Hasidic Jews and their neighbors: Strangers in the same land

I haven’t been blogging religiously of late because I simply haven’t had the time.

I do have a few minutes right now, though, to note the incredible public interest in the New Square arson case.

Everywhere I’ve gone in recent days, people have pulled me aside to talk about New Square. Who are those people? Why do they choose to live like that? They all just follow the Grand Rebbe blindly? They actually ganged up on that poor family because one man attended the wrong synagogue?

And on and on.

There has always been a tremendous fascination with Hasidic Jews — people who choose to live completely separate lives within mainstream, modern communities. It’s no surprise. Most people are borderline obsessed with modernity — having the latest and the most advanced and the best of everything, from igadgets to healthcare.

And here are entire communities of people who want nothing to do with modernity, who sacrifice their individuality, at least to some degree, so their community can have a monolithic, almost parallel existence.

I happened to visit the Bronx Zoo with my family during Passover. The place was mobbed. The traffic was obscene. And probably 20 to 25 percent of the people there were Hasidic Jews. Men in long black coats and an assortment of black hats. Woman in floor-length skirts, pushing strollers for multiple kids. Large families all around.

The non-Hasids at the zoo that day stared at the Hasids. I doubt that many of the non-Hasids were prejudiced in an way, but fascinated by a way of life they simply could not comprehend. The Hasids went about their business, eating matzoh on the grass or lining up to the see the big rhino, knowing they were being watched. They’re used to it.

Strangers in the same land.

The ongoing New Square arson case, which promises to be ongoing for some time, has really captured everyone’s attention. More information has come out than we are used to about how Hasids live and how their community-first attitude squeezes out many of the individual freedoms that most Americans prize.

We’re talking about large communities of people who are self-censored and self-segregated, who to choose to live in an 18th century-style schetl, who prefer old-world Poland or Ukraine to modern-day Piermont.

Several people have remarked to me about New Square’s median age being 14. I was happy to hear this because it meant that people read deep into my Sunday story about the Grand Rebbe’s authority.

People are fascinated by New Square’s youth. The youngest median age of a non-Hasidic NYS community is 23! How fast can the community grow?

Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews have often charged that others are prejudiced against their religious ways, particularly when people have opposed building or expansion plans. But, more often than not, non-Hasids are simply — here’s that word again — fascinated by Hasidic Jews.

Bus ads, no-fly lists, gay debates

Three interesting notes for a Friday:

1. The NYC MTA has apparently removed some advertising featuring bikini-clad women from buses passing through Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The community did not like the ads.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, writing for the Wash Post’s On Faith blog, calls the decision “nothing less than complicity in the Talibanization of Brooklyn.”

He writes:

*****

…like the members of the Hasidic community which objected to the ads and called for their removal, I agree about their being objectionable. But when any one group gets to decide what any of us has a right to see, we are all in trouble, especially when that conclusion is reached through political pressure as opposed to democratic process.

If the Hasidic community were to take the lead in organizing people across the political, cultural and religious spectrum to lobby for stricter guidelines about what belongs on any bus, I might join them. Or I might not, preferring to deal with the challenges of a pop culture saturated with ersatz sexuality in other ways than limiting expression.

*****

2. CAIR — the Council on American-Islamic Relations — has issued an advisory to American Muslims that if they travel overseas they may not be able to get back into the U.S.

The group says that Muslims are being put on “no-fly” lists without explanation or access to legal representation.

CAIR says: “In the past few months, CAIR has received a number of reports of American Muslims stranded overseas when they are placed on the government’s no-fly list. Those barred from returning to the United States report being denied proper legal representation, being subjected to FBI pressure tactics to give up the constitutionally-guaranteed right to remain silent, having their passports confiscated without due process, and being pressured to become informants for the FBI. These individuals have not been told why they were placed on the no-fly list or how to remove their names from the list.”

3. Presbyterian Church (USA) has been fighting internally for so long about whether gays and lesbians can be ordained that it seems that outsiders are no longer paying much attention.

But, just so you know, at the denomination’s 219th General Assembly in Minneapolis, a committee has approved an overture for new ordination standards — which would erase the current standards requiring that clergy be married or chaste.

The full assembly will soon vote. If the overtured is approved, it would have be passed by a majority of regional presbyteries across the country.