My thoughts on the obnoxious actions of a group of young Orthodox Jews at the Robinson’s Arch area of the Western Wall, and on some of the reaction to them ,can be read here.
Something about the news reports in the wake of the December 10, 2019 shooting at a kosher grocery in Jersey City store bothered me at the time, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Novelist Dara Horn, in her new collection of essays, “People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Present,” fingers it well.
She quotes the Associated Press report, which was picked up by many news outlets: “The slayings happened in a neighborhood where Hasidic families had recently been relocating, amid pushback from some local officials who complained about representatives of the community going door to door, offering to buy homes at Brooklyn prices.”
Ms. Horn wonders why other cases of domestic terrorism, like against black churches or nightclubs, aren’t similarly “contextualized” in an attempt to explain what motivated the murderer. And she muses further that “Like many homeowners, I too have been approached by real estate agents asking me if I wanted to sell my house. I recall saying, no, although I suppose murdering these people would also have made them go away.”
That dagger of a comment is one of many marvelously acerbic observations in Ms. Horn’s book.
Like her further observation on the Jersey City massacre, that when it comes to identifiably Jewish Jews, the crime for which they are persecuted, even killed, is the sheer audacity of “Jews, living in a place!”
Or like the story she tells at the book’s beginning, about the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, about an employee who donned a yarmulke one day and was told to cover it with a baseball cap. The museum relented after four months’ deliberation, which, Ms. Horn writes, “seems like a rather long time for the Anne Frank House to ponder whether it was a good idea to force a Jew into hiding.”
Anne Frank inspires a further observation from Ms. Horn, about the most famous quote from the young girl’s diary, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
Ms. Horn: “It is far more gratifying to believe that an innocent dead girl has offered us grace than to recognize the obvious: Frank wrote about people being ‘truly good at heart’ three weeks before she met people who weren’t.”
The writer journeyed to China, where she visited the Manchurian village of Harbin. Jews once lived there, until they were forced to flee or were killed in the 1930s by the invading Japanese army. Today, in tribute to the Jewish community that once thrived there, Harbin hosts a museum that replicates the once-Jewish part of the town, complete with shuls and stores. The writer’s suggestion for a name for such exhibits about former Jewish dwelling places: “Property Seized from Dead or Expelled Jews.”
The unifying theme of the essays in “People Love Dead Jews” — the author was surprised when her publisher actually accepted her suggestion for a title — is that all the concern and admiration for Jews seemingly reflected in memorials and museums and novels and movies comprises something other than true goodwill toward actual Jews today.
“I had mistaken the enormous public interest in past Jewish suffering for a sign of respect for living Jews.” she writes. But, she says she came to realize, “even in its most apparently benign and civic forms” it is “a profound affront to human dignity.” Focusing on dead Jews, Ms. Horn seems to be saying, avoids having to confront the reality of live ones.
The book’s final essay, unexpectedly and enthrallingly, focuses on the most recent Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas, where more than 90,000 Jews packed MetLife Stadium (and nearly 20,000 at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, and countless others in locations across the continent and around the world). The essay bears the title “Turning the Page.”
Ms. Horn, who wasn’t raised, and doesn’t consider herself, Orthodox, opts to study Daf Yomi. By doing so, she says, “I turn the page and return, carried by fellow readers living and dead, all turning the pages with me.”
Don’t expect the world to understand, or even care about, us, she seems to be saying to fellow Jews. Just connect with one another, with all of us, and, most importantly, with our mutual spiritual heritage.
© 2021 Ami Magazine
A letter I wrote to the Wall St. Journal was published today, and is here.
It reads as follows:
WSJ • OPINION
Mr. Peretz Takes a Swipe at Orthodox Jews
In reviewing a book about the ‘othering’ of Jews, no less.
Oct. 10, 2021 3:04 pm ET
Irony has seldom been more glaring than in Martin Peretz’s claim, in his review of Dara Horn’s “People Love Dead Jews” (Bookshelf, Oct. 5), that “many of the ultraorthodox, the very pious, the canonical don’t think of me and mine as brothers and certainly don’t think of Jewish women like Ms. Horn as sisters.”
How dolefully humorous that my brother, Mr. Peretz, in reviewing a book by my sister, Ms. Horn, about how much of the world treats Jews as “others,” not only misinforms readers but engages in a particularly ugly “othering” of fellow Jews, those of us who hew to our—his, Ms. Horn’s and my—mutual religious heritage.
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Agudath Israel of America
A piece I wrote about the Netflix series “My Unorthodox Life” was published by Religion News Service and appears in The Washington Post. It can be read here.
An article in Haaretz rebutting an earlier one there that mischaracterized the recent Supreme Court decision about inequitable restrictions on houses of worship in New York can be read here.
An article I wrote about the media’s obsession with Haredim who flout norms, and what it shows — about the media, not Haredim — is here.
It’s strange but true: We sometimes fail to acknowledge the most important thing in the universe.
That would be bechirah, Hashem’s astonishing gift of free will to mankind. We humans are able to choose our actions and our attitudes.
We can certainly be stubborn creatures, and a mind is a hard thing to change. But change it can.
That truth was brought sharply home to me recently, in an e-mail interaction I had with a Jewish person who lives in a faraway state.
“You ARE ‘extreme and beyond normal and beyond mainstream’,” my correspondent wrote, “misogynistic and ultra-conservative. You exclude anyone you consider ‘other’.”
“You are,” the final line read, “not my tribe.”
What evoked the irate missive was an op-ed, or opinion column, I wrote that was published in the New York Times.
Therein lies a tale.
Several weeks ago, as a result of the efforts of respected lawyer Avi Schick and Chabad media relations director Rabbi Motti Seligson, a small group of Orthodox representatives met with members of the Times’ editorial board and staff. Joining the two organizers were Hamodia’s editor, Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein; United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg executive director Rabbi Dovid Niederman; Agudath Israel of America executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel; and me.
The meeting was intended to sensitize the other side of the table to the way some of their newspaper’s characterizations of the chareidi community were inaccurate, even dangerous.
Each of us visitors to the Times’ offices presented a bit of evidence or a particular perspective. And at one point, in passing, I noted that the very term used for us – “Ultra-Orthodox” – was subtly pejorative, since “ultra” connotes “excess” or “beyond what is normal.”
At that point, the op-ed page editor interjected, “Well, that would make an interesting op-ed.”
In my head, I responded, “You bet it would.”
And so, two days later, I submitted an essay I had written, which focused not only on the misuse of the prefix “ultra” but on other subtle “otherings” of the chareidi community, as well – like the characterizations of us effectively as invaders simply for having chosen to buy homes in new areas; and like calling the exercise of our democratic rights in local elections “voting as a bloc” – a term never used when focusing on, say, the black vote or Hispanic one.
I received an avalanche of responses, almost all positive – from non-Jews and Jews of all stripes alike.
One memorable missive read, in part: I’m a non-religious Catholic man… in the midst of a significant Jewish community. I’m the regular Shabbos goy for several of my friends and neighbors… I got so many good and new ways of seeing people from your editorial … [There is] so much bias I have that I never thought about. I will look at people differently from now on, or at least I will work on doing that as much as I am able.”
The negative one excerpted earlier above was one of a small handful of angry reactions.
I responded to all the communications, if only to thank the writers for writing. To the irate correspondent quoted above, I sent the following:
“I don’t know how many chassidic or non-chassidic haredi families you know, but your description of them as misogynistic is well beyond a mere exaggeration. There are traditional roles for men and for women in Orthodox communities, but both men and women are fully valued and well-treated by both men and women. ‘Conservative’? Well, yes. Is that a crime?
“Which brings me back to the tribe. We don’t exclude any Jew from the Jewish people. You seem to do that with your final sentence. But you are MY tribe.”
And, signing off with “best wishes,” I clicked “send.”
I didn’t expect any further communication, but the correspondent did respond, first, with: “Thank you. You are the first haredi Jew I have ever spoken with… Apologies for my preconceptions.”
And then, after I acknowledged the writer’s good will, a second response: “Although I’m [Jewish] through my mother, my parents took us to a Unitarian church and I have never embraced religion or Judaism. Its strongest influence on my life has been through food. Perhaps that will change now.”
Later, the person wrote again, to say, “Apologies for my preconceptions” and to request reading material about Yiddishkeit, a request I immediately honored.
My first, visceral reaction to attacks on Torah Jews or Torah life is a desire to respond in kind, with ire, or, at least with wry repartee.
But what I’ve learned over the years is that – why I ever doubted it, I don’t know – Shlomo Hamelech was correct when he taught that a maaneh rach – “a gentle reply” – yashiv cheimah – “turns away wrath.”
That’s something true not only in interactions like the one I had with the angry correspondent, but in all our interpersonal dealings – within our families, in our workplaces, with our friends and acquaintances. It’s also something I wish I had fully recognized at a much earlier age than I did.
Not every mind’s owner will choose to change it. But every one of them – there is bechirah, after all – can.
And sometimes we can help make that change a little easier.
© 2020 Hamodia
A piece I wrote about the marginalization of Haredi Jews appears at the New York Times today. It can be read here.
Like many identifiably Jewish Jews, I’ve caught my share of catcalls, Nazi salutes and threats. And read the rantings of people like Louis Farrakhan, David Duke and Richard Spencer. I can’t say I’m nonchalant about such idiocies, but a certain jadedness, for better or worse, eventually kicks in.
There are times, though, when even I am astonished by a particularly outrageous demonstration of mindless Jew-animus. Like Jersey City school board member Joan Terrell-Paige’s now-deleted Facebook comment, posted mere days after the murderous December 10 attack on the kosher market in her locale by two terrorists, one of whom had shown interest in a Jew-disparaging black sect. (One of the murderer’s favorite videos shows a Black Hebrew Israelite preacher telling a Jewish man, “The messiah, who is a black man, is going to kill you.”)
Ms. Terrell-Paige implied that, in effect, the killings had been brought about by “brutes in the Jewish community” themselves.
She charged that Chassidic newcomers to Jersey City had “waved bags of money” before black residents in order to buy their homes.
Leave aside that the Chassidim who have relocated from Brooklyn to Jersey City are decidedly not well-to-do; and leave aside, too, that asking a homeowner if he’s interested in selling a house isn’t illegal or oppressive. Leave aside as well the fact that the city enacted, with the support of its Chassidic residents, a prohibition of door-to-door solicitation.
Consider only the utter asininity of blaming innocent victims for the hate-driven actions of the racists who murdered them.
As if the arson of her words wasn’t sufficiently destructive, Ms. Terrell-Paige added fuel to her fire, too. “What is the message they were sending?” she asked, referring to the murderers. “Are we brave enough to explore the answer to their message? Are we brave enough to stop the assault on the Black communities of America?”
One wonders how the valiant lady would have reacted had someone asked her, in the wake of the violence perpetrated by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, to be “brave enough” to consider what message those haters were sending by punching and kicking peaceful protesters (and injuring several and killing one with a car). If someone had suggested that she be “brave enough to stop the assault on White communities of America?”
Nearly as tone-deaf as the school board member’s post was the reaction to her mindlessness by a group that includes local and state legislators and calls itself the Hudson County Democratic Black Caucus.
“While we do not agree with the delivery of the statement made by Ms. Terrell-Paige,” the group announced judiciously, “we believe that her statement has heightened awareness around issues that must be addressed.”
No, dear Caucus, the only issue that must be addressed is black anti-Semitism.
That phrase, of course, isn’t intended to implicate the larger African-American community, any more than the phrase “white anti-Semitism” implicates all Caucasians.
It simply acknowledges the sad reality that Jew-hatred exists not only in the fever dreams of racists who hate blacks but also in the delusions of some of those they hate.
The group of legislators and community leaders of color did pay proper homage to the need to maintain good relations between “two communities that have already and must always continue to coexist harmoniously.” But that sentiment is belied by the rest of its statement’s cluelessness.
What the group needed to do after reading Ms. Terrell-Paige’s obnoxious words was not to speak of “issues” to be addressed but rather join Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, Jersey City Education Association President Ron Greco, Ward E Councilman James Solomon, New Jersey State Democratic Committee Chair John Currie, Board of Education Trustee Mussab Ali, and Assemblymen Nick Chiaravalloti, Raj Mukherji and Gary Schaer in their call for Ms. Terrell-Paige’s resignation.
As to the “issues” that the Hudson County Democratic Black Caucus says “must be addressed” – presumably those posed by the influx of Chassidim into Jersey City – let’s indeed address them.
Among the freedoms Americans are afforded is the right to live where they wish. The arrival of Jewish residents to a depressed neighborhood, moreover, is likely to contribute to the good of longer-term residents. There will be healthful food available (like some of that sold in the grocery that was turned into a scene of carnage), crime will likely decrease and property values rise.
Back in 2017, the New York Times featured an article about demographic changes, including those in Jersey City. It quoted a Jewish woman, identified only as Gitti, who expressed appreciation for her non-Jewish neighbors.
“They told us when we have to put out our garbage, and they introduced us to their pets so we shouldn’t be afraid of them,” she said. “They’re nice people.”
Eddie Sumpter, a black neighbor around the corner from Gitti’s home, who was able to buy a bigger house by selling his previous home to a Chassidic family, said he welcomed the newcomers.
“We live among Chinese. We live among Spanish,’’ said Mr. Sumpter, who works as a cook. “It don’t matter. People is people. If you’re good people, you’re good people.”
Unfortunately, it’s pretty clear, not everyone is.
© 2020 Hamodia