What Did the Orthodox Do Now?!

Behind Our Prurient Gaze — Nostalgia, Jealousy, Curiosity

Another World: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children wear handcuffs as they protest Israel’s draft law.
Getty Images
Another World: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children wear handcuffs as they protest Israel’s draft law.

By Elissa Strauss

Published June 20, 2014, issue of June 20, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Did you hear the one about the rabbi who blamed Hurricane Sandy on gay people? Or about the sex-segregated playground for Satmar children? What about the recent story about the ultra-Orthodox belief that shorter wigs lead to fewer tragedies? And did you read those personal stories from former Haredi Jews about being taught that the sun is not a star, or finding the strength to refuse to shave one’s head.

Chances are, you have probably seen some version of these stories in recent years, whether on the bookshelf or in your newspaper, present company included.

There’s a good reason for the proliferation. The stories shed an important light on the backward and often misogynistic practices of some Orthodox communities, while also offering an exit strategy to those subjected to them. But I fear we’ve reached a tipping point with these tales. Our interest has morphed from an authentic, even humane, curiosity to a fascination rooted in a hunger for sensationalism, shame and that smug feeling one gets when his worldview is validated.

The problem here isn’t the writers. As the Forward’s Ezra Glinter notes in his recent essay on ex-Orthodox memoirists, many of them are talented and offer incisive portals into the worlds they left. The reporting by outsiders is also often deep and investigative. The problem is us, the audience; we have not been Orthodox, and we have no intentions of ever becoming so, but we just can’t get enough of the anachronistic goings-on inside the eruv.

For one, our absorption in these stories reveals a crude laziness. The Orthodox are becoming our very own Angelina Jolies and Brad Pitts, tabloid stars whose every misstep is quickly turned into clickbait. A whole community of Jews is being reduced to a kind of caricature in stories that often traffic in stereotypes.

And at the memoir end of this genre it’s no wonder that you can find many women, who have long been called upon to write confessional journalism. Former New Yorker editor Tina Brown, when heading The Daily Beast, reportedly asked women to write “‘personal histories that feature self-loathing and lurid intimate disclosures,” according to the writer Virginia Heffernan, and today websites like xoJane continue to lure women into earning a byline through confessional writing.

There is a place for confessional writing and personal narratives; when done well, and with nuance, the experience of the individual casts light unto the universal. But when this writing ends up simply comprising a women’s genre, the implicit message is that women are not competent enough to be objective observers of the outside world, and should be trusted only with their pasts and inner lives for copy. Again, much good has come from this, but so has a culture in which the girl with the more harrowing experience, the more arduous struggle and, ultimately, the juiciest headline wins.

Still, the bigger problem with this whole “The Orthodox did what?” news cycle is that it is a lazy one. We aren’t really interested in the Orthodox. We aren’t willing to see a full picture, the good and the bad, the complexity of these many individuals living so differently than us. Instead, our appetites are limited to the salacious stories, those that shame them and allow us to pat ourselves on the back for being so much better.

Underneath this moral superiority, I believe there lives a well of much more complicated emotions toward the Orthodox — possibly including envy, nostalgia, jealousy or even just a raw curiosity. We are rarely forced to seek out these feelings or to ask any questions that might better help us understand them, and also ourselves as Jews. Also, let us not forget a basic lesson of the schoolyard: Degradation is contagious. We are all brought down by a taunt, our discourse compromised, our empathy blunted.

As it is now, our fixation with Haredi Jews leaves many of us with a Jewish identity that is progressively being defined by simply not being like them. An identity based on a void is not much of an identity at all, and for us on the non or less-observant side there is nothing truly Jewish at stake. As they get more observant, and we get less observant, this void will only continue to deepen, and the risk of us getting lost in it will only increase.

I’m not saying we should all become more religious; I have no plans to start covering my hair or even turning off my smartphone for the Sabbath. Just that we should put less effort into these inter-Jewish culture wars, and more energy into reimagining a Jewish life that engages us morally, socially and emotionally. This begins with what we read.

Elissa Strauss is a contributing editor to the Forward.


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!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • 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.