Whenever I hear the term Ultra-Orthodox, I think of a soap commercial. These Jews are so refined, so smooth, no harmful chemicals added. These Jews have been engineered to perfection by a select team of highly skilled designers who have worked years to filter out any detracting elements. One of those melodic 1-800 voices then chimes in: isn’t it time you broke out of the drab of general orthodoxy and embraced Ultra-orthodoxy?
Ultra-Orthodoxy. You won’t know what we’re talking about until you’ve tried it.
Available at participating media outlets (usually appearing as captions to newspaper pictures).
Sometimes I share some of these self-spun parodies with my peers and we give a chuckle before appending it with a sigh. We are used to the irony and the incongruity. You see the thing is, we don’t call ourselves Ultra-Orthodox. We never have. It is a label created by our curious spectators as they try to squeeze us into some Gregorian classification system akin to the Library of Congress cataloging department. We’d have to fit somewhere or else we’d be left in the Inbox of unregistered social aliens. Sometimes I think the same thing of the newly discovered galaxies and solar systems that unbeknownst to them are announced to the world with Latin names from planet Earth. As if the Roman Empire had manufactured the luminaries. But I digress…
Our spectators’ impressions are not always as rosy as that of a soap commercial. I imagine that labels play a big part in their wondering what it must be like to be an Ultra-Orthodox Jew:
“Are you Ultra-Orthodox?” a bureaucrat demands in Eastern European staccato.
“Yes, I am,” the member responds in kind.
“Gut. Let me see your badge.”
The member raises his badge apprehensively.
“Hmmm…” the bureaucrat sniffs it out. “How long are your payos?” He is referring to the locks of hair growing from the side of the head.
“Uhh…” the member swallows, unfolding his payos and stroking them nervously with his fingers.
“I…I cut them by mistake three weeks ago.”
A thunderous response meets this admission. “You must remember that we are Ultra. Not mild. Not Super. But Ultra!” The man breathes heavily, overcome by his own indignation. “How could you possibly forget your rank?”
“It…it was a mistake,” the member says feebly.
“Very well. Although according to regulation 33b of Rabbinic Order X, I am required to demote you, since your actions were not deliberate I am willing to grant you a special temporary rank until you have proven worthy of re-entering Ultra.”
“W- What is that rank?”
“Deluxe,” he says.
“Yes, that is correct. For a trial period of three weeks you will be known as a Deluxe Orthodox Jew.”
To be sure there do exist those who are eager to unlock the portals of the observant Jewish lifestyle and present it to the world. But many times this takes the form of an outsider’s review resulting from a journalistic foray into the fourth dimension that is Ultra-Orthodoxy, with a mission to gather raw data for a report or article that must be on the editor’s desk on Monday morning.
So these journalists or authors attempt to immerse themselves fully in the enigmatic subculture pulsing through the streets of Meah Shearim, Williamsburg, Lakewood, Boro Park, Crown Heights and Flatbush for a whole week or two so that they may glean all that will enable them to paint a vivid portrait of life in these eccentric domains. Not only will they observe, but they will comment. Perhaps they will even pass judgment, if not overtly then with transparent intentions in their word choice. And stick in a little bit of dramatic word play, elevating the article to a piece of great literature that makes the heart dance, and you have a masterpiece of narrative non-fiction about a segment of the population approved to appear in a publication that this group itself would never read.
But that’s okay because it was never intended for them to read it. It was intended for the Un-Ultra Orthodox (have I just invented a new term? What will the Library of Congress say?) who are searching for a little slice of wisdom to indulge their reading interests as they sip on their morning coffee.
Hmm. That is so interesting. Now on to the Sports page.
So often does it come across as a type of laboratory study that it begs the question: Why not ask the subjects of the study themselves to write the report about who they really are? Why ask Ann Ant to capture the life of A. Grasshopper when you can ask A. Grasshopper to do it himself? Surely there are nuances in the daily routine of A. Grasshopper embedded in thousands of years of grasshopper tradition that can be accessed only by actually living as one. I can tell you that were this to happen some of the revelations would be startling if not stunning.
And I don’t mean the exposure of some deep and dark tapestry of intrigue and shame running beneath the surface of righteous conduct. I mean the opposite of that. I mean the surprising rarity of deep and dark tapestry of intrigue and shame running beneath the surface of righteous conduct. That will be the shock. The fact that we by and large actually do lead profoundly meaningful, rich and fulfilling lives will rock the literary boat. The fact that any personal social problems in our world are unduly magnified under the critical microscope and manipulated to epitomize a standard of systemic dysfunction, will come as a surprise and indeed, even a disappointment.
A disappointment? Yes, because there is a certain level of (perhaps Freudian) satisfaction in pitying the pious for their poor oppressed existence, whereas I, the reader, am thankfully safely ensconced in the cradle of freedom to do as I please. Those poor souls. It’s tragic. I am not in any way religious and my life is just so much better.
In addition to the disappointment, asking us to do the reporting would create a technical problem for the mainstream literary moguls. If you drain a story of its saucy scandal and juicy tidbits, you’ll be left with just the dry pulp. And dry pulp doesn’t sell any books. If you tell the world that the Ultra-Orthodox do in general try to live up to the ideals they espouse, your editor will ask you, “so where’s the conflict?” Every plot has to have a conflict or else it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.
This is why when it comes to the arena of fiction, virtually the only novels that will warm the shelves of a downtown Barnes & Noble will depict an apparently dark ugly vitriolic side of an Ultra-Orthodox childhood experienced by a refugee who has “escaped its confines” and has created a new life for himself in the shelter of secularism. These novels typically celebrate the liberation from supposed bondage, effectively providing the editor with her much-need “conflict” (and its alleged resolution) and satisfying the readers who have bought the book to justify their pre-conceived notions of an oppressive lifestyle.
These novels unfortunately have wide appeal. They are usually written very eloquently, and like many other works of sterling literary fiction are released to critical acclaim and garner highly coveted awards. After all, oppression in the inner sanctum of sublime piety is so exquisite. One relishes every bittersweet word crammed into the dense language describing each scene. It is such a magnificent tragedy. It is so achingly poignant…
… It is such a load of hogwash. Really. And, you know, hogwash is particularly reviled considering our dietary laws. Of course problems exist. All human beings are so intricate and complex. For goodness sake, we are imperfect - even if we subscribe to a perfect doctrine. It doesn’t matter whether we are Ultra, Super or Deluxe Orthodox; modern, traditional or secular, the fact that we’re human beings means that we will carry with us baggage – tons of baggage – certainly enough to make us overweight at check-in.
How many of us know how to handle our baggage? The Torah provides us with a guide, but implementing change in ourselves is immensely difficult and cannot be accomplished by simply signing on the dotted line of the Ultra Orthodox Membership Application form. It takes, years, decades, a lifetime of dedicated diligent work to even scratch the surface of the lofty ideals prescribed by our Torah. That is why we cling to the coattails of those unique individuals of monumental distinction, our Chochomim, our Sages, who their entire lives have almost never lost sight of the ideal, and at the same time have never lost touch with the general populace who look to them for counsel and wisdom.
I do not care that the caliber of your writing lands you literary accolades of the highest order. I do not care that the poetry and symmetry of your descriptions make the spirit soar. I have no use for your doctoral thesis as it prods and probes using foreign measuring sticks. If there is any interest in objectivity and fairness, it’s time the subjects of the study break out of the laboratory, take the podium and tell it like it is.