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

By Jane Eisner

Published February 28, 2014, issue of March 07, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.