” to refer to Haredim, whose lives, I contended, most resemble those of their forbears.
After all, I argued, self-described “Centrist” and “Modern” and “Open” Orthodox Jews are, well, self-described, with those prefixes of their choices. So why not use “Orthodox” alone, without any modifier, to refer to “black-hatters,” or “yeshivish” folks. (The Haredi subset of Hasidism could simply be called Hasidim, a word familiar to English speakers.) Think Coke, Cherry Coke, Diet Coke…
One immediate response to my essay came from Samuel Heilman, a Queens College professor of sociology.
Professor Heilman’s jaundiced eye regarding Haredim is legend. He is often quoted in the media as critical of Orthodox Jews more conservative in their practices than he. (After September 11, 2001, he famously, risibly, implied that haredi yeshivas are “quiescent” beds of potential terrorists.)
The professor rejects “ultra” too, but sees the prefix not as a pejorative but as reflecting the idea that Haredim are “truer in their beliefs and practices than others.”
He also accuses Haredim of departing from the Orthodoxy of the past. The example he offers is that, in the charedi world, “water must be certified kosher.” And he decries the Haredi “notion that Orthodox Jews always shunned popular culture.” Hasidic rebbes,” he explains, were, “among the crowds who streamed to Marienbad, Karlsbad and the other spas and baths of Europe for the cure, so much a part of popular culture in pre-Holocaust Europe.”
Ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Meir Porush at a Jerusalem polling station in 2008. / Getty Images
A boycott of West Bank settlements is a favorite subject for discussion among Palestinian activists and Western liberals alike. Surprisingly, it’s getting some ultra-Orthodox Israelis talking too.
In fact, a Haredi lawmaker has revealed that he’s coming under “tremendous pressure” to initiate a boycott of settlement enterprises. Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism is “preventing it” for the moment but said that he doesn’t know if he can keep a lid on it. “I do not know if this matter will remain under control,” he said.
Porush made the comments on the religious Kol Berama radio station and they were reported by the pro-settler news service Arutz Sheva.
So what’s the rationale behind this Haredi boycott mindset?
Ultra-Orthodox bride Rivka Hannah (Hofman) at her Jerusalem wedding in 2014. / Getty Images
About 20 years ago, when I was a staff writer for JTA, the editor and I were called into Agudath Israel of America for a meeting on the “ultra-Orthodox” issue. Rabbi Avi Shafran and other Agudah representatives were unhappy even then with the term, explaining as Shafran did recently in this forum that they viewed it as a pejorative term. We explained why journalists use the term and discussed using the term Haredi, which is more commonplace today than it was at that time, instead. We concluded by asking them to recommend alternatives with which they might be more comfortable.
It would be nice to have a viable non-Hebrew alternative, though we do not use “ultra-Orthodox” as a reflection of bias or desire to disparage, no matter how subtly. Instead, it is shorthand to distinguish between this part of the Orthodox community and the more modern segment from which Haredi Judaism is, as Shafran is well aware, quite distinct. When a premium is put on economy of language, as it is in journalism, ultra-Orthodox fits the bill.
We all like to think we are centrist and that everyone else is extreme in comparison. But it is disingenuous at best for Shafran to say that there is nothing “ultra” about the way his community elects to live. He protests the notion that his community merits being described as “extreme.” Really? It brings to mind the Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” bit with Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler. Does Shafran really believe that it will ever suffice simply to describe his community as “Orthodox?” Really?
As the Israeli government prepares to present the Knesset with its bill to draft yeshiva students into the army, the Haredi community is seething. But even as it kicks into reactionary mode, you’ve got to wonder whether, paradoxically, this could present an opportunity for some limited advancement among Haredi women.
The Haredi media in Israel is abuzz with talk of a possible “march of the million” against the plans to get currently-exempt Haredi men into uniform and criminalize those who ignore draft orders.
The Haredi leaders who are talking about a march saw the “march of the million” during the social protests of 2011 (which was big but didn’t quite reach a million). They believe that if their community can replicate that kind of mass activism, Israeli society and the government will need to take notice.
But there’s an obvious problem. In secular society, if you have a million people, you have a million potential demonstrators. In Haredi society, a million people gives you just 500,000 potential demonstrators.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish volunteer to the Israeli Army’s Nahal Haredi brigade. / Getty Images
Plans to draft ultra-Orthodox men to Israel’s army are moving ahead — complete with a surprise.
There has been lots of tough talk regarding the need for universal service, but there was a widespread expectation that the government would stop short of criminalizing yeshiva students who refuse to serve. However, yesterday a committee formatting the draft law decided that draft refusers could face jail.
This has proved intensely controversial — and not only with Haredim, who are determined that they won’t be forced into the army. That’s because it raises a question mark about how realistic it really is to get Haredim into uniform.
Racheli Ibenboim chats with writer Tuvia Tenenbom./Photo by Isi Tenenbaum
I may not be a dyed-in-the-wool feminist by any stretch of the imagination. But I have a strong sense of the rights of women to take agency in their own lives and a repulsion for the oppressive nature of men who harass women for their own reasons. That is why I was completely taken aback by Tuvia Tenenbom’s latest article “Everything He Wanted To Know About Sex Among the Orthodox.”
How this tabloid-worthy work of voyeurism could ever be considered a legitimate work of journalistic inquiry is beyond me. Which is a shame, because there is a so much to explore here.
Racheli Ibenboim’s story is fascinating. Here is a women, seemingly pious and observant, in love with her Hasidic lifestyle, but dedicated to being a change-agent in her community. She may have taken a step back due to internal pressures, but it seems that she has not stopped in her mission.
Yet instead of focusing on her deeds and actions, we’re given what amounts to some sort of voyeuristic look at a man who must fetishize women in thick stockings and wigs. The reader sits and reads with increasing shock as we witness the literal recreation of catcalls on the street. Tenenbom pushes her to a place no man that respects women ever should.
They say that the sun shines on the righteous. Maybe not, but you did have a better chance of weathering this weekend’s Middle East storm if you’re Haredi.
At the height of the Alexa storm, which brought unusually cold temperatures and severe snow, some 60,000 Israel households were without power. However in some neighborhoods, lights were shining brightly in Haredi homes while others were in the dark.
A strain within Israel’s Orthodox doesn’t use electricity from the country’s national grid on the Sabbath out of concern that it is the produce of Jews laboring on the day of rest (a concern that isn’t relevant to Jews in the Diaspora where the majority population is non-Jewish). And so, these households are hooked up to either private “Sabbath generators,” or in most cases, a generator that serves a few dozen homes in their neighborhood.
Just before the candles are lit for the Sabbath, householders flick a switch to move from weekday electricity from the grid to locally produced Sabbath-electricity. Of course, when the grid went down, they were just able to switch to their local supply.
In general, the past weekend was one of both stunning beauty and notable hardships in Israel. The Old City of Jerusalem looked magnificent with its blanket of white, and it seemed that the usually divided population for once took joy in the same things, building snowmen and playing with snowballs. The weather brought out the best in many people, as it did in New York a year ago. Strangers took in people who were unable, or unprepared because they don’t travel on Shabbat, to get home over the weekend. The community spirit was even such that Jerusalem, a woman was able to wear a tallit by the Western Wall without generating controversy. She was a snow woman.
After years of debate, pressure and protest, on Sunday Israel’s cabinet approved legislation to draft ultra-Orthodox men for national service. The lobby that agitated for legislation has been quick to label it a sellout, counter-productive, and a passing of the buck.
Pro-draft activists say that they wanted a law that makes service for Haredim compulsory immediately, while the actual legislation defers compulsion to serve until 2017. And as they point out, this means leaving the big task of implementing the draft until after the next elections.
They are right to be disappointed, as the government did promise to deliver the draft, and all it looks set to do is deliver the blueprint for one which may or may not end up being implemented after the next national poll. But in their pessimistic forecast they overlook an important fact.
They successfully pushed the issue of the draft to center stage in the last election, and made it a key campaigning issue. They created the unexpected scenario where the distribution of power meant that a coalition could be built that excluded Haredi parties, and legislation proposing a Haredi draft could actually pass the cabinet. This is further than any government has got on the issue in 65 years.
The government’s dragging out of the issue doesn’t mean it will get lost — but that it will probably dominate another election.
The parties in this government can’t go to the public ahead of the next election with just a general pro-draft position. Implementation time for the draft plan will be approaching, and the public will want guarantees that they will see through implementation. The draft issue is too electorally lucrative for them to abandon it — and to allow the parties to benefit from it the public will want a promise of further progress.
It is, indeed, rather cynical that the government is putting off implementing the draft until the next elections, but this doesn’t mean it is shelving the plan — but rather that its parties want to squeeze the electoral benefit out of it for a second election. If the pro-draft lobby keeps the pressure on, then the next election could all be about the implementation of the Haredi draft. True it will have taken two elections not one, but they may well yet succeed in forcing a government to take the challenge of implementation seriously.
Was the weekend rally in New York against Israel’s plans to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews boosted by a prominent rabbi’s forged endorsement?
According to a writer on the Hasidic Yiddish forum KaveShtiebel.com, a letter in support of the Satmar-led demonstration by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the foremost leaders of the Lithuanian Haredi sector, was forged.
The letter, which appeared to be a handwritten note by Kanievsky, was circulated Sunday morning by email and social media and posted to various websites. It reads: “It is an obligation upon all to heed the ruling of the Gedolei Yisroel to protest today against the draft decree.”
The KaveShtiebel writer, who goes by the name “Yeedel,” points to key idiosyncratic phrases in the letter that appear to be lifted from an earlier unrelated letter by the rabbi.
Before Sunday’s event, which was ultimately attended by up to 30,000 people from across the Haredi spectrum, were conflicting reports over Kanievsky’s endorsement, with various letters circulating in his name, some calling on his followers to increase Torah study instead of attending mass rallies. At stake here was whether the event would be seen as a mostly Satmar demonstration, or pull together a broad display of unified solidarity.
An article on the American Haredi website The Yeshiva World was quick to blame Satmar organizers. “The forged letter,” the article says, “speaks values of the organizers act to delude the purpose of the mass protest, especially the desecration of the name of a Godel HaDor, in attempt to deceive the general, non-affiliated and Yeshiva, public to attend the protest.”
According to the Yeshiva World article, Rabbi Kanievsky’s family confirmed that the letter was forged. It is unclear whether the identity of the forger has been identified. Kanievsky himself has apparently not commented on the dispute.
In an unusual show of unity, various streams of ultra-Orthodox Jews joined together June 9 in a massive rally in downtown Manhattan to protest the Israeli government’s recent efforts to draft yeshiva students into the military.
Even the dueling factions within the Satmar Hasidic movement put aside their differences to organize the protest, and the feuding brothers who claim to lead the Satmar, Aharon Teitelbaum and Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, both participated. Organizers said the rally drew 30,000 people, virtually all men, to Foley Square. Other reports put the number at 20,000. The New York City police did not offer their own estimate.
The organizers tried their best to hide any anti-Zionist sentiments and focus only on the anti-draft message during the two-hour rally. Speakers on the stage repeatedly asked the crowd to put away any signs with messages against the State of Israel, and there were at least three cases in which protesters physically took down anti-Zionist signs held up by other protestors.
Yaakov Shapiro, an appointed speaker for the Satmar community, said in an interview with the Forward that even though he himself is anti-Zionist, the goal of the protest was to prevent the universal draft and, in his words, save Israel’s yeshivas.
“The reason why we survived 2,000 years and more, is because of these yeshivas,” said Shapiro. “Nothing else maintains the continuity of the Jewish people. Nothing else maintains our survival. Without the yeshivas we are extinct as a people, and that’s what they are trying to do.”
But the anti-Zionist undercurrent bothered some of the protestors. An Orthodox man from the Syrian-Jewish community in Brooklyn, who requested that his name not be published, said he came to the rally because he agreed with the general message, but he felt very uncomfortable with the anti-Zionist signs he saw.
Are the days numbered for second-class citizenship for women in Israel?
Following two announcements in two days, it seems the exclusion of women from Israel’s public sphere may finally be nearing an end. The Attorney General Wednesday recommended criminalizing behavior that stops women from receiving “public services with equal conditions.” And today, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said that she is starting work on the legislation.
Israeli politicians should write Haredim who demand segregated buses a letter of thanks. They have provided them with the ultimate fits-every-occasion always-grabs-a-headline cause for whenever they need a bit of love from liberals or for when news is quiet. Women’s exclusion was never a popular story until it became about the ever catchy “back of the bus” and there is a seemingly endless supply of political points for anyone who condemns them.
But in the past we have seen the issue of gender exclusion disappear from the headlines as suddenly as they appeared. At the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 gender segregation and women’s exclusion topped Israel’s national agenda. “They will be huge issues in the next general election,” went the common prediction. Yet soon after the international community finished its New Year vacation and news picked up again, it became yesterday’s story.
Now, once again, the “back of the bus” story has been wheeled out. The changes being promised are important and welcome. The subject is better for the government than having people talking about Syria or Prisoner X.
But will it survive the next big new story or will it just fade away? Only time will tell.
The rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz isn’t opposed to the plan for an egalitarian prayer section there, he announced in a statement emailed to reporters yesterday. But it’s already clear that he doesn’t speak for the Haredi mainstream.
Rabinowitz is Haredi, but softer on religious issues than most Haredi leaders. This is partly because he’s a state employee and realizes that there are limits to his autonomy, and partly because his family background is more moderate than many — for example he served in the army.
“The Kotel isn’t ours to give away,” rages the editorial of the Jerusalem-based Hasidic-establishment newspaper Hamodia today, using the Hebrew name for the Western Wall. “The place of the Temple was chosen by God and the Shechinah [divine presence] has never departed from the Kotel.”
Hamodia went on to argue that the Women of the Wall fight is a proxy battle by American Reform which is trying to compensate for its failure to make inroads in to the Israeli religious scene. “The Reform Movement in the United States is using the Women of the Wall to bully the government in to giving it recognition that the people have withheld,” it claimed.
Hamodia argues that while much of the world sees the fight of Women of the Wall as a human rights issue “nothing could be further from the truth.” It insists that Women of the Wall are actually infringing the rights of other female worshippers at the Wall with their controversial monthly prayer meetings there, such as today’s gathering which resulted in two female worshippers being detained by police..
“Indeed, if anyone’s rights are being trampled, it is those of the regulars at the Kotel, the women who come — every day not just Rosh Chodesh [the start of the month] — to daven [pray], not to create provocation. These women are denied a place of quiet, holiness and dignity, where they have been coming for decades to pour out their hearts, by a group of lawbreakers that seeks to advance a political agenda.”
Hamodia portrays the Reform movement as hypocritical, writing: “How ironic that the same Reform movement that hails Israel’s Supreme Court when it rules that the Tal Law on drafting yeshivah students is unconstitutional, or that Haredi schools must teach the core curriculum, has no trouble ignoring what it when it bars the Women of the Wall from holding services at the Kotel.”
Jews are image conscious. A quick Google search of “embarrassed to be Jewish” will turn up two main hits—Jews ashamed of the state of Israel, and Jews ashamed of the behavior of certain “Hareidim” — tremblers, the Hebrew term for the ultra-Orthodox — in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh. I should amend that statement: this Google search will turn up results for Jews with access to the media who have image consciousness about these two issues. As we all know, these are not the only kind of Jews. But let me first address these.
Jews on the left, politically and religiously, are often embarrassed by Israel’s behavior, especially when it fails to conform to a secular path. In 2011, Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the New York Jewish Week, enumerated the Gaza flotilla debacle, the chief Rabbanite, and its crackdown on non-governmental organizations as examples of “When Israel Becomes a Source of Embarrassment.”
Left-leaning Jews imagine that the outside world lumps them together with the values they see portrayed by the occupation, or perhaps by Israeli police brutality. Under the imagined gaze of the secular and gentile world, these Jews imagine that their own image will be tarnished by osmosis, by a proximity of blood, however diluted, to their Israeli brethren, especially those wielding guns or sitting in the Knesset. The burden of the imagined gaze of non-Jews rests heavily upon them.
But image-consciousness is not the sole property of Jews on the left. It is part of the tradition, any rabbi will tell you. Already in the Talmud, the term chillul hashem — profaning God’s name — begins to refer less to a verbal utterance and more to a public display, for example, “If I take meat from the butcher and do not pay him at once, Rav said” (Yoma, 86a).
The Jewish Press set off a firestorm last week when it published An Open Letter to Sarah Silverman by Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt. The Orthodox author criticized the comedian’s politics, vulgar presentation style, and the fact that she remains childless. As a linguist, what I found most interesting about this article was the language. By looking closely at the Hebrew and Yiddish words used by the author and commenters, we can learn a lot about Orthodox Jews in America.
In my research, I have found that Orthodox Jews use many Hebrew and Yiddish words when speaking to other Orthodox Jews, but they avoid or translate those words in their speech to outsiders. In the letter to Sarah Silverman, Rosenblatt uses only one, a word most Americans know: kosher. He talks about God, not Hashem, and Orthodox rather than frum.
Many articles in the Jewish Press use more distinctive language. For example, Mordechai Bienstock writes: “We can be truly ourselves in all of our pursuits, expressing the wonderful individualistic neshamahs [souls] Hashem [God] has granted us through the application of our special natures in the physical world, what the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples discovered as the basis for avodah b’gashmiyut [serving God through the physical world].”
Even Rosenblatt uses Hebrew and Yiddish words in his other articles in the Jewish Press, for example, in an article about internet filters: “Our frum [religious] community”, “Kiddush Hashem” (sanctifying God’s name), and “Halacha Chabura” (study group about Jewish law).
The monochromatic ocean of Haredim at the funeral of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv last month concealed a deeper undercurrent of dissent. Elyashiv, the acknowledged leader of the Ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian community, had roped together two competing factions among a group usually seen as monolithic. There are the conservatives, led by Shmuel Auerbach of Jerusalem, as well as a more liberal faction led by Aharon Leib Shteinman of Bnei Brak, with the support of Elyashiv’s son in law, Chaim Kanievsky.
Now, the animosity and infighting between the two groups has spilled into the public sphere with anonymous pamphlets now being published and a level of hostility not often seen in the Haredi world. While the past few days have seen attempts by both sides to walk back the animosity and impose some kind of truce, the very open rift exposed in the pamphlets could prove difficult to paper over.
In the months before Elyashiv’s death, control of the main Lithuanian Haredi newspaper, Yated Ne’eman, was wrested from the Auerbach faction by a group loyal to Shteinman. As Elyashiv slipped in and out of consciousness, his son in law, Kanievsky, threw his support behind Shteinman’s takeover. At first glance, Shteinman may seem like an unlikely moderate. He was put on the Council of Torah Sages of the separatist Degel party by its founder, Elazar Menachem Shach. But in the Haredi world of today, Shteinman represents a slightly more moderate approach.
The pashkevil, or anonymous pamphlet, republished on the Haredi blog hirsheltzig.com, begins by assuring us that it doesn’t mean to impugn Shteinman’s “Torah, fear of heaven, or that his actions are all for the sake of heaven,” before going on to impugn just that.
Today was supposed to be the start of what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his “historic change” for Israel. But in reality, everything stayed the same.
At midnight, the law that exempted Haredi men from national service expired. Which means that over the coming weeks, legally speaking at least, Haredi 18-year-olds are liable to be drafted just like all other Jewish 18-year-olds.
Not only that, but all Haredi men who deferred service in previous years and who are still reliant on the Tal Law for their exemption — some 54,000 — are also liable for the draft.
This situation has arisen because government attempts to institute a new law have failed due to disagreements on its details inside the government. The process seemed to be going well a few weeks ago, after Kadima, the largest Knesset party, joined the coalition promising to find a creative solution with the ruling Likud party. But it then objected to Likud’s plans and walked out of the ruling coalition on July 17, just 70 days after agreeing to join, and with another coalition party, Yisrael Beiteinu, also sparring with Likud on the subject, the legislative process hit a dead end.
The government’s hope was that a new law in place by today would outline a plan for a gradual Haredi draft, with certain concessions to make it palatable to Haredim like an older draft age and exemptions for some talented yeshiva students. When it comes to the Haredi draft “we must enact it gradually and in a way that does not lead to a rift in the nation,” Netanyahu said.
The ongoing protests against the exclusion of women from the public sphere by some Haredim, and counter-protests by Haredi activists who say they are maligned by critics, have everyone in Israel talking. The subject was quite provocative enough.
And then came the Holocaust reference to make it even more so. On New Year’s Eve night, 1,500 Haredim protested in Jerusalem against what they termed “incitement” of secular Israelis against them. Some of them also donned mock outfits from Nazi death camps and yellow stars.
The Jerusalem Post publishes a picture of some protestors kitted out in stars.
It quotes one of the protesters saying: “What’s happening is exactly like what happened in Germany.” He elaborated: “It started with incitement and continued to different types of oppression. Is it insulting that we wear these stars? Absolutely, and it hurts people to see this, but this is how we feel at the moment, we feel we are being prevented from observing the Torah in the manner in which we wish.”
The Republican upset victory in the Brooklyn-Queens special election to replace ex-Rep. Anthony Weiner is obviously bad news for Democrats. But it has more far-reaching ramifications, most of them bad, according to this take by Haaretz’s new New York bureau chief, former CNN commentator and onetime Forward Jerusalem correspondent Chemi Shalev.
Shalev thinks there are plenty of reasons for Democrat David Weprin’s loss, including anger at Obama over the miserable economy and especially the influence of social issues among the district’s many conservative Catholics and Orthodox Jews. But Republicans are certain to package it big time the way former mayor Ed Koch pitched it, as a “message” to President Obama about his policies toward Israel. (Here’s what the Republican Jewish Coalition is saying the morning after.) And that could cause a heap of very real collateral trouble, Shalev says.
For one thing, there’s going to be a negative impact on Jews and pro-Israel advocacy within the larger American body politic.
Emboldened by their astonishing achievement in a district held by the rival Democrats throughout the past 88 years, the Republicans are bound to try and exploit their newly-found “wedge issue” in order to pry the proverbial “Jewish vote” away from its historic Democratic tilt. In the process, many Jewish leaders fear, the Republicans may irreparably erode the bedrock of bipartisanship that has characterized U.S. support for Israel for many decades. And by appealing to the Jews to “vote Israel” at the expense of all other considerations, they maintain, the Republicans may also be lending credence, albeit inadvertently, to the age-old canard of “dual loyalty” leveled at American Jews by their detractors.
Beyond that, it’s likely to increase tensions in the Middle East. Here’s where Shalev, for years one of Israel’s most respected diplomatic writers, gets most subtle and alarming: