Friday, July 24, 2009

Exotic rabbi, stereotypical situation

This image and caption alone should be the encyclopedia entry for Bad For The Jews. Good grief.

The article this accompanies - about a corruption scandal involving some Syrian-community rabbis - is sort of bizarre. I get that not everyone hears 'Sephardic' and immediately knows what this refers to, but the amount of background seems... excessive. To understand that this community is upset that its rabbis stand accused of some stereotype-fulfilling what-have-you, is it really necessary to know that "Sephardim, unlike the ultra-Orthodox who live at a remove from American society, attend public schools in the lower grades and are encouraged to succeed in business." That The Sephardim own Century 21? That they can't intermarry? That they're behind Jordache jeans? (Do Jordache jeans still exist?) All interesting tidbits, but how does any of this relate to the corruption scandal? Why not just stop here: "Sephardic Jews trace their ancestry to Spain and various parts of North Africa and the Middle East, as distinct from the Ashkenazic Jews from Eastern Europe"? (Not that Ashkenazi Jews necessarily come from Eastern Europe - how about Germany, Alsace... but most in America do come from E Eur, so, close enough.)

So, why all the ethnographic detail? To make the story more compelling? To hit a word count? To spare the reputation of other American Jews, the Ashkenazi majority, who are (by implication, and by internal-Ashkenazi stereotype) less business-oriented and insular than the Sephardic communities? If there's bigotry to be had, perhaps, by making very clear which Jews are involved here, The Jews will not be insulted? (As if that's ever worked.) Because all news stories are about people, and people, as a rule, have some cultural background. Again, granted that this particular background is unfamiliar to many, but the article just stopped short of explaining which seasonings go into couscous dishes traditional to this set.

I guess what got to me was that it ended up reading as though all the cultural information was meant as a background to explain (in the best of cases) why the community's upset, or (in the worst) how the corruption came about. If the latter seems like a possibility, it's in part because why wouldn't a community be miffed in this situation, but it could be because of the heavy emphasis from the journalist on how ambitious and money-hungry this community tends to be, juxtaposed with the inevitable quotes from insiders about how radically money-laundering conflicts with the values they hold dear.


PG said...

I didn't find the three paragraphs* with which you took issue to be that problematic. They're at the end of the article and seem to be mostly trying to distinguish Sephardic Jews from other kinds of Jews, not to paint them as peculiarly money-grubbing, but just to put the culture in context for people unfamiliar with the various ethnicities and subcultures within Judaism.

So far as I know, I don't know any Sephardic Jews, so the article tries to reach to me, the average ignorant reader, by finding something to connect me to Sephardic Jews: Jordache, Bonjour, Conway, Century 21. It could just as easily have been "Sephardic Jews were the majority of the construction team on the Empire State Building," if that had been true. And then I, ignorant non-Jewish reader, could think, "Oh, now I have some sense of who Sephardic Jews are." Yes, this would be incredibly facile, but a single page newspaper article often is.

The whole scandal sounds like a bad joke. "Three New Jersey mayors and five rabbis walk into a bar..."

* "Unique among groups within Judaism, Sephardic leaders have tried mightily to strike a difficult balance between preservation of identity and participation in the American entrepreneurial dream, said Prof. Aviva Ben-Ur of the University of Massachusetts, author of “Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History.”

"In 1935, Rabbi Kassin’s father issued an edict forbidding both marriage outside the faith and marriage to Jewish converts, she said. At the same time, Sephardim, unlike the ultra-Orthodox who live at a remove from American society, attend public schools in the lower grades and are encouraged to succeed in business.

"Among the successful businesses founded by Sephardic Jews are Jordache and Bonjour, the jeans makers, and the Conway and Century 21 department stores."

Matt said...

I didn't read the article, but I'd be very pleased if it had turned out, or was implied, that Jordache jeans were, all along, a front for money laundering.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think I was clear in the post that I don't think the typical NYT reader necessarily knows what 'Sephardic' refers to - most everything in that article I already knew was from a previous NYT piece on the subject. What I'm wondering is why all the info in the paragraphs you cite was necessary for the story. You don't need "a sense of who Sephardic Jews are" (again, beyond the basic distinction between them and Ashkenazi Jews) to get that a rabbi is a religious leader, and that the constituents of a clergy member arrested for money-laundering are upset about what's happened. The whole thing about them being encouraged to succeed in business struck me as, if true in some cases (Jordache, apparently), gratuitous. I don't believe the rabbis in the community are expected to make loads of money, which was why this was surprising.


If that were the case, then this would be an old crime indeed, as I really don't think those pants are still sold.

PG said...


You assume the important distinction is between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, yet the article only distinguishes between them geographically. The article's *cultural* distinction is between Sephardic Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews: similar in that they forbid marriage outside the faith and to converts, but different in that "Sephardim, unlike the ultra-Orthodox who live at a remove from American society, attend public schools in the lower grades and are encouraged to succeed in business."

Jordache has declined in popularity but is still around. (The fact that no one in NY would deign to wear a brand doesn't mean it no longer exists.) Current spokesmodel is Heidi Klum.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

In Judaism, and in any discussion on the matter I've ever, ever heard, the distinction is Ashkenazi-Sephardic. Not all Sephardic Jews are super-religious and to be distinguished from the ultra-orthodox only in terms of public school and business interests. That would be (much of) the Syrian community in Brooklyn, and, apparently, NJ. But if it was for whatever reason necessary to make this distinction as well, it could have been done in a way that a) didn't exoticize, and b) didn't emphasize business acumen. Because the implication is then that the rabbi scandal as to do with an (alleged) Sephardic tendency to amass big heaps of money.

"The fact that no one in NY would deign to wear a brand doesn't mean it no longer exists."

Ooh, snarky much? The point is I haven't seen it sold except in vintage shops - for all I know everyone who shops outside of the city is wearing them. I don't know offhand what they look like. Plus their presence in vintage shops (i.e. not thrift stores) in NY suggests NYers are wearing them, but that they may not currently be produced, at least not often. (I can't know for sure, but I'd imagine you knowing about Heidi Klum being the Jordache spokesmodel came from Googling upon deciding to comment - this being the top hit for the make, I now notice - and not from this being a nationally high-profile brand.)

Plus, I thought I'd long since established on this blog that I live (most of the time, at least) in NY, am from the city, and that for that reason, if I assume something to be true generally based on my own observations (such as, Jordache jeans no longer sold new), there's always a chance I'm missing how things are elsewhere. But this is not snobbish malice, as your "deign" implies, but at worst NYer provincialism, or to put a neutral spin on it, the inevitable result of anyone living mostly in one place, whatever that one place might be.

Anonymous said...

Googling "famous sephardic," I came up with a list that includes Benjamin Cardozo, Emma Lazarus and Elias Canetti. So I'm with Phoebe here. Singling out Century 21 and Jordache skewed readers' perceptions of Sephardim.


PG said...

I don't understand why connecting Sephardic Jews to things with which most readers will be familiar (Jordache, Century 21), instead of not-so-familiar, is considered exoticization. I didn't know who Cardozo was before I went to law school; I still don't know who Elias Canetti is (Wikipedia says Bulgarian-born, wrote in German, became a Brit citizen and lived in Zurich -- why would a typical NYT reader know of him?); and Lazarus is best known for a poem about welcoming foreigners. Throwing American brand names out there struck me as far more of a clumsy attempt to *de*-exoticize. "You know Sephardic Jews, they brought you Jordache jeans and a Century 21 in which to buy them."

I think it's reasonable on a blog to make assumptions that otherwise would require serious empirical surveys and so forth, which is why unlike some commenters I don't question your generalizations such as "Women tend to be like this..." But the current existence of Jordache is not difficult to ascertain. I didn't bother mentioning it in my first comment responding to this post because I thought you were making a wry throwaway comment with your parenthetical "Do Jordache jeans still exist?" But in your comment to Matt, you treated it as a factual matter that Jordache is defunct.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Re: Cardozo, so much in NY is named after him, I don't think he'd have been an unreasonable name to drop. But my point was, is, that we don't need a colorful portrait of The Sephardim (who are not The Syrians - the article puts everyone into a bucket, as it were) in order to understand the scandal and that the congregation is upset. Add to this the fact that the scandal was about money, and that the stereotype of Jews being sneaky and usurious is the oldest around, and it starts to seem more nudge-nudge and less 'ooh, Century 21, I know that name', that this info is in the piece. It leads the reader to associate an alleged Sephardic (or just Jewish) tendency to succeed in business with a scandal that had, it sounds like, nothing to do with a drive to sell jeans at a discount.

And... without belaboring the point re: Jordache, NY is a place where just about every brand-name makes an appearance, those found worldwide or nationwide by far outnumbering one-of-a-kind boutique items. I have not looked through all the racks the city contains, but I've been to enough discount and department stores in my day (there, but also in Chicago) that my sense of Jordache as, if not altogether defunct, a brand not commonly found, was not entirely unreasonable. If Jordache has any symbolic value, it would be that of a brand worn for retro or ironic appeal. From Wikipedia: "The brand is known for its designer jeans that were popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s." Thus if anything hip New Yorkers would wear the pants, but would not need to buy them new.

PG said...

If hip NYers will wear appropriately-prewashed denim bought where I last saw Jordache (not a store that can be found in NYC), let me know and I'll bring back a truckload from my next trip home. I still think "deign" has something to do with it: $16 flyover-state fashion doesn't seem to have become ironically cool yet.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Enough with the "deign", really. NYers would totally shop at a Walmart if one were readily available. Yes, including for clothes, ironic and otherwise. 'Ironic hillbilly' pretty much was the hipster look for a while (remember trucker hats?), and perhaps still is, but outside of that hipster subculture, I think a whole lot of people would jump at the chance to get cheaper basics.

I get that you're trying to make some point about NYC snootiness, and while such snootiness exists, your assessment ignores, say, the immense excitement with which NYers greeted our first Old Navy, our first Target, etc.

Anonymous said...

I think this is your Henry Louis Gates moment (seeing racism/prejudice where none exists). Quick forward the article to the ADL.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Ooh, a topical comment!

First off, I don't believe Gates saw racism where none existed.

Next, in terms of this post... did I announce that the author of this article was basically the second coming of Hitler? Not exactly. What I wrote was that I found the references to Sephardic business acumen gratuitous and potentially offensive. As I mentioned, it could be that the excessive descriptions were to save the reputation of the bulk of American Jews, who are Ashkenazim, turning the story into one about a culturally colorful, obscure minority of Jews, as opposed to one about The Jews and Their Rabbis. The point could well have been to avoid encouraging anti-Semitism.

Either way, racism is a complex matter. The symbolism of a white cop arresting a black man on his own property, or of a news story about Jews and money that goes above and beyond, will be obvious to some but not to others. Just as (to generalize...) whites see as innocuous what blacks see as racially charged, a Jew might read the article differently from a gentile. That doesn't make the Gates case or the tone of the article official cases of capital-r Racism, but it is also a mistake to say that things only 'count' as offensive if in-group and out-group observers see them as such.

Anonymous said...

Lots of things will be "obvious to some but others" I just don't think outsiders should let their behavior be guided by what the most "sensitive" (to use a polite word) of the the in-group considers to be (lower r) racism/prejudice. It would be a cliche to refer to the boy who cried wolf at this point but nevertheless it's still apt. If you keep on defining racism down people will just switch off when you occasionally highlight a 'genuine' case of racism.

Anonymous said...

Oh and to label it "potentially offensive" is a total cop out. "oh, I don't think you are racist but some people could potentially view your actions as objectively racist"

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Let me explain it like this: there are degrees of racism. It's not about defining racism down or crying wolf (which, if you know what it means, you know means inventing a threat out of thin air, and not, for rational reasons built upon experience and knowledge of history, unintentionally overestimating a threat that, though real, is not as great as some may think). It's about acknowledging that things can be offensive that fall (far) short of Jim Crow or Nazism. The point is not to react equally to all forms of racism, but rather to understand that some racism is so overt as to be visible to all, whereas other forms, because they are subtle, coded, or both, are only obvious to the in-group.

""sensitive" (to use a polite word)"

Here's where I really lose sympathy with your comment. People who accuse members of often-persecuted groups of oversensitivity tend to miss why members of these groups might have come to be that touchy. Have a little compassion. Some of what looks like whininess and overreaction is just that, but other times it's just reactions to slights that would not be obvious as slights to those who are not members of whichever given group.

And when it comes down to it, it's really blacks who get to decide what constitutes racism against blacks, same for Jews and anti-Sem, gays and homophobia, etc. Some standard making it so that hetero Christian males have to see it or else it doesn't count will get us nowhere.