Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Understanding The Haredim

Observant Jews

An article, by Jack Wertheimer in Commentary offers another view of  "ultra-Orthodox" Jews, the Haredim, who seem to operate and appear as a monolith to outsiders with their attire and their use of Yiddish as their mame loshen ("mother tongue"), including to assimilated and secularized American and Canadian Jews such as myself. As is common with many preconceptions, based on limited information, there is much more to the Haredim and Hasidim than initially meets the eye.

Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes:
The so-called ultra-Orthodox may be the most recognizable Jews by virtue of their distinctive garb, but they continue to be the least-known actors on the American Jewish scene. Clustering in densely populated enclaves, speaking Yiddish or Yinglish (a mixture of Yiddish, English, and rabbinic Hebrew) among themselves, consciously rejecting much of modish Western culture, and arranging their family lives, daily routines, finances, and politics in a manner entirely different from their highly acculturated co-religionists, they are a people apart. For want of a better term, they have come to be known collectively as Haredim,1 “those who tremble in fear of God.”2 More colloquially, in recognition of the preferred head coverings of their males, a different shorthand is used, though not as a term of endearment—“black hatters.” Yet rather than constitute a single monolithic body, these Jews demonstrate that there are at least 50 shades of black.

The largest contingent consists of Hasidim, the inheritors of an 18th-century mystical strain of Judaism. They divide themselves into at least two dozen sects, each with its own leader. Some, such as the two warring factions of the Satmar group, are riven internally; others simply refuse to cooperate with one another and at times come to blows.

Then there are the historical antagonists of the Hasidim, the spiritual descendants of their Lithuanian opponents. These are the “Yeshivish,” men whose lives are oriented around upper-level academies of Torah study. To insiders, the subtle but very real distinctions in customs, garb, allegiances, and ways of living that characterize these different sub-populations loom far larger than their commonalities.
In my early childhood years growing up on Park Avenue in Montreal, we were mere blocks away from multiple Hasidic communities who resided in an area called Outremont, each with its own shul or more often, shtiebel, its own distinctive dress, and its own customs—the differences might be minor but reflect the traditions established in European communities long ago. What I found difficult to comprehend as a young boy, however, was how the men could wear long black coats in summer when it was so hot, notably in July. I don't consider this question anymore.

Periodically, through the course of my professional life, I have came in contact with such Jews from various Hasidic sects, and on one occasion, a few years ago, we were invited to a pidyon haben service ("redeeming of the first-born son") for our daughter's and son-in-law's child. We were eating roasted chicken and potatoes and many salads, all home cooked, at 7 in the morning; we found the people warm and inviting, and the children found our two boys a curiosity because of their different more modern attire. It was a delightful and novel experience, and eye-opening.

You can read more at [Commentary].