An Orthodox man looks at the scene of the fire in Midwood, Brooklyn / Getty Images
You never want Shabbat to end on a tragic note. Yet among the the rush of messages that blipped across my phone when I turned it on Saturday night was news of the death of seven children in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood. A malfunctioning hotplate left on for Shabbat, it seems, somehow sparked a fire. According to the New York Times, it was the worst fire in the city since 2007.
When faced with such momentous tragedy, the emotional impact so fresh and raw, the responses vary. Some cry, some remain silent, others choose to act. What is clear though, is that tragedy must serve as an impetus to bring more good into this world, to create positive action and light in the face of the void.
That’s why, despite the general outpouring of grief, it has been so startling and cruel to witness an insidious undercurrent in some responses.
In a post published here in the Forward, J.J. Goldberg penned a particularly cynical piece. The fire, he wrote, was “at least the fourth deadly blaze in the borough resulting from Sabbath and holiday observance in the past 15 years.” Bolstered by a sensationalist headline boasting a “deadly plague of Sabbath fire,” his reasoning seemed crystal clear: Look at the observance of the so-called “ultra-Orthodox”! Look how they needlessly endanger their own lives and the lives of others!
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis gather to condemn the internet in 2012 / Josh Nathan-Kazis
A Forward tipster texted us this morning to report an odd spam message he’d received on his phone. Sent from a Spanish phone number, the spam read: “Check out WhatsApp Messenger for your smartphone. Hasidic friendly! Download it today…”
Last year, I reported that the ultra-Orthodox had gone wild over WhatsApp, a messaging app purchased by Facebook for $19 billlion.
“I’m sick and tired of it a little bit,” Lipa Schmeltzer, the Hasidic pop music star, told me at the time. “It’s not an easy task, to keep up with all these messages.”
Now, it seems like WhatsApp itself is catching up to its ultra-Orthodox appeal. The company does not list a press contact on its website, and the Forward has not yet been able to confirm that the ad was actually sent by WhatsApp itself. The download link, however, is genuine.
The ad is phrased oddly, which perhaps should not be surprising for a spam text message. The “Hasidic friendly!” boast uses the adjective “Hasidic” as a noun, suggesting limited familiarity with the term’s usage.
WhatsApp’s appeal for the ultra-Orthodox lay in how it allowed users to get around communal bans on unfettered internet. The service’s group text functions are used as a sort of closed social network by Hasidic Jews.
As early as January 2014, however, rabbis were cracking down on the service. A Satmar newspaper in Brooklyn ran a headline that month warning: “The rabbis overseeing divorces say WhatsApp is the No. 1 cause of destruction of Jewish homes and business.”
The next month, a filtering service affiliated with Satmar blocked photo and video sent through WhatsApp.
Galen and Hippocrates depicted in a 12th century mural/ Wikimedia Commons.
The tradition of metzitzah b’peh goes back to biblical times but has created a modern-day dilemma for religiously observant Jews.
New York City officials linked the practice to 17 cases of infant herpes since 2000, of whom two died. In the latest development, the city will stop requiring mohels who use oral suction to have parents sign consent forms, which many hadn’t complied with anyway. Instead the city will focus its efforts on educating members of the ultra-Orthodox community about the risks and dangers of the practice.
But why do some Jews practice oral suction circumcision, or metzitzah b’peh, and where does the rite come from?
Though to a small number of observant communities, the practice is routine and normal, to cosmopolitan sophisticates it may seem pretty gruesome. After the mohel cuts off the foreskin, he uses his mouth – oral suction, rather than say a sponge - to effectively clear the wound on the baby’s penis of blood, lest it clot and decay.
As for where it arose, metzitzah b’peh is a time-honored tradition codified in the most important Jewish scripts, much like circumcision itself.
When I was in high school, I stopped wearing my kippah.
I felt myself drifting away from the ultra-Orthodox community of my childhood and the Modern Orthodoxy my parents tried to model for me at home. I stopped wearing my kippah because I wanted to disaffiliate from the Orthodox Jews that filled New York City — I wanted to be anonymous. Faced with the sudden realization that I didn’t want to be Orthodox, I made the decision to ensure that, unless I was in school or with my family, I would try and pass as not Jewish — or, at the very least, as not Orthodox. I did not want to be associated with the people who made fun of my cousins at my bar mitzvah for not wearing kippot, who made fun of me for attending a coeducational high school, or who looked down upon other Jews as lesser.
Thus began my first experience with the Non-Orthodox Inferiority Complex: the connection that I, and so many other Jews, make between traditional observance and the negatives in Orthodoxy. For many non-Orthodox Jews, to be observant is to be Orthodox, so observance also carries with it the negative associations that people have with Orthodoxy.
Illustration by Lior Zaltzman
“Short clothing = shortened life.”
That’s a message currently winding its way through Jerusalem’s streets, thanks to a new ultra-Orthodox modesty campaign.
The ad, plastered across 20 Egged buses, has been sparking social media protests among secular Israelis who resent being told how to dress. They’re saying that it’s hypocritical of the bus company to agree to run such an ad, while often refusing to run ads by liberal groups that include photos or drawings of women.
But the Haredi advertiser claims there’s nothing for secular Israelis to be upset about. After all, the goal of the ad is “the transcendence of the soul of the Har Nof righteous” — the Orthodox Jews murdered at a Jerusalem synagogue back in November.
What do short hemlines have to do with a terror attack, you might ask? Well, here’s the advertiser’s logic:
“It’s clear that those who were murdered did not receive a punishment they deserved. They were righteous people. They woke up to pray at 6 am. They are public victims, and it happened to them because of us, because of our acts.”
In other words, terror attacks happen because Israeli women flounce around in racy dresses. Sure. Okay. Clearly.
The Jerusalem bus ad reads: Short clothing = shortened life
Reading the article was wrenching.
It was a first-person offering, on the website Kveller, by the non-Orthodox mother of a young woman who had adopted Jewish observance and in the process (at least in her mother’s telling) had jettisoned all respect for — apparently, all feeling for — her parents.
The mother described how her daughter had been all but kidnapped and brainwashed by a “fundamentalist ultra-Orthodox sect,” and that she only begrudgingly allowed her parents to attend her wedding. Her daughter’s Judaism, the writer contends, was “deeply intolerant,” demanding not only that the younger woman “follow an infinite number of rules, but also disassociate from all who were different. Even from her own parents.”
Those parents, in the mother’s testimony, bent over backward to accommodate their daughter’s new life. They bought her special kitchenware and offered her an oven and dishwasher to facilitate her observance of kashrut. They drove her to the homes of others for Shabbat and even, the mother writes, made donations to their daughter’s rabbi. “We even invited him to our home to hold weekly classes for us and a group of our friends,” she recounts. Although the mother was “not always pleased” with her daughter’s path, “We wanted to learn about what had so inspired” her. Still, her daughter acted, the mother asserts, in obnoxious ways toward her parents.
“What kind of people,” the mother wondered, “teach that in order to have a meaningful life, you must shun those who love you most?” After some research, she discovered that the “fundamentalist” group was part of an “enterprise, known as kiruv, or ‘bringing close’.”
Kiruv, of course, is a multifaceted effort to, yes, bring Jews closer to their religious heritage. But it is educational and nurturing, not malevolent and destructive. No kiruv group teaches any newly observant Jew to reject his or her family, and no responsible “kiruv professional” would ever gratuitously counsel a Jew to shun his or her family.
A health worker administers a polio vaccination to a child / Getty Images
If you had to guess which neighborhood — Boro Park or Beverly Hills — the following quote applies to, which would you pick?
Parents in these schools are submitting a form called a “personal belief exemption,” which states that they are not vaccinating their kids due to “a diffuse constellation of unproven anxieties, from allergies and asthma to eczema and seizures.”
If the “personal belief” language has you thinking Boro Park, the Brooklyn neighborhood known for its large ultra-Orthodox population — sorry, but you’re wrong.
The quote is actually taken from yesterday’s article in The Atlantic describing the rise of the anti-vaccination movement in wealthy Los Angeles schools. Believe it or not, the vaccination rate there is as low as in South Sudan. That’s thanks to Hollywood actors who — in between “forbidding processed food and dragging their offspring to baby yoga” — explain that they’re against any medications that aren’t strictly “natural” and that not vaccinating makes “instinctive” sense to them.
But don’t worry: You could easily be forgiven for thinking the above quote applies to an ultra-Orthodox community — because the anti-vaxxer argument there runs along very similar lines.
The Jewish Press’ advertisement for JONAH International, an organization dedicated to gay “conversion” therapy, sparked outrage on social media today.
The ad, featured on the site’s homepage, prominently displays the organization’s navy and white logo in the foreground, with their tagline mission statement — “Institute for Gender Affirmation: Overcoming Homosexuality” — and organizational website just below it.
Tovah Silbermann, a New York City resident who identifies herself as “a loyal reader,” was outraged by the ad. “This organization has caused so much pain and suffering,” she tweeted.
Sarah Gross, a young Jewish professional, took the campaign to Facebook. Using strong language, she shared a CNN article from 2012 that outlined the lawsuit in which gay men sued JONAH counselors who promised to make them straight. “It’s offensive,” she writes of the organization, and “I will officially not be reading articles on TheJewishPress.com after seeing an ad for JONAH [on their site].”
Both medical professionals and rabbinic personalities across the spectrum have denounced JONAH’s work.
Ultra-Orthodox girls lean out of a classroom window / Getty Images
“What do you mean he abused her?” The question was shrill and innocuous.
The teacher, Mrs. Stern, looked incredibly uncomfortable. But hey, she had brought it up. “He got into the bed with her, and he abused her.” Mrs. Stern shrugged her shoulders at the ambiguity of it all, as if it was impossible to know what the passage was really saying. “Now let’s move on.”
I rolled my eyes from the back of the room. Seventh-grade Prophets class at Bais Yaakov, my school for Orthodox Jewish girls. We were studying Samuel II, wherein King David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar, who is then violently avenged by her brother Absalom. But Mrs. Stern didn’t use the word “rape,” because sex itself was never acknowledged, much less discussed. I don’t know that many of my classmates would have even known what “rape” meant at the tender age of 12. These girls would eventually learn the facts of life from their mothers or rabbis’ wives in the weeks before they got married, soon after which they would be mothers themselves.
This is a weird account with which to begin this essay, I know, but it gives you a sense of the curricular world in which I experienced puberty — one in which sex and sexuality did not exist.
When I was about five years old, my parents got religion. We stopped driving on Friday nights and Saturdays and started keeping kosher. When I was six, we moved to another state and I started second grade at the local Modern Orthodox Jewish day school, which turned out to be a pit of evil little children who bullied me for my buck teeth and awkwardness. It got pretty bad and the administration refused to do anything about it, so my parents took me out of that hellhole and put me in Bais Yaakov.
American Apparel’s idea of an Orthodox man
What is “Orthodox”? Is it “Haredi”? Is it “Modern”? Is it “Ultra”? Is it “Yeshivish”?
These days, the Orthodox world is a confusing place.
Fifty years ago, Orthodox Jews (who had been known at the turn of the 20th century as “Traditionalist”) talked about three flavors of Orthodoxy: (1) the Modern Orthodox; (2) the “Yeshiva Welt,” the arena of sectarian or “Haredi” yeshivas — Torah Vo-Da’as, Mir, Telze, Chaim Berlin, Lakewood and many others; and (3) Chasidim. Period.
In 2014, none of these categories works the way they did in 1954 or 1964 — or even 1994.
In my new taxonomy, there are six categories: Modern Orthodox; Centrist Orthodox; the Yeshiva arena (“yeshivish”); Chasidim; Chabad; and Satmar. These last two, whatever else they may be, are not Chasidim.
An Israeli lesbian dressed up as an ultra-Orthodox Jew at the annual Gay Pride event / Getty Images
What do you do if you’re ultra-Orthodox and gay? You almost certainly hide.
On Thursday, Israeli daily Yediot reported new figures released by religious-gay support group Hod indicating that “two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox homosexuals [in Israel] have chosen to marry women despite their sexual inclination”; almost all of the more than 1,100 men included in Hod’s report admitted to having sex with other men at least once a month.
According to Hod founder Ron Yosef, an Orthodox rabbi and gay activist:
The situation of homosexuals in the Haredi society is much more difficult because of the social isolation they live in. A gay Haredi man cannot share his situation with his friends in the community or the yeshiva, his family members or rabbis, and “coming out of the closet” is definitely inconceivable.
It should be noted that Hod’s statistics are based on information received from gay ultra-Orthodox men who turned to the organization for help — which is to say: They reflect a self-selecting population, men who have heard of the group and reached a level of stress, or degree of openness, that would allow them to reach out. It’s hard to know how much the two-thirds figure actually tells us about the lived reality of gay Haredi men, but then, that’s a community about which it would be particularly hard to produce solid polling results.
An ultra-Orthodox bride at her Jerusalem wedding in 2014. / Getty Images
This past Sunday, I spoke about sexuality and modesty in front of a group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Both professionally and personally, it was a profound moment for me, a formerly ultra-Orthodox woman, to sit there and name experiences that the ultra-Orthodox community hasn’t wanted to hear. To say aloud: I was raped, to say aloud: modesty can breed vulnerability to sexual assault, to say aloud: all girls deserve sex education. And to have these rabbis — some of whom were surprisingly open to these ideas — carefully listen to me articulate these silenced realities.
At this event, five former ultra-Orthodox Jews met with four ultra-Orthodox rabbis and one Orthodox woman in an optimistic but perhaps quixotic attempt to build bridges of communication between these two communities.
Tensions have risen between the two, as former ultra-Orthodox Jews have grown to be a bold voice for justice around issues of sex abuse, negligence in education, forced marriages, oppression of personal choice, removal of children from deviating parents and abusive treatment of deviating teens, in their communities of origin.
Former ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t speak with a unified voice, but our diverse perspectives are perceptive and essential — and troubling for the ultra-Orthodox world, which has often viewed them as an affront to their way of life. There is little constructive conversation between the two groups, for a number of reasons, including — as I, a former ultra-Orthodox Jew, have experienced — a tendency for the ultra-Orthodox community to attack the veracity and mental health of any former ultra-Orthodox Jew who publicly tells their story.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest plans to enlist them in the Israeli army / Getty Images
When it comes to off-the-cuff remarks, we all know that stuff happens. Jokes are made that blur the boundaries of decency, people get offended, and apologies are (sometimes) made. And when it comes to broadcast media dependent on audience share, the situation is even starker: shock talk can be seen as a ratings booster. But looking at the broader context around last week’s Israeli Army Radio gaffe, there’s something’s rotten in the state of Israeli discourse.
Not far off from Yom Haatzmaut, an Israeli comedian riffed on controlling Israeli population through cannibalism. There was a catch, though, he said. The population he’d like to cull first is the ultra-Orthodox, but he didn’t think Haredim would taste good (“too bland”). Knee-slap banter about flavor and matzo balls ensued, and the station eventually issued an apology.
As a rip-off of Jonathan Swift, the joke was already suspect in quality. But the reason that Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is funny whereas the Army Radio bit was decidedly not, is, of course, irony. Swift was mocking shameful societal attitudes — in that case, as reflected in policies towards the poor. The Army Radio segment, on the other hand, sadly serves to prop up the very attitudes that Israelis should be addressing head on.
Hatred of the Haredim in Israel is pervasively and casually disseminated. Consider Ari Shavit’s widely lauded book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, where he mentions the various populations comprising Jerusalem’s schoolchildren. There, he decries the fact that not enough are nice, secular Jewish kids. Too many Jerusalem pupils, in his opinion, are either ultra-Orthodox or Arab.
Ultra-Orthodox Israelis stand for the Yom Hazikaron siren / Vimeo
Israeli unity made a big leap forward today, on the national memorial day for fallen soldiers.
Normally, Yom Hazikaron, one of the most emotionally-charged days in the calendar, gives rise to anger from the general population towards the ultra-Orthodox community, which is considered disrespectful toward the day.
A siren sounds nationally twice on memorial day, and activities grind to a halt. However, each year Haredim are spotted and caught on camera ignoring the siren, believing that as their community doesn’t serve in the army they don’t need to observe it.
Normally, the media is dominated today by images of Haredim disrespecting the siren. But not this year. The national Haredi newspaper Hamodia, which has a panel of influential rabbis determining policy, ran an editorial urging readers to observe the siren. The piece (not available online) urged Haredim to “honor and perpetuate” the memory of the fallen.
It addressed the perennial comeback: Yes to commemoration, but observing a siren is a “gentile way” and therefore against Jewish law. Hamodia didn’t buy in to this argument, but did say that those who do should stay at home while ignoring it, so they don’t cause offense to others.
And so Yom Hazikaron was a less divisive day this year than normal. The images that made the rounds weren’t the usual ones of Haredim ignoring the siren, but rather images like the one above, of them respecting it.
Most of the Jewish and general world is fuming over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Crimea. But some ultra-Orthodox Jews are positively delighted by it.
This week, Grand Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch, the vice president of Israel’s Rabbinical Court and a descendant of the revered rabbi known as the Vilna Gaon (aka “Genius of Vilnius”), announced to his disciples that Putin’s actions are a sure sign that the Messiah is on his way.
Apparently, Shternbuch heard this secret prediction from Rabbi Yitzchak Chever, who heard it from Rabbi Chaim of Volozhyn, who heard it from the Vilna Gaon himself, who said shortly before his death:
When you hear that the Russians have captured the city of Crimea, you should know that the times of the Messiah have started, that his steps are being heard. And when you hear that the Russians have reached the city of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), you should put on your Shabbat clothes and don’t take them off, because it means that the Messiah is about to come any minute.
Shternbuch’s pronouncement, which was reported this weekend in the ultra-Orthodox press in Israel, has some Haredi Jews working themselves into a messianic frenzy. A few, like this rabbi, are even going so far as to say that “we owe a note of thanks” to Putin for hastening the coming of the Messiah.
In a rerun of a scandal-ridden poll in the fall, Beit Shemesh has reelected its ultra-Orthodox mayor. Rarely has a political campaign pitted Haredim and others against each other to the extent seen in this Israeli city.
The original election in October was fought as a battle between two rival visions for the city. Beit Shemesh has become heavily Haredi, and the Haredi agenda is manifest across the public domain. When I visited for this article in January, I even witnessed signs by religious institutions asking women to cross over to the sidewalk on the other side of the street to avoid disturbing men. Individuals put them up, but the municipality had failed to take them down.
Moshe Abutbul of the Haredi Shas party won the election then, but the poll was marred by illegal activity, violence and even voter fraud, and the court ordered a rerun. The rerun this week resulted in another Abutbul victory.
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?
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.
Aerial photo of York University, Toronto, in 2010. / City of Toronto
The ongoing dilemma of accommodating religious beliefs in a liberal and multicultural society is again glaringly apparent. News reports reveal that at York University, a large, publicly-funded post-secondary institution in Toronto, a student in a sociology course requested that he be exempt from required group work. His religion forbids him from “mingling with women,” he explained.
Over the ensuing days, the dean granted the request, the professor flouted the decision (insisting that doing otherwise would make him an “accessory to sexism”), the student complied with the professor’s ruling, and the dean’s decision has since been pilloried by politicians and public commentators. In a rare show of solidarity and non-partisanship, representatives of all three of Canada’s major political parties expressed dismay over the student’s request and the university’s decision to grant it, citing Canadian values of gender equality.
The media has not disclosed the student’s name or his religion. But as an observer and analyst of Jewish affairs both in North America and in Israel, I can’t help but reflect on current challenges in the ultra-Orthodox community in North America and especially in Israel. In that light, it soon becomes apparent that amid the debates over this particular Canadian case, at least one important point is being omitted.