Monday, July 21, 2008

Bad News for the Jews

"[E]ven if the Satmars were famous for their chesed, or charity, KJ did not strike this traveler as a very haymishe place. On Lee Avenue in Williamsburg it was no big deal to get a smile and a hearty 'zeit gezunt' from a shtreimel-wearing Satmar. These were city people, Americans; they lived in the world. In the KJ boondocks, among these Hebrew hillbillies and their fundamentalist idea of chosen-peopleness, ask someone 'Which way to Route 17?' and they’d often just turn their backs on you. The message was clear: Here, you are Other."

I get queasy when I see a story about Orthodox Jews--or any religious group--in the media.

The Yearning for Zion brouhaha made me uncomfortable because much as the allegations were absolutely terrifying, I wonder what would happen if some of our religious practices were scrutinized from a secular standpoint. Fifty years from now, will brit milah be considered barbaric?

The cover story in this week's New York magazine (quote above) is about a 23-year-old woman who left the Satmar community, made more complicated by the fact that she also left her husband and is struggling to get custody of her daughter.

The magazine didn't have to do much to make the tale of a mother separated from her daughter into a tragedy. Especially considering the mother escaped the oppression of an ultra-religious community with strange practices.

And I'm not saying there is no truth in the article, no real-life sadness in the plight of a mother separated from her child. And certainly there are many things the Satmar community does that I am uncomfortable with.

But these articles inevitably end up twisting practices that can be beautiful. In simplifying a complicated religious code into sound bites and in only showing one side of things (and I cannot fault the magazine for not getting the whole story from a community that I am sure was reluctant to talk to reporters), the beauty in a community's practice of Judaism is lost.

And it's not just the beauty within the Satmar community specifically--some of the practices described in the article are practiced in much more "mainstream" circles as well (tznius, taharat hamishpacha, etc.). I don't want religious Judaism to be written off as oppressive.

And, really, can an article of a few thousand words explain the intricacies of Orthodox Judaism? Why we do the things we do? Or even how we do them?

I have struggled for a long time with the concept of communities that shelter themselves so much, and it is something I still do not agree with. But could this article really explain it? Explain that these people love their religion so much that they do not want to expose themselves to anything else? Explain that they don't want to endanger that practice in any way?

And, of course, this is coming from someone who in general has full faith in the media. But I wonder if anyone or any group who is the subject of a newspaper article feels that inherently there is bias because the whole picture is never seen.

Is this why people are wary of the media?


At 7/21/08, 10:43 AM, Blogger tznius-lady said...

From my experience, ignoring the media and not responding helps make it blow over faster. I welcome your comments on my tznius topics.


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