Sunday, February 27, 2005

Will The Real Orthodox Judaism Please Stand Up?

I've been thinking a bit about all the back and forth regarding Wendy Shalit's criticism of the way Orthodox Jews are portrayed in modern fictional literature (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for relevant articles). Similar charges are made against bloggers who write about their (sometimes former) communities in less than flattering terms. This isn't at all surprising. No one likes having their flaws laid bare for the whole world to see. Especially not the frum world. Most definitely not the chareidi world. If it was up to them, all literature would be published by Artscroll and all news reporting would be done by the Yated.

Most of the arguments I've been hearing on the issue are about the supposedly distorted picture that is being painted in these stories. Many people feel that these characterizations do not accurately represent the societies and individuals that they're speaking about. Another point raised is to what degree authors of fiction have an obligation to authentically recreate their fictional settings.

But I think that the real problem that everyone is so upset about has nothing to do with how or even if these stories misrepresent what the frum world is like. Only someone who views the world in absolutist black and white terms would think that a novel's characters are wholly representative of the society that the story is set in. The real issue that's of so much concern is that to many frum people, even if it's acknowledged that the depictions aren't descriptive of the whole society, the very existence of these less-than-stellar figures and narratives are a problem.

After all, frum society loves to portray itself as so much better in every way than anything else that's out there. It perpetually presents its adherents as a content and fulfilled lot, wanting nothing more than to be left alone to follow God's laws, striving for goodness, righteousness, and the pursuit of virtue. Pettiness, dishonesty, selfishness, immorality, decadence, corruption and all the other moral failings that are part of the fabric of human society are concepts that the frum world would like to believe are absolutely foreign to their constituents.

I think it's that fact that Shalit and her advocates are so bothered by. Not about the distorted view of frum society these books supposedly convey. What bothers them to no end is when people share experiences and views which are contrary to the exaggerated claims of the amazingly inspiring, you'll-want-to-give-up-everything-and-join-us-right-away, frum fantasy pitch. They don't like it when frum people's hidden failings are uncovered. When frum people show less than a full commitment to halacha. When frum people behave corruptly. When a person strict about halacha behaves crassly. They don't like it when the cheerful and rose-colored image of frum life is debunked. When drugs, promiscuity, delinquency, mental illness, crime, abuse, and other social ills are revealed to exist. When a dark underbelly is exposed. The point isn't whether these things are common or not. It's whether they exist at all.

This is why they don't like books like The Outside World, The Sacrifice of Tamar, or Sotah. Movies like A Price Above Rubies or Trembling Before G-d. Blogs like Hasidic Rebel, A Hassid and a Heretic, Frummer and The Sheigetz. It's why no frum publisher had the guts to print a much needed book about spousal abuse. It's part of why Baruch Lanner got away with what he did for all those years. And it's why every unpleasant subject in the frum world is swept under the carpet until the problem is just too big to ignore.

Opponents of writers like Tova Mirvis and Naomi Ragen often accuse them of having an axe to grind, of pursuing an agenda. It may be true, it may not be true, but I think it's irrelevant to the point. The fact is that all of these authors, bloggers and social critics speak from a place of genuine experience. Whether that experience is representative of the whole community or not doesn't negate the fact that their feelings on these issues are just as valid and authentic as the feelings of one who has had mainly positive experiences.

No one's saying that all Orthodox Jews are deviants, crooks, and lowlifes. That all Orthodox communities are about superficial materialism and halachic one-upmanship. That Orthodox Judaism is full of hypocrisy and misogyny. But don't try to pretend that these things don't exist. Orthodoxy done right can be a wonderful, inspiring, fulfilling lifestyle. I truly believe that. But not everyone has a great Orthodox experience. Not every Orthodox person is so wonderful. And not every Orthodox experience is so inspiring.

Those of us who have had such experiences are entitled to share our view of Jewish life also. You don’t have to like it. But please don’t tell us that it’s any less authentic than the delusional fantasy that you think you’re living in.


Shmarya said...

Well said. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I only agree partially.

The real problem is not that there are folks who wish to preserve a pristine view of the frum world (and there are), but that in the generic media, there is only one side portrayed. Can you name one movie that was screened in a Jewish film festival in the last decade which intentionally portrayed a frum person, ideal, or rabbi in a warm, positive light?

In fact, if you peruse the film festivals each year, there are without fail, the following two films:

1. ‘I bet you didn’t know how rotten things were in Frum society’
2. Mendy discovers how life is really much more meaningful outside his cloistered frum life

EVERY YEAR. The movies have different names, but they are always there.

The same goes for fiction, which is Shalit’s point. Of course literature which is aimed internally at the frum world is one-sided, but so is the literature which is aimed externally. That is the problem.

If each side saw both sides of the coin we would all be better off. The problem is that each side works to promote their own insular view of Orthodoxy, whether it’s the frum who want to ignore real problems, or the non-frum who want to believe that there is nothing redeeming or valuable about living a frum life.

Gil Student said...

I disagree. I grew up in the non-Orthodox world and the people around me accepted the media's portrayal of Orthodox Judaism as entirely authentic. The Chosen, Fiddler on the Roof and Yentl were many people's only exposure to Orthodoxy and they took them as true even though they are clearly fictional. People are just gullible and non-thinking, as unfortunate as it is. Most minority groups understand this, which is why, for example, Arabs groups always complain when a movie has an Arab as a terrorist. That helps paint the picture in the public's mind, despite the fact that it is entirely fictional. That is why some Orthodox figures are objecting when their communities are portrayed negatively.

In addition to the articles and blogs you cited in the post, see Marvin Schick's piece at

The Hedyot said...

Can you name one movie that was screened in a Jewish film festival in the last decade which intentionally portrayed a frum person, ideal, or rabbi in a warm, positive light?I don't recall exactly, but I think I remember that in A Price of Rubies the rabbi character was actually quite likable. I definitely remember in The Sacrifice of Tamar, the Rabbi is portrayed very positively. In fact, the heroine (or the closest character to it) repeatedly credits him and the way he treated her through the years as the main positive influence in her life (and what inspired her to become religious).

The Hedyot said...

I didn't mean to say that the negative image that these portrayals present to the outside world isn't at all a factor in what bothers the critics. But I think the factor I highlighted is a significant one too, and the more significant factor in many cases. Maybe not in all cases is it the main one, but for many people, having flaws of frum society pointed out - even to the insiders - disturbs them way more than any negative PR to the non-religious/non-Jewish world.

A slight support of this can be seen in the fact that many of the people who complain about these things often don't give a damn about what "the goyim" think of them in other contexts. When a non-jew thinks they're wierd and old-fashioned for whatever it is the Jew is doing, he tends to shrug it off quite easily. So I think it's inconsistent and inaccurate to point to concerns of negative PR as the primary concern in these situations.

Anonymous said...

"The fact is that all of these authors, bloggers and social critics speak from a place of genuine experience."

You completely miss the point. Some of those authors portray themselves as coming from a "place of genuine experience" but in fact grew up on Long Island, not in a charedi enclave, and are just IMAGINING.

The objection to the bloggers is VERY different than to frauds.

These authors are no different than Ward Churchill - they are marketing themselves as frum to sell books the way he pretended to be Native American to get a job.

The Hedyot said...

Ok, fine, so NE isn't what he makes himself out to be. I was actually going to mention him in the post, but he's an exception.

You say the authors are "marketing themselves as frum." First of all, I don't think Shalit actually disputed that they are frum (at least those I'm familiar with, e.g. Mirvis, Ragen). The claim against them is that the frum perspective they give isn't at all accurately representative. And secondly, no one really cares if they are or were actually frum. Just that they have an accurate handle on the society that they're portraying. Do you think Shalit and her allies would care if the author was religious or not? That's not the point, and probably no one really cares one way or the other. It's what the author is writing that matters to them. If they consider it a fair portrayal of their society, they could care less if the person is religious or not.

Anonymous said...

Its funny you mention 'A price above rubies' which was a pure hit piece on Orthodoxy. Methinks that this hardly counts as sympathetic when the entire movie one long slander of Orthodoxy.

I think what bothers those who are concerned with the genuine orthodoxy of the writer is that one feels that if the author truly comes from that background, that what they are writing (though fiction) is an accurate portrayal.

The Hedyot said...

Yes, A Price Above Rubies was mostly negative about Orthodoxy, but you asked for an example of any film that portrayed a rabbi in a positive light.

The Hedyot said...

Here's a thought for everyone who believes that the issue is primarily PR: Would people still be as upset if a critical or negative book or film was made which was released and distributed only within the community? I think the answer is yes.

Frum people don't want the fact that much is rotten in the state of their Judaism to be expressed at all, even among themselves.

Anonymous said...

Well said.

Fiction authors write fiction- and can and do write about people DIFFERENT from them, they use IMAGINATION.

There is an amazing movie called "Ushpizin" playing now in Israel with English subtitles that besides being an Oscar level movie in terms of production standards, portrays chasidim in a normal/positive light. It has haskamot one or maybe two rabanim, believe it or not, and was produced to entertain and to partially to combat the dirty chasid media image.

Anonymous said...

Frum people don't want the fact that much is rotten in the state of their Judaism to be expressed at all, even among themselves."

Quite true, but this has no bearing on Shalit's point. Her point is that there are many authors who protray themselves as 'authentic' authors of orthodox life who target the rest of the world and always portray the negative.

The fact that the frum dont like internal criticism is a big problem which has nothing to do with the above.

Anonymous said...

Mirvis understands the sociology of Memphis MO. She knows nothing about religion, and it limits her work. In her interview with LukeFord, she said didn't recognize the 13 ikarim!

So no, these are not "insiders" in the FRUM world. They represent a segment of Orthopraxy, they have little ability to comment on the intersection of religion and culture - they miss LOTS due to their background.

That was Mirvis' point - she said that what counts is her ability to comment on the culture. Well, I think if you don't know what the 13 ikarim are, and you also talk about how you "study Talmud" then you are severely limited in your ability to comment on OJ.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous of 9:51--
wow, you collapsed a several-thousand-word interview into "she knows nothing about religion"
And "she didn't recognzine the 13 ikarim" is another gross mischaracterization. Of course she knows them; even a Conservative kindergarten student can sing the Yigdal. When asked by the interviewer Luke Ford whether she believes in the 13 ikarim, she responded "remind me", probably because she was worried about be ambushed with "well you are a heretic then". Seeing your post, I guess she had what to be worried about.

The Hedyot said...

Firstly, can you people please use an identifier more descriptive than "Anonymous"? Blogger's started allowing non-members to use whatever name they want without logging in. It really would be apreciated if you could do that. Thanks.

On to your point: You think not knowing the 13 Principles of Maimonidies says a lot? Take a survey of yeshiva bochurim and see how many know them. Then take a survey of those and see how many know the Ten Commandments.
You'll be lucky if you can find a minyan. Actually, if you find a mezuman I'd be impressed.

Anonymous said...

my handle is amonie.

I don't know ANYONE who learned in charedi institutions who doesn't know the 13 ikarim and the ten commandments.

I do know some Ramaz kids (and the like) who know neither.

Anonymous said...

PS and those who don't are not capable of commenting much on the religious world. they can observe sociology, but informed commentary on a religious community requires some understanding of the interplay between religion and sociology.

Ben Sorer Moreh said...

IIRC, Shalit never mentions Ragen, one way or the other. I've only read "Jepthe's Daughter" and in that book, there are "simple" Orthodox Jews (e.g., the father,) "nasty" Orthodox Jews (the Harshens) and "heroic" ones, as in the rabbi who helps her out and the man she eventually marries. In "JD," the protagonist leaves her community, but somehow always "pulls back" from doing "unkosher" things (e.g., eat the shrimp, sleep with the attractive guy) which people in her position in "real life" would probably do (of course, the book would then be "treif.") Are Ragen's other books like this? If so, Shalit might not object to them.

Ben Sorer Moreh said...

Regarding "Price Above Rubies," I believe the "community" was portrayed as flawed but generally admirable. "Sonia" (Renee Z) is victimized by nasty individuals (brother- in-law, husband) but ultimately wins the respect of the Rabbi and the community and they come to her aid. I'm afraid that in "real" life, Sonia would have been treated worse than on-screen(and a certain recent real-life case stands out as an example.) and would not have gotten within a block of the Rabbi. Perhaps Shalit does not know this, does not want to know this or does not want the world to know this.

OTOH, people who create fictional works which cast aspersions on communities (be it A C Doyle's portrayal of Mormons or Dan Brown's alternative history of the Catholic church) or ways of life will attract criticism, perhaps justified.

BTW, for a movie of the same vintage that portrays the community in a far worse light, see "Kadosh"

Shtreimel said...

You have a great blog, writing about real good issues. You're getting elevated to my "Mizrach wall".

A Gut Shabbos.

Frummer????? said...

Whenever people write a book, play or screenplay about anything, its inevitable that only the interesting things will get picked up.

Nobody wants to watch a movie about the drudgery of life.

Hence only the contreversial, amusing or stupid bits of any community or person getting magnified and publicised.

Frummer????? said...