Monday, July 14, 2008

In defense of secularism, shirts

Jews! Nudity! Brooklyn! Manhattan! New York Magazine's latest cover story has it all.

As is the case, I'd imagine, for most secular Jews, my relationship to Ultra-Orthodox Jews is conflicted. On the one hand, I realize that if they start getting attacked on the streets, this means anti-Semitism, and is bad news not just for them, but for those like myself. On the other hand, getting an arranged marriage at 17, dressing for the Polish winter in the New York summer, and the many rules interfering with such questions as gentiles looking at wine; men and women shaking hands; and taking the elevator on Saturday (unless it stops on every floor) strike me as, well, horrible. (Depending on which part of the faith we're talking about, the fact that I'm pro-Israel further distances me from many in these communities, who believe that Israel should not have been established.)

Unlike some others, I feel comfortable disapproving of their lifestyle while respecting the fact that they no doubt disapprove even more vigorously of mine. And it's great that we can all, for the most part, live in peace in this country. But the point is, whatever solidarity I feel with Hasids and others of this ilk comes from a sense that we share ancestry and enemies. That's the extent to which I can relate. While the sight of the Ultra-Orthodox gives some less- or non-Jews a feeling of guilt, a sense that look, these people are the real deal, I feel nothing of the kind. For a sense of why, have a look at this movie. A willingness to stand out in public (admirable) and oppress in private (less so) does not make any particular group of Jews the 'authentic' ones.

That said, what on earth was New York Magazine doing, putting a topless shot of an ex-Hasidic woman's 4-year-old daughter, sitting with her (clothed) mother, on the cover? Yes, yes, provocative, I get it, but why put the child in more danger than she'd be in otherwise? This is America, for god's sake, not Europe. We are not so cavalier about nudity in these parts. I doubt if the average 'of course I breast-feed in public' Park Slope mom would agree to having her daughter photographed in this way, on the cover of a major magazine, even if the magazine's proceeds benefitted local farms, green tote bags, and Obama. In other words, the cover is bad taste defined.

As for Mark Jacobson's article itself, the conflict of authenticities between the old-time liberal New York Jewish great-grandparents and the hippie-gone-Hasid grandmother is quite interesting. If only the piece didn't begin with a reference to the above-mentioned child "sitting, princesslike, in the child’s seat," soon to be followed by a mention that certain Hasids "only came to Wal-Mart for the big sales." Princesses, sales, princesses, sales... something is starting to click. This story, is it by any chance about Jews?

7 comments:

Withlove said...

My best advice is to chillax. When judging other people's lifestyles, the only certainty is that you will get it wrong. There are a variety of "Ultra-Orthodox" lifestyles. The world is not monolithic. Everyone has their pluses and minuses. While getting married at 17 can be stifling, especially when that marriage does not work out, a variety of lifestyle choices that get made for us can be problematic.
Look at a modern secular life from their perspective. Parents shunt their children off to college where they live on their own, get drunk and have sex with people that they don't even know. Some people are ok with this lifestyle. For others it causes deep alienation and angst, that can end poorly.
My point is that inter-cultural judgments end poorly. One man's cooked dog, is Vietnamese fast food.

Phoebe said...

"There are a variety of 'Ultra-Orthodox' lifestyles."

I figured someone would respond with something along those lines. Needless to say, "withlove" admits that there's a difference between Ultra-Orthodoxy across the board and secular life, so whatever diversity surely does exist among the sects, all (do correct me if I'm wrong) marry off girls of 17.

Having been to a modern secular college, I can assure you that no one is forced to sleep with anyone, barring cases of rape, which is, you know, illegal in any setting, secular or religious. The chances of a woman of 19 being coerced into a sexual relationship not of her choosing are, I'd imagine, a whole lot lower for the college girl than for the married Orthodox one.

NafNaf said...

While there are chassidic groups that practice completely arranged marriage these are the minority, most times the would-be bride and groom (yes, they are married very early by American standards) are introduced to each other and have an awkward "meet and greet" in the living room while their parents kibbitz in the kitchen. The kids can turn each other down if they are repulsed, but they typically stop sowing their oats after 3 or four different pairings.
The "ultra orthodox" world ends with people like me who get on the internet and try to dispell myths

Phoebe said...

I appreciate that the Orthodox community is not monolithic, that there's a spectrum, and so on. But the fact remains that marital choice (in terms of both the specific partner and the choice to be married at all, at a particular age, to a person of a particular gender) is highly restricted in all forms of Orthodoxy. It is not a 'myth' that Ultra-Orthodox Judaism restricts choices in this way, that's precisely what Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is advertising, as it were.

NafNaf said...

uhm, I'm not even sure what this means: "But the fact remains that marital choice (in terms of both the specific partner and the choice to be married at all, at a particular age, to a person of a particular gender) is highly restricted in all forms of Orthodoxy. It is not a 'myth' that Ultra-Orthodox Judaism restricts choices in this way, that's precisely what Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is advertising, as it were."
Besides the fact that orthodoxy isn't a big fan of gay marriage (neither is most of the world so so honestly I have other issues that I think are more important) people DO have choice. There are messed up people everywhere, but every survey done on the subject says that there are no more degenerates in the Orthodox community than anywhere else... What this means is that most parents will "bench" the kids who's not ready to get married at 17 if it's needed. Does that mean there aren't parents who push their children to get married too early; or course not, but that's not limited to the frum world (I think it's the plot of many a movie). There are restrictions (cohanim can't marry gerim) but they aren't anything like what's being depicted by NY Mag or by most people who are outside the Orth. world

Phoebe said...

What it means is what you and the commenter above admit: that despite diversity among Orthodox Jews, there exists a major difference between how marriage and sexuality are regulated in any Orth. Jewish community than how they are in secular society. That doesn't mean the NY Mag article doesn't depict something above and beyond the norm.

Shai said...

"The chances of a woman of 19 being coerced into a sexual relationship not of her choosing are, I'd imagine, a whole lot lower for the college girl than for the married Orthodox one."

You would imagine? Based on?

College was the best seven years of my life :-) And one of the things I learned, is the pressure girls have to have sex/loose their virginity their freshman year (and every other year, needless to say what kinds of behaviors sororities and the greek system endorse, and as former president of my house, I should know). I was part of a social action committee, and this was made abundantly clear at both universities I attended. Additionally, I had many classmates utilize this information to their sub-animal predatory advantage.