Doubting the Devout

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  • Copyright: 2009-10-16
  • Publisher: Columbia Univ Pr

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Before 1985, depictions of ultra-Orthodox Jews in popular American culture were rare, and if they did appear, in films such as Fiddler on the Roofor within the novels of Chaim Potok, they evoked a nostalgic vision of Old World tradition. Yet the ordination of women into positions of religious leadership and other controversial issues have sparked an increasingly visible and voluble culture war between America's ultra-Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, one that has found a particularly creative voice in literature, media, and film.Unpacking the work of Allegra Goodman, Tova Mirvis, Pearl Abraham, Erich Segal, Anne Roiphe, and others, as well as television shows and films such as A Price Above Rubies, Nora L. Rubel investigates the choices non-haredi Jews have made as they represent the character and characters of ultra-Orthodox Jews. In these artistic and aesthetic acts, Rubel recasts the war over gender and family and the anxieties over acculturation, Americanization, and continuity. More than just a study of Jewishness and Jewish self-consciousness, Doubting the Devoutwill speak to any reader who has struggled to balance religion, family, and culture.


Copyright information

Excerpt from:Introduction: A Family Feud

"We are one people -- our enemies have made us one without our consent." -- Theodore Herzl, The Jewish State

"Those people are a freaking embarrassment." -- Robert J. Avrech, "A Stranger Among Us"


Like many domestic disputes, it began with the sharing of a bathroom. In the late 1990s, a group of Orthodox Jewish students filed a lawsuit against Yale University. Yale's housing policy requires that all unmarried undergraduates live on campus for their first two years; the school has a longstanding mission to create not just dormitories but college communities. There are single-sex floors for first-year students, but anyone of any gender can visit, sleep over, or use the bathroom. In 1998, several Jewish students, subsequently known as the "Yale Five," protested the policy, claiming that Yale's accommodations compromised their modesty.

The lawsuit stirred strong reactions in the Jewish community. In an article in the New York Times , Samuel Freedman writes, "In their way, the Yale Five seek nothing less than to reverse the course of Jewish history in America." More than most immigrant groups, Jews historically have embraced American secular education with zeal. For Freedman, the litigious choice of the Yale Five signifies a decisive shift in Orthodox attitudes toward American society, observing that "a dormitory address at Yale has emerged as the signifier of an Orthodox Jew's readiness to engage the larger society." Ultimately, the court decided in favor of Yale, finding that the plaintiff's constitutional rights were not violated since the housing policy had been disclosed at the time of application. Since these Jewish students had the freedom of choice to apply elsewhere, this policy further posed no threat of monopoly.

Although this particular housing conflict only affected five students, the Yale Five fracas is indicative of a far greater intra-Jewish conflict, one that has parallels in the wider American culture. As James Hunter writes in his 1991 Culture Wars : "[The] personal disagreements that fire the culture war are deep and perhaps irreconcilable. But these differences are often intensified and aggravated by the way they are presented in public." Like other American conflicts over cultural and religious values, the themes of this contemporary Jewish quarrel have made their way into the public eye not only through high-profile legal battles, such as that of the Yale Five, but also through representation in literary and visual popular culture.

The past two decades have seen a rise in literature and film written and directed by American Jews that purport to describe the inner world of ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. Prior to the mid-1980s, ultra-Orthodox characters were few and far between in Jewish literature and film. Sometimes positive and sometimes negative, those characters that did exist were likely to be depicted as relics of an earlier period rather than living, breathing Jews of contemporary America. In the 1980s, a new sort of Jewish popular culture began to accentuate Orthodox themes as well as characters, but these images were not always flattering. In contrast to earlier works by writers such as Abraham Cahan and Chaim Potok that emphasize the romantic aspects of an orthodox Jewish past, these recent tales of the Jewish American imagination are laden with suspicion rather than sentiment, nerves rather than nostalgia. Such profiles of the ultra-Orthodox coincide with a rapidly growing cultural polarization among American Jewry. Differing views on how to reconcile Judaism with the general culture have resulted in an at times undeclared culture war, largely between Orthodox and non-Orthodox practitioners of Judaism. Liberal Jews tend to see the uncompromising nature of the ultra-Orthodox as threatening to Jewish claims of Americanness. On the other side, the ultra-Orthodox view liberal movements such as Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism as succumbing to assimilation and therefore as threatening to Jewish survival.

While it is difficult to find a time in modern Jewish history where there has been a consensus among Jews, this particular quarrel has roots which go back as far as Emancipation and the Enlightenment. Emancipation, as the historian Paula Hyman points out, "eliminated the autonomous corporate Jewish community, which had some power to constrain its members and thereby enforce a semblance of unity." Given the freedom to enter the greater society without abandoning their religion, Jews confronted a new reality: the freedom not to practice Judaism. Subsequently, Judaism has changed dramatically in the last two centuries. Some Jews welcomed the freedom from religious obligation, choosing to secularize completely. Others chose to adapt their religious practices to their host culture rather than abandon them completely. And some chose to fiercely resist the seductions of modernity as best they could, resisting secularism and retaining a semblance of Jewish continuity. In the free, pluralistic society of the United States, Judaism branched into multiple factions, each with its own response to the challenges of modernity.

According to Freedman, at the core of the confrontations between these splinter groups, "lie the same fundamental questions. What is the definition of Jewish identity? Who decides what is authentic and legitimate Judaism?" One cannot attempt to answer these questions without addressing the underlying ideological conflict between religious pluralism and traditionalism. Central to these disputes are the matters of religious authority and Jewish continuity. Liberal Jewish movements such as Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism attempted to create a contemporary living Judaism that was compatible with modern life. Those who opposed the principles of the liberal movements attempted to reinstate traditional practices that were being rapidly abandoned in the interest of acculturation and modernity. Theirs was a counterreformist version of Judaism, and these traditionalist Jews became known as Orthodox Jews. For some Orthodox Jews, this counterreformation did not go far enough, and because of their increasing efforts to resist all that modernity offered, they became known as ultra -Orthodox Jews (or "haredim").

Despite these divisions within Orthodoxy, the line of the Jewish culture war falls primarily between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. While the Jewish religious right rejects the acceptance of intermarriage, women's ordination, homosexuality, and patrilineal descent, the left is angered by what they see as the delegitimization of non-Orthodox movements. A survey in the late 1980s saw a majority of American Jews "very offended" "by Orthodox Jews who show no respect for the way you choose to be Jewish." At the heart of this struggle lies an argument over religious authority. Non-Orthodox Jews tend to demonstrate a relativist attitude toward rabbinic authority. Orthodox Jews do not share this relativism, and it is this uncompromising nature of the Orthodox that fuels the tensions of the contemporary Jewish culture war.


In William Hutchison's work on the history of religious pluralism in America, he notes:

"Americans had managed to apply their pluralist ideals in very visible ways, and usually in perfectly genuine, committed ways. Just as visibly, however, they had applied limits. They had said, "Thus far, and no farther." . . . [T]ime and again, they drew the line at what they perceived as socially threatening behavior."

The texts pursued in this book emerge therefore in an epoch of cultural contestation, a moment when the dominant group, mainstream American Jewry, consciously or unconsciously believes it is being threatened by an invasion of the marginalized group, the ultra-Orthodox. This pattern of anxious literary production has a long lineage in American religious history, beginning with the seventeenth-century Indian captivity narrative. Over the centuries, anti-Indian tales gave way to anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, and anti-Muslim stories. The authors of these narratives employ manipulative and potentially slanderous tactics in order to rouse the passions of the reader. One such famous (and false) exposé of a nineteenth-century Catholic convent is Maria Monk's The Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery (1836). In this captivity narrative, Monk -- an innocent young Protestant woman -- somehow found herself turning to salvation in the arms of a Catholic convent, only to discover that hidden behind the high convent walls existed a dark, lurking evil. That evil ran the gamut from strict rules and behavioral regulations to outright physical and sexual abuse. Monk's popular exposé told of "unspeakable horrors" that took place in the convent: the sexual solicitation of nuns by priests, infanticide, and murder. Read by many at a time when convents were actually being burned down by angry mobs, these convent tales fueled already existing nativist passions. The Awful Disclosures the Hotel Dieu Nunnery was later exposed as a ghostwritten venture, the product of a group of Protestant men eager to warn young women of the dangers of the increasingly visible Catholic Church.

Monk's successful narrative (outsold only by Uncle Tom ' s Cabin ) highlighted preexisting anxiety about the nature of power and authority, primarily the power wielded over women. These themes can be seen in similar "nonfiction" exposés of Mormons and Muslims. In each instance, the dominant culture constructs extreme portraits of the marginalized group as an articulation of its own cultural insecurity and anxiety. The anti-haredi writings profiled in this study are no exception, placing this American Jewish culture war in a long line of American ethnic and religious conflict. The narratives replace the lecherous priests in anti-Catholic tales with manipulative rabbis, the abusive convent with the repressive yeshiva, but the formula remains the same: these people are different and threatening, and the public should be warned. Thus far, and no farther.

This sort of culture war is assuredly not specific to Jews alone, although the Jewish feud does have its own distinguishing features. The same liberal Jews who produce or consume these anxious narratives possess a deep ambivalence regarding ultra-Orthodox Jews. In their study of pioneer families of the American West, Lillian Schlissel, Byrd Gibbens, and Elizabeth Hampsten observe, "They are us in other clothes, where we began and where our dreams were given form." Similarly, American Jews have the sense that these Jews in long black coats and long dresses are an earlier version of themselves. One such secular character in Dara Horn's 2002 In the Image reflects on ultra-Orthodox Jews:

"I guess I just don't understand how I'm supposed to feel about them. . . . I mean, I see one of these guys on a bus with a hat and a nice long beard, and I know I'm supposed to be thinking to myself, Yes, you are my brother, we stood at Mount Sinai together. Or something like that. But it doesn't work that way. Instead I just think to myself, Why are you dressed like you're Amish? . . . And why . . . do they make me feel, since I'm Jewish and they're Jewish, but I'm not Super Duper Jew like they are, that everything I'm doing in my life is totally wrong?"

Other Jews reject the principles of these ultra-Orthodox, who may resemble their grandparents or great-grandparents, or, in a recent twist of fate, may resemble their children, newly drawn to the allure of conservative religious practice.

This growing Jewish polarization between liberalism and traditionalism fits into a greater American context. While the second half of the twentieth century has seen a relative decrease in tensions between mainstream religious groups in America, there has arisen a new set of divisions over "values" that transcends denominational and religious lines. These divisions are characterized by a shift to the right within many American religious institutions, which leaves liberals and conservatives battling each other from within. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow writes:

"The major divisions in American religion now revolve around an axis of liberalism and conservatism rather than the denominational landmarks of the past. The new division parallels the ideological cleavage that runs through American politics. It divides religious practitioners from one another over questions of social welfare, defense spending, communism, and the so-called moral politics of abortion, sex education, gender equality, and prayer in public schools."

These social, political, and economic issues can be more divisive than the lines that traditionally separated religious communities. The greatest support the Yale Five received came from evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, and even some Muslims. Significantly, the plaintiffs received more opposition than encouragement from their fellow Jews. As Samuel Freedman observed, "some of the most indignant letters to the Yale Daily News opposing the Yale Five have come from other Jewish students, blaming the plaintiffs for everything from misrepresenting Judaism to ruining the admission chances of future Orthodox applicants." One such letter from a classmate of one of the Yale Five concluded, "Thanks to Yale for giving us the opportunity to grow without sacrificing our beliefs."

Another Orthodox Yale student commented on the matter:

"All the non-Jews on campus support them because it looks like a civil rights issue. And all the Jews on campus oppose them because on a certain level I feel that's what's going on is it's not a religious motive, that they're not being more religious than the people who are in the religious community here, what they're being is more separatist. And that's a push and pull you see in the Jewish community today."

Even the Orthodox rabbi affiliated with Yale opposed the lawsuit, indicating a divisiveness within Orthodoxy itself, claiming that the majority of Orthodox Jews happily attending Yale "do not like the implication that they're less religious." Some American Jews went so far as to write in angry letters to the New York Times over the nature of lawsuit, and on the whole distanced themselves from the plaintiffs at Yale. Despite the successful acculturation Jews have experienced in America, the Yale Five represent the separatists in their midst, threatening their hard-fought comfort level. They are the Jews in other clothes, refusing to fit in and get along.


This book is not just about the ultra-Orthodox. It is about contemporary American Jewry and about what the haredim represent to mainstream American Jews. This work would, however, be remiss without a general explanation of who the haredim are and how they fit into the American scene.

Who are the haredim? They are the aforementioned "ultra-Orthodox," those separatist, observant Jews who choose not to acculturate and who adhere to a restorative Eastern European Jewish ideology. They are a minority within a minority within a minority. Jews make up less than 2 percent of all Americans; about 12 percent of American Jews are Orthodox; and of that group, about a third are haredi.

Yet despite its small numbers, this haredi minority is hardly monolithic. Ultra-orthodoxy is a broad, umbrella-like term that includes both hasidic and non-hasidic groups, sometimes referred to as " mitnagdim " or " misnagdim " (opponents) by hasidim. To outsiders, they are often seen as a monolithic group of religious Jews. Generally speaking, they can be identified on the street by the men's black coats and hats and the women's modest dress and head coverings. Despite being almost indistinguishable to outsiders, this community harbors a great diversity. The hasidim and mitnagdim present important differences in historical development, as well as in the social organization of their communities.

Hasidism, which is often seen as the oldest, most traditional form of Judaism, is actually a relatively new movement. Founded in the mid-eighteenth century in Ukraine by Israel ben Eliezer, also known as the Ba'al Shem Tov, hasidism was a movement of religious renewal. Hasidism emphasized mysticism and claimed that "simple faith, inward passion and fervent prayer are as important as Talmudic scholarship." By emphasizing the holiness in everyday life, the Ba'al Shem Tov developed a large and enthusiastic following. His disciples subsequently dispersed to many areas of Eastern Europe, bringing their new devotional religiosity with them and establishing communities of hasidim, separate and independent from local rabbinical authority.

The religious hierarchy of the period did not view the hasidim as threatening at first. However, by the mid- to late eighteenth century, when the movement became more widespread, the rabbinical elite declared the hasidim heretics. The joyous singing and dancing of the hasidim impressed their opponents as the expressions of a simple, nonintellectual people. Additionally, concern was expressed over the teaching of kabbalah to the masses as well as the absolute reverence with which hasidim treated their rebbes, the center of a hasidic community. The rebbe is a religious leader who is considered a tzaddik , a righteous man. Most hasidic groups believe "that the rebbe [is] not a mere human, but endowed with superior knowledge, piety, and access to the Divine; thus his statements, opinions, interpretations and answers [are] to be acted upon accordingly." This tzaddikate is traditionally a hereditary position, leading to hasidic dynasties. In contrast to the hasidic cult of personality, the mitnagdim focus primarily on Talmudic learning and emphasize a more rational and less mystical interpretation of the tradition, dismissing the hasidic emphasis on mysticism as an adherence to frivolous folklore. Given their dedication to scholarship, the mitnagdim became known best for their schools, the yeshivot .

The haredim were not the first Jews to land on America's shores. They arrived long after the two major waves of Jewish immigration in the middle of the nineteenth century and at the turn of the twentieth century. Until World War II, the haredi leadership fiercely resisted immigration to America. In their eyes, this treife medina (unkosher land), represented all that was wrong with modernity and, consequently, all that was dangerous to Judaism. This resistance affected those haredim who immigrated earlier, particularly the hasidim, who had difficulty establishing religious communities without a rebbe.

While the Bolshevik revolution crushed Jewish religious life in Russia and Ukraine, World War II and its Holocaust destroyed haredi communities throughout Europe. Whole villages and towns were wiped out, leaving only a small fraction of Europe's Orthodoxy. In the aftermath, most of those who survived made their way to America or Palestine. The remnants of these European communities attempted to recreate their lives on a smaller scale in America. The hasidic communities retained the names of the small towns in Eastern Europe where their headquarters were located. For example, some brands of hasidism became known by Lubavitch (Russia), Satmar (Romania), or Bobov (Poland).

The differences between hasidim and mitnagdim are far less pronounced today. Hasidic Jews now put a great emphasis on providing their children with a thorough Jewish education, including yeshiva studies. Hasidic groups that did not build yeshivas after WWII faltered without the power of youth, considered the "rebbe's soldiers." Those that already had yeshivas were the Lubavitch, Bobov, Radomsk, and Slonim; these were exceptions among the hasidim. And while non-hasidic Jews lack a rebbe as the center of their community, they, too, revere certain rabbis as exceptional scholars. The increased authority of the rosh yeshivah (head of the yeshiva) is indicative of this fusion of roles.

Attire is another area where differences between the hasidim and mitnagdim have become less evident, as some mitnagdim have adopted hasidic dress patterns. While outsiders see only the tell-tale black coats and long skirts, Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg has remarked, "Perhaps in no other area is there so much diversity among Orthodox Jews." The haredim can distinguish among members of their many factions by minor visual differences in those ubiquitous black coats, especially in the manner of dress for Shabbat and festivals. For example, some haredi men wear short pants with white stockings, and some wear long pants. Some haredi black hats are trimmed with fur, others are not. While religious women cannot be as easily distinguished by affiliation with specific haredi sects in the same way men can by dress, their mode of dress signals identity with the religious community at large. All haredi women follow similar guidelines: sleeves that cover elbows, high necklines, and long skirts with stockings. Pants are considered immodest. While different movements disagree over the issues of the color and opacity of stockings, or whether to wear wigs or headscarves, religious women's clothing expresses the value of tznius (modesty), held sacred in the haredi community.

The hasidim and mitnagdim also evince far less animosity toward each other now that they have a mutual objective: maintaining Orthodox Judaism as practiced in pre-WWII Eastern Europe. This goal is threatened by contemporary Judaism as practiced by the majority of North American Jews, which the haredim sees as diluted, compromising, and potentially leading to the gradual abandonment of Jewish identity altogether. Such concerns led one European rabbi to warn in 1956: "We face three dangers to the development of a pure and enduring orthodoxy: Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and the modern Orthodox." Given their shrinking differences and mutual concerns for the future, it is easy to see how the hasidim and mitnagdim , who make up a very small percentage of American Jews, are lumped together.

The majority of American Jews affiliate with the more liberal and progressive Jewish movements such as Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Judaism, which can be characterized by a willingness to adapt to changes brought on by modernity. Issues central to such modification include the roles of women, the concern over traveling on the Sabbath and festivals, and dietary laws. Orthodox Jews distinguish themselves from their more liberal brothers and sisters by their adherence to Talmudic law as it has been understood and codified at the beginning of the modern era.

Historians have made a distinction between segregationist and integrationist Jews, categorizing the ultra-Orthodox Jews as the former because of their separatist nature. Modern Orthodoxy -- a designation that is constantly changing -- remains in the latter category despite its recent rightward shift. Both the ultra-Orthodox and the Modern Orthodox consider themselves to be "Torah-true Jews" or "Keepers of the Commandments," but Modern Orthodox Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews part company over the way they see the outside world.

Modern Orthodoxy as a contemporary movement rejects separatist forms of Orthodoxy as well as those Jewish movements it sees as not fully observant. The goal of Modern Orthodoxy has been to coexist in the world with non-Jews, without the need to compromise on religious principles. Yeshiva College, established in New York in 1928, both cemented Modern Orthodoxy as an official movement and provided it with an educational center. With both secular and Jewish education, one ideally could be both an observant Jew and an acculturated, successful American. The relationship of these Modern Orthodox Jews to the outside American world has been cautiously friendly and optimistic. Drawing on terminology from Mary Douglas, Heilman refers to these "Jews for whom the real meaning of Orthodoxy is the ability to live in and be embraced by several cultures and worldviews at once" as "contrapuntalist Jews."

In contrast, ultra-Orthodoxy sees the secular world as full of corrupting influences. Because of this worldview, the ultra-Orthodox live in insular communities (Heilman calls them "contra-acculturative" or "enclavist"). Few haredim attend university since secular education represents the most dangerous of these outside influences. Without university and professional degrees, many haredim work at low-paying jobs. As traditionalist Jews, they have traded material success for what they see as spiritual purity and authentic traditional practice. Their attitudes toward acculturated Orthodox Jews who chose to engage with society is less than favorable, as these Jews fly in the face of haredi insular ideology. According to historian Jenna Joselit, the haredim see these Jews as "at best . . . America's 'modern' Orthodox, a subdivision or possibly even a dissident sect of traditional Jews but certainly not the denomination's authentic standard-bearers." This distinction belongs to the ultra-Orthodox, at least in their own eyes.

Yet even though the haredim profess an unbroken lineage from Sinai, historians of Orthodoxy have pointed out that even ultra-Orthodoxy in its current incarnation is a modern movement, dating back no further than the turn of the twentieth century. Like Modern Orthodoxy, it, too, is a reactionary movement, responding to the increasing liberalization of Judaism. The historian Haym Soloveitchik describes parallels between the emergence of Protestant fundamentalists and ultra-Orthodox Jews:

"Both ultra-Orthodoxy and fundamentalism are responses to the challenges posed by modernity to traditional religion, and therefore both are most likely to exist 'where tradition is meeting modernity rather than where modernity is most remote'. Both also engage in a struggle with their own coreligionists who are perceived as 'agents of assault on all that is held dear'".

Indeed, some would use the term "fundamentalist" to refer to these Jews, despite the historical use of this term to describe Protestants. The sociologist Samuel Heilman remarks of the haredim, "Fundamentalists regard themselves as the true heirs of the ancients." And while theirs is a new tradition, the haredi self-perception is of an unchanging lineage of true Jews.

This haredi air of authenticity has had an effect upon those previously (and proudly) known as Modern Orthodox. The sociologist Chaim Waxman has referred to contemporary American Orthodox Judaism as undergoing a period of "haredization," and Samuel Freedman writes, "The term 'Modern Orthodox' has become so pejorative -- it is to observant Jews what 'liberal' is to Democrats -- that even its practitioners prefer to call themselves 'centrist' or 'traditional.'" The growing effects of ultra-Orthodox observance on Modern Orthodox life can be seen in more than name; changes are visible in speech, dress, and practice. Marvin Schick called this trend "chassidification" in 1979, and others have called the trend of non-haredi Jews being influenced by haredi behavior as "Boro Park chic," a reference to the observant neighborhood in New York. These rightward trends have succeeded in radically polarizing the spectrum of American Jewry, resulting in what can only be described as an outright culture war.

The rise of the Modern Orthodox Jewish day school has been cited as a major factor in Judaism's move to the right, its haredization. The intention of these day schools was to have a place where Orthodox Jewish children could have both a secular education and an equally strong religious education; Jewish students would not have to choose between God and Harvard. These schools, recognized for their commitment to academics, quickly became feeder schools into the Ivy League and other top-tier institutions.

Herein lies the paradox: the Modern Orthodox movement emphasized professional careers such as law, social work, and medicine. Who would be available to teach the Jewish subjects in these day schools if Modern Orthodox Jews were doctors, lawyers, and MBAs? Approximately two-thirds of Judaica instructors are ultra-Orthodox, whose ideals run counter to the original purpose of the Modern Orthodox day school. These instructors do not believe that secular education is important; in fact, many see it as a detriment to one's spiritual enhancement, one that can wear away both belief and religious adherence, as well as take precious time away from Torah and Talmud study. More and more, students at these day schools defer college for a year in an Israeli yeshiva or include this yeshiva year as part of their college education. The greater emphasis on one-year yeshiva programs has resulted in greater observance and a significant shift to the right. Samuel Heilman refers to these yeshivas as "inoculation yeshivas" and claims that their agendas are to make the students wish to stay for a second year. Students return to the United States after experiencing the ease of religious observance in a world that is geared toward such a lifestyle and become frustrated by the less-than-perfect accommodations at home. They see their increased religiosity as a natural extension of the way they have been educated in schools chosen by their parents. Yet their parents are frustrated because while they may appreciate the knowledge coming from these instructors, they do not necessarily wish to see their children emulate their haredi teachers' lifestyles or worldviews.

While the ultra-Orthodox are critical of Modern Orthodox Jewry, they reserve harsher judgment for non-Orthodox Jews. Haredim often view them as a watered-down version of real Jews and as a people deprived of real meaning in their lives; at best, they are a group to be pitied. Consider the following statement from an Orthodox Jew:

"If we were to give them [non-Orthodox Jews] a test, use any standard recognized by the most uneducated, uninitiated Gentile as to what would constitute Jewish affiliation -- Sabbath observance, eating kosher, frowning on adultery, the Ten Commandments—these people would not match up in any way. So therefore I say that they are practicing a religion that is not Judaism. They certainly are not practicing Judaism as it was practiced by their grandparents."

Among other factors, it is this derisive attitude that fuels much anti-haredi sentiment among American Jews.

For the purposes of this book, it does not matter if the haredim in the narratives I will examine are hasidim or mitnagdim , if they are Litvak, Bobov, Satmar, or Lubavitch. It does not matter if the men's black hats are fur-trimmed or plain, or if the women wear wigs or kerchiefs. These details are cues for insiders. In his essay "What a Difference a Difference Makes," Jonathan Z. Smith notes "difference most frequently entails a hierarchy of prestige and the concomitant political ranking of superordinate and subordinate." In this hierarchy, it matters only that the haredim are haredim and therefore, according to these anxiety-laden narratives, "not like us."


This book will examine selected literary and cinematic narratives featuring ultra-Orthodox characters written by non-haredi Jews, specifically those narratives that were written in the mid-1980s and beyond. Before this period, the ultra-Orthodox were rare characters in popular Jewish American culture. Those narratives that did feature them often did so with a nostalgic gaze. In the 1980s, a new type of literature and film emerged, one that depicted these characters in a far harsher light. The surfacing of these narratives at this time is no coincidence, as it was a period of rapid social change in American Judaism. In 1985, the Conservative movement made the choice to ordain women, effectively drawing a line in the sand between non-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews. This decision was the final straw after years of social and political disagreements, and this development radicalized the two camps, increasing the hostility on both sides. The post-1985 narratives reflect this friction, as well as the reasons behind it.

"Our stories order our world," writes Michel de Certeau, and indeed stories and storytelling form a key point of cultural translation and self-interpretation. As Angela McRobbie notes in "The Politics of Feminist Research, "representations are interpretations." Representations therefore offer the scholar a place to view the construction and reception of popular belief. The choice to examine contemporary fictional narratives as a way of unearthing this new level of tension among American Jews is therefore deliberate and with precedent. David Weaver-Zercher, in his work The Amish in the American Imagination , analyzes similar popular representations of the Amish in order to explore the functions that the idea of the Amish served for the broader American culture. He writes: "Unlike other scholarly treatments of Amish life, the main characters in this study are not the Amish themselves, but rather outsiders who, for various reasons, took it upon themselves to represent the Amish to other Americans." Through an examination of popular literary and cinematic depictions of the haredim, we can not only extrapolate ideas and opinions important to the author but also glimpse those relevant to the author's audience.

Scholars who have successfully employed fiction as a way of assessing trends in the American Jewish community include the sociologists Marshall Sklare and Sylvia Barack Fishman. In a 1964 article entitled "Intermarriage and the Jewish Future," Sklare warns that sociologists are overlooking the increase of Jewish intermarriage and that contemporary literature is a more accurate reflection of the bigger picture:

"In short, the grounds for the American Jewish community's optimism are by no means as firm as they have been assumed to be by laymen and sociologists alike. Interestingly enough, the present state of Jewish endogamy seems to have been grasped more firmly by the novelists than by the sociologists. Even a hasty run-down of the work of such writers as Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Leslie Fiedler, Bruce Jay Friedman, Herbert Gold, Jack Ludwig, Myron Kaufmann, Neil Oxenhandler, etc., reveals how much recent American fiction has dealt with marriage or the strong possibility of it between a Jew and a Gentile."

Time obviously proved Sklare correct, as intermarriage has become increasingly prevalent in America in the forty years since the publication of his article. Sylvia Barack Fishman is a contemporary scholar who also uses literature and film in order to shed light upon aspects of women in Jewish life. Culling literary and cinematic motifs, she has clarified shifts in pressing Jewish subjects such as the impact of feminism, education, and intermarriage.


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