Why We Use the 'U-Word' to Describe Very Observant Orthodox

Editor's Notebook

Outliers: Are these Jews beyond the regular, the center of our faith?
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Outliers: Are these Jews beyond the regular, the center of our faith?

By Jane Eisner

Published February 28, 2014, issue of March 07, 2014.
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The debate prompted by Rabbi Avi Shafran’s request published last week — “Don’t Call Us ‘Ultra-Orthodox,’” as its online headline read — is not a new one, but this will be the first time in more than five years as editor-in-chief that I publicly provide an answer and an explanation.

The Forward will continue to use the term. Here’s why.

Shafran, in his usual elegant style, argues that “ultra” is pejorative, denoting a negative extreme, telegraphing “a subconscious bias.”

The prefix can be seen that way, but just as often in modern parlance, it connotes something desirable, a positive extreme. Look up “ultra thin” and you instantly find the phrase trumpeting everything from military ribbons to computer mouses to condoms.

But it does describe a state of being beyond the regular, the center, the normative. That’s why I have to respectfully disagree with Shafran’s request — that his community simply be called Orthodox. “Our beliefs and practices, after all, are those that most resemble those of our grandparents,” he argues.

Well, not my grandparents, who were strictly observant Orthodox Jews, but did not dress, act, or think like the Jews of Boro Park and Crown Heights today. It is the refusal to engage in the modern, secular world, to partake of its culture, acknowledge its obligations and respect its differences that set apart the ultra-Orthodox. It is a choice the rest of us Jews must strive to understand, appreciate and learn from, but it is not normative Judaism. Or even normative Orthodoxy.

Some Jewish news outlets use the term Haredi (“trembling”), as does the Forward on second reference. But we write for the broader American public, and that term is hard enough for most non-Jews to pronounce and spell, let alone understand.

There is great value in referring to people and communities the way they refer to themselves. There is an even greater value in presenting the complex Jewish world as accurately as possible. Unless a better phrase is found, ultra-Orthodox remains.


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