A piece I wrote to help set the record straight about the hospital “Chametz Law” passed by the Knesset was published by Forward. It can be read here.
Category Archives: Journalism
Yes, a Joke
There wasn’t a need to compose a Purim satire when the news provided enough to stimulate giggles. As you can read here:
Black Hats, Babies and Bathwater
Major mirth greeted Stanford University’s Information Technology department’s list of words to be shunned by the university’s publications and website. Words like “webmaster” and “blacklist.”
And yet, there is some food for thought in the list too.
My take on the matter is here.
Mike’s Maligned Menorah
Former Vice President Mike Pence has added to his sins — to date, they include calling his childrens’ mother “mother” and declining to dine privately alone with any woman other than his spouse — a deeply offensive (at least to some) menorah.
Read all about it here.
Israel’s Haredi parties’ politics aren’t what you think
A piece I wrote for Religion News Service about a misunderstood element of Israeli politics can be read here.
We shouldn’t aim to emulate the asinine
Regardless of whether or not all or any of the results of the recent elections pleased you, they revealed a supercharged Orthodox Jewish community in New York. Even if some secular media crazily choose to portray Orthodox participation in the democratic system as somehow nefarious, we Orthodox Jews should be proud of our neighborhoods’ impressive voting record.
Shortly before election day, someone immersed in studying Torah and earning a living told me that he doesn’t follow political matters and, assuming (rightly or not) that I was better informed about such things, asked me for whom I thought he should vote. My response took him aback. “It makes no difference,” I said. “Just vote.”
That’s because, no matter how we might like to imagine things, no single vote, nor hundred votes, nor thousand votes, usually makes a difference in the outcome of a congressional or gubernatorial election. But what always makes a difference is the post-election map informing elected officials which neighborhoods care enough to turn out en masse. And when it comes to that map, every vote makes a difference.
And that’s what should be foremost in our minds during the months before every election, when campaign engines noisily rev up and ads and endorsements dominate the airwaves, print media, robocalls, pashkevilim and car-mounted loudspeakers.
Because, while there may well be reasons to back this or that candidate, or to support or oppose this or that proposal, there is – or should be – no place in our lives for the political tribal war mentality that has intensified immeasurably in politics over the past seven years.
Demonization of parties and individuals may excite a certain type of citizen (like the kind who enjoys watching boxers open cuts in their opponents’ faces or render them unconscious). But insulting those with whom we may disagree is not something that responsible Jews do.
Campaigns these days resemble ancient Roman gladiatorial contests, where citizens cheer their chosen heroes and signal for hungry lions to deal with those they disfavor. But that’s not what politics should be to a believing Jew. To us, an election is a means of civilly advancing our interests and what we believe is best for the city, state or country in which we live. For those in need of violent release, there’s Canadian hockey.
Getting overheated over politics is incongruous with Torah values, simple menschlichkeit and reason.
While our hishtadlus is necessary, in the end, we must remember that lev melech bi’yad Hashem, “the heart of the king is in Hashem’s hand” (Mishlei 21:1). What is decisive is the Bashefer, not the ballot box, the Creator, not the casting. Our power lies in choosing how to live, not how to vote.
To be sure, there might theoretically be a candidate for some office who is truly deserving of vilification – say, a Nazi human trafficker with a penchant for cannibalism. But they are, I think, rare.
When it comes, though, to candidates whose positions one simply feels are wrongheaded or detrimental to our community or to society as a whole, expressions of opposition are rightly made with reason and calm, not fire and fury.
An object lesson, I personally think, lies in the public disparagement some rained down upon Kathy Hochul.
Whether or not one thinks she was the better candidate, the Governor has shown good will to her Orthodox Jewish constituents – in her budget’s substantial increases in allocations for nonpublic schools, security grants for Jewish institutions and funding for hate crime prevention; and in her veto of a bill that would have allowed the Town of Blooming Grove to effectively discriminate against religious Jews.
And yet, because she didn’t endorse what we feel she should have with regard to yeshiva education, some went into full-scale attack mode.
Now that Ms. Hochul has been elected governor, how might that harsh and uncalled-for crassness sit with her?
I don’t expect Ms. Hochul, a seasoned politician with a thick skin, to turn on the community because of the thoughtless words of a few. I think she truly respects the Orthodox community. But can we at least recognize that joining the “attack mode” of contemporary American politics can backfire?
And, even more important, that it is wrong?
© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran
Grayer But No Wiser
A kind person might characterize the New York Times’ seemingly insatiable interest in Orthodox Jews as a simple, even laudable, recognition of the community’s importance.
The less benevolent would characterize it as an obsession – and not a healthy one, either for the obsessed or the object of their obsession.
Much well-deserved criticism has been offered – most recently in a masterful essay in the October issue of Commentary by Yeshiva University Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education Professor Moshe Krakowski – of the Gray Lady’s hissy fit several weeks ago over chassidishe yeshivos’ curricula.
More recently, though, the Times scored another fix for its addiction to things Orthodox. This one was less incendiary, but still objectionable in several ways.
Titled “How the Hasidic Jewish Community Became a Political Force in New York,” the 2300-plus-word piece seeks to explain, well, just that. And it does a decent job of describing the evolution of Orthodox political activism.
The article’s subheader, though, only reiterates the paper’s longstanding, and apparently incurable, Orthodoxophobia.
“Elected officials,” it reads, “rarely embrace positions that could antagonize Hasidic leaders, who typically encourage their community to vote as a unified bloc.”
The subtle picture thereby painted by the Times for its readers is of craven politicians kissing the rings of sinister bearded Jews who direct their minions (and, thereafter, the politicians) to do their bidding. A less fevered image, one that would have truly been fit to print, would be, simply, politically engaged citizens voting in accord with their self-interest. A phenomenon usually known as democracy.
Leaders of other groups – be they progressives, Hispanics, Asians or communities of color – also encourage their constituents to vote for candidates of their choosing. Somehow, though, they are spared the slander of being characterized in the paper of record as “unified blocs” that inspire fear in candidates. Which is why you may have often read about, say, the “black vote” but never about the “black bloc” (despite the phrase’s mellifluousness).
What’s more, it was particularly reckless that the Times published its recent article at a time when Jews (once again) have been accused by unstable cultural figures (each with tens of millions of fans) of controlling the world.
But what really stuck in my craw was the piece’s description of the “pivotal moment” in the emergence of Orthodox activism in New York in 1991: the “Crown Heights riots [that] shook the city.”
When, in the article’s words, “Brooklyn streets had turned into combat zones, pitting groups of Hasidic Jews against mostly Black men” [emphasis mine].
Makes it sound like a showdown between rival urban gangs, not a vicious, hate-fueled attack by one ethnic group against another, whose members sought only to repel the onslaught and defend itself.
Although the article musters the sympathy to acknowledge that “Hasidic leaders in Brooklyn pleaded with city officials for more police intervention and protection, but the help did not come until days later,” the description of the pogrom itself is odiously misleading.
And, as it happened, it echoed the paper’s description in 2012 of the 1991 events as having been “riots that exploded between blacks and Hasidic Jews” [ditto about the emphasis] – as if marauding gangs of Jews and blacks had spent four days attacking one another, when, in fact, the besieged Jewish residents of Crown Heights cowered and prayed as their non-Jewish neighbors attacked them and their property. (Has war “exploded between” Russia and Ukraine?)
And if, back in 2012, the description of events smelled not only rancid but familiar, that’s because a full decade earlier, in a report about the reversal of the federal civil rights conviction of Yankel Rosenbaum’s murderer, the Times called the riots “violence between blacks and Orthodox Jews” [yes, ditto again].
After that description appeared in 2002, I called the reporter whose byline appeared on the report, and asked him whether he felt that his wording really reflected what had happened on those horrific days in 1991.
To his credit, he admitted that his choice of phrase had “not been the wisest.” I responded that I appreciated his honesty and trusted that a more accurate description of the pogrom would be used in future Times reports.
Well, the Gray Lady is 20 years grayer now, but, frustratingly, no wiser.
© 2022 Ami Magazine
Bigotry, Dementia and Persians, Oh My!
Recent reports about the current and former president inspired a thought about the wisdom of the Hebrew alphabet.
And that thought can be read here.
The NYT’s Blatant, Ugly, Bias Against Hassidim
A piece I wrote for Haaretz that appeared right after Yom Kippur can be read here. A PDF copy of the piece can be requested at [email protected]
The Jews’ Jews
We’re so used to the phrase, we don’t think about what it means.
I speak of “Ultra Orthodox,” the common description of Jews who, like Jews since Sinai, consider Torah divine, halachah sacrosanct and the Jewish mission imperative.
What does “ultra” bring to mind in, say, politics? Does “ultra-conservative” conjure an image of a judicious, reasonable Mike Pence or of a racist, antisemitic Pat Buchanan? Would you invest money into an “ultra-risky” venture? What does it mean when a racing competition is called an “ultra-marathon”?
In all those cases, “ultra” implies something extreme, something abnormal. No, world, we’re not freaks. We’re observant Jews, Orthodox Jews. If distinguishing adjectives are indicated, invent them to describe other Jews.
It’s widely and properly accepted in our country that racial, ethnic and religious groups have the right to determine how they wish others to refer to them. “Negro” has been replaced with “African-American”; “Oriental,” with “Asian-Americans.” But “ultra” seems to stick to journalistic and public discourse like mud. And, unlike “Negro” and “Oriental,” the term is inherently pejorative.
Examples abound of subtle disdain for traditional Orthodox Jews. Like how, when we dare to buy homes in new neighborhoods, we are portrayed as invaders. Neighborhoods change. That’s life. And are we bringing crime, drugs and gangs with us – or increasing the worth of current homeowners’ properties?
Then there’s how we vote in “blocs.” Creepy word, that, redolent of things like “Communist bloc” or “Arab bloc.”
Other identifiable groups’ members also tend to vote in tandem. There’s the “black vote” and the “Hispanic vote.” Why are only we “ultras” a “bloc”?
Astoundingly, the New York Times, in its recent hit piece on chassidishe yeshivos, sees nefariousness even in yeshivos encouraging parents to vote. The promotion of a civic duty is somehow suspect? That there are candidates favored by yeshiva communities is unethical? Doesn’t the Times regularly offer lists of its own endorsements to its “talmidim,” the readers who respect it as much as, lihavdil, a Satmar chasid respects his Rebbe?
We make no apologies for taking our civic responsibility and legitimate self-interests seriously. Or for voting in higher-than-average proportions. We embrace certain values and goals, and seek to promote them at the ballot box. Pardon, but isn’t that how the American democratic process is supposed to work?
And why is focus placed upon us almost exclusively when a member of our community has done something wrong (or even been accused of such)? Where is coverage in the general Jewish media and non-Jewish media of our community’s abundant and incredibly positive endeavors and accomplishments?
And then there are the stories that gleefully manufacture guilt out of idealism.
Like the aforementioned New York Times’ recent hit piece, which spent part of the paper’s front page and four additional full ones disparaging the chassidishe community, cherry-picking data and haphazardly generalizing. The journalistic jeremiad’s headline, implying financial chicanery, read: “Failing Schools, Public Funds.”
The largest, most striking, of the accompanying photographs shows a chassidishe boy with a look of fear on his face. The intent may have been to imply that he fears his hopeless future or an abusive teacher. More likely, it was the result of the photographer’s sticking a large camera in the boy’s face.
The incredibly negative piece accused yeshivos of – shudder – “censoring” texts. As if a private school, in line with parents’ expectations, has no right to edit material that Times reporters may find innocent but might be seen differently by actual students’ parents.
There are larger issues here. Like parental autonomy over children’s education. And the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion; we consider intensive Jewish education, after all, to be nothing less than a religious requirement.
But a diatribe in the guise of journalism constitutes a singular ugliness. And fits the pernicious pattern.
The writers of the recent Times offering, by their surnames, are likely Jews. And the paper’s publisher has Jewish roots. None of them can be accused of antipathy toward Jews.
As a whole, that is.
But there is clear disparagement here, aimed, as in so many instances, by some Jews against some other Jews.
Monitoring media and public discourse has been part of my job at the Agudah for nearly 30 years. I long ago came to realize that haredi Jews have become “the Jews’ Jews.”
© 2022 Ami Magazine