Rabbi Avi Shafran: Jewish Multiple Personality Disorder

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editorial34.jpgThe 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 Shabbos.

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 Shabbos 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 Shabbos 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 Shabbos?  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 Yiddishkeit.  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.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

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


23 COMMENTS

  1. I really enjoyed the point of this letter, however please try not to show how high your vocabulary is, its just extremely annoying, and causes many uneducated frum pepole to just not bother reading this letter (or any of your other letters)

  2. Maybe if we stopped labeling Jews (an idealistic suggestion of course), and realize that we can have a positive impact by lighting the spark within them, then great things will happen in our time. R’ Tauber explains how if we would just get rid of the labels then EMES will prevail.
    In truth there is no such thing as labeling—it all comes down to how passionate a Yid is about personal observance….If we can come to terms with that, then we will feel the achrayus of inspiring other yidden to get in touch with their neshamos, and want to reconnect with their roots. What an opportunity, what a chesed that is…and it gives HKB”H tremendous nachas…

  3. i remeber the tenafly eruv lawsuit, where the mayor of tenafly said at a city council hearing “we dont want THOSE jews coming here”. the mayors name: moskowitz!

  4. RebElimelech,

    The Amish ride in cars on a regular basis (they just don’t drive them), so it’s concievable that they would fly in a plan. (And yes, I’m talking Amish, not Mennonite, and yes, I know this from first-hand experience.)

  5. In a world where goyim pride themselves on driving their cars to their places of worship on sundays (when selling used cars) I don’t see why places of business shouldn’t be open to all on sundays recognizing the convenience of weekend shopping.

    Has this matter ever come up that communities that espouse tolerance of all religious rites and rights want to ensure stores and services available on weekends tend to do so putting Jewish needs lower?

    If only 1 Jewish-owned hardware store is Shomer Shabbos is that a Kiddush Hashem or a Chilul Hashem?

    Does it matter whether Frum Jews in the customer market of the store are a minority or a majority?

  6. Great article, and so true. must_hock, must Rabbi Shafran change his writing style because of his nice word usage? He generally writes with a nice vocabulary, but I think your thinking is wrong. I think that most Frum people do understand his writings, and especially this article is definitely not one of the complicated ones.

  7. Personally, it annoys me when I see stores closed on Sunday, and there are counties that hav laws that require this closure on Sundays; but I respect the Christians who get to better observe their day of worship by not having to run to open their stores.

    Similarly (lihavdil, though), that a Jew chooses to close his shop on Shabbos in commendable no matter where on the political spectrum you may be, and to argue otherwise shows a likely inherent bias. But to force others to close to maintain the character that you want in the neighborhood, is a legitimate gripe that would be newsworthy and is not necessarily a matter of bias.

  8. “I really enjoyed the point of this letter, however please try not to show how high your vocabulary is, its just extremely annoying, and causes many uneducated frum pepole to just not bother reading this letter (or any of your other letters)”

    Now, I may be going off topic here, but I paid more attention to this post than to the actual letter. Is there a problem with speaking English the way it was meant to be spoken? I don’t think that Rabbi Shafran sat down and decided he’d write a letter that would include “fancy” words. He’s obviously educated and pple who have a good vocabulary should not hesitate to use it. To some of us it comes naturally. wow, big chiddush. Not every sentence has to include “Yeshivisha Rayd”. I think it’s very sad that frum pple are uneducated and there’s ABSOLUTELY no excuse for that. We have colleges now, i.e., Touro, that are 100% “kosher”. Are you proud that you’re Jewish AND frum AND uneducated? I, for one, enjoy conversing with people who sound intelligent and I don’t believe that makes me any less frum.

  9. While the attitudes Rabbi Shafran is describing certaily still exist I think the knee-jerk need to react to them with self-righteous sarcasm is becoming a bit of a tired routine.

    These types of attitudes among the non-observant while definitely still around, are becmoning more and more a part of the past.

    It is mostly the “over 65” non-observant that say these kinds of things. They are the ones old enough to remember parents or grandparents who perhaps looked disturbingly similar to the newly arrived orthodox they are disparaging and, yes, there is little doubt that their feelings are motivated at least in part by a measure of guilt or self-doubt.

    By and large however, the current generation of non-observant who are say between 20 and 55 (the kind of people with whom I’ve been interacting at work for the last 20 years) are for the most part very accepting of their orthodox contempotraries. They are too yong to have the baggage their parents and grandparents cary around and, at least in my experience, are delighted to count me among their friends and learn a little bit more about their heritage in the process.

    In fact I often reflect on the irony of how throughout my yeshivah years we were constantly given the standard warnings about the dangers of the outside world that we would face when going out to work. In reality the many relationships I have developed with my non-observant colleagues have been mutually enriching, have provided several opportunities to allow non-observant co-workers to attend minyanim and say kaddish, in at least one instance led to one such person becomeing a ba’al tshuvah, and in another played a major role in keeping one such fellow’s dating habits restrictied to Jewish girls..

    Yes the steriotypical 75-year-old Jew who doesn’t want the orthodox in his back yard is unfortunately still out there. Let’s focus on being sensitive to the depression-era mentality that may have first led his father to be mechalel shabbos. Let’s try to be dan l’kaf zchus (although not to the point of stupidity) and then let’s move on and welcome his grandchildren to our homes, succos, and shuls.

  10. Since when have Jews been so illiterate that only the language in Hamodia is understandable to them? If frum people cannot understand Rabbi Safran’s writing is that not something to be concerned about? It does not say much for the secular education that our children are getting in our Yeshivas. Maybe we should adjust our priorities so that the next generation will not only be able to understand Rabbi Safran but will also be able to read the Wall Street Journal.

  11. BYgirl: I think it would be l’toles harabim if he would use simpler terminology so everyone can understand exactly what he is saying.
    P.S. i did graduate college, and I STILL feel that the letter was over complicated by the choice of his words.

  12. tvt, nice post.

    re: godol et al. I don’t think the language level of R’ Shafran’s letter is above that taught in Yeshivas nor is the typical yeshiva kid deficient in proper English skills (IF he cared to learn and especially if he went to college afterward). The poster made a personal request to tone down the language to make it easier to understand, and he is speaking for himself, and has the right to request that.

    Personally, I think that Jews and Jewish publications have, in the last number of years, made great strides toward bringing their publications on par with, if not yet exceeding, the language level of a typical secular paper. That’s pretty commendable for journalists who were dual-curriculum students who’re involved in the Olam HaTorah and not yoshvei kiranos like the outside world.

  13. #1 must_hock :

    absolutely pathetic.

    #12, #14 :

    right on!

    I’m amazed people aren’t embarrased to publicly proclaim that they couldn’t understand the language in this article. I’m embarrased others aren’t as amazed. It’s called the dumbing down of society. enough said.

  14. I did graduate college, but only took one English class there (I majored in a technical subject); but I would’ve understood all of those words while in high school. I’d like to ask those who found the language difficult to note which words were hard to understand (I’m guessing “visceral”, “discomfited”, or “piqued”, but I don’t know).

    While some may argue that Rabbi Shafran should use simpler language so he can be understood by the YW audience, or a segment thereof, he may prefer to write at a high school level so he will respected by his intended audience, which probably includes the readers of the NYT article he quotes. Certainly if his intended audience were YW readers, he wouldn’t have used that old chestnut of a story about the Amish/ Jewish passenger; most of us have heard it multiple times already.

  15. must-hock, After re-reading this article, I still fail to find your alleged usage of high language. If you want to read a piece requiring usage of a dictionary, read some of William F. Buckley’s writings.

    Which college allowed you to graduate? 🙂

    P.S. Rabbi Shafran is on the ball.

  16. re: #1 and all responses:

    The definitive word on this debate still belongs to Rabbi Emmanuel Feldman in his Tradition editorial “Tefillin in a Brown Paper Bag.” A must read!

  17. It’s so nice to see a well written article. Ignore the empty comments of people who chose to ignore their basic education (I don’t know where they went to school, because I went to a Bais Yaakov all my life, and it more then prepared me for college level writing- so it has nothing to do with how frum you are…) This article is clear from thesis to conclusion, you should continue to make a career out of it….

  18. I was once told by my friend’s father, a Holocaust survivor, that the Polish residents of Oswiecim (in Yiddish it’s Oshpitzin – and in the rest of the world it’s known better by the name of the “resort” that the Germans built there: Auschwitz) complained about the same thing.