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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


 

What’s in a name? According to Rabbi Avi Shaffran in this week’s New York Times, a whole lot:

In the spring of 2016, President Barack Obama signed a bill eliminating dated references to racial or ethnic minorities that had remained in parts of federal regulations. “Negro” would be replaced with “African-American,” “Oriental” with “Asian-American or Pacific Islander” and so on. It was a long-overdue recognition that the meanings that words carry matter — especially when applied to minority groups.

It’s now generally accepted that racial, ethnic and religious groups determine how they wish others to refer to them. This is true not only in government documents but also in popular media and polite conversation.

There’s an exception, though, applied to my group — a different standard. We’re constantly labeled “ultra-Orthodox,” against our wishes.

We’re your neighbors, recognizable by our men in dark suits and black hats (for the subset among us called Hasidim, fur hats on the Sabbath and holidays), our women in modest dress and wigs or with kerchief hair coverings.

We oppose the label “ultra” as anyone would. What does “ultra” bring to mind in, say, politics? Does “ultraconservative” conjure images of Ambassador Nikki Haley and John McCain, or of Pat Buchanan and Steve Bannon? What do we mean when we call an investment “ultra-risky”? Or a race an “ultra-marathon”? We mean something that is extreme, beyond normal or beyond the mainstream.

Haredim (the Hebrew word we prefer, signifying religious devoutness) don’t buy into some elements of modern culture, and our value system places family, textual study and religious observance above certain material goals.

But that doesn’t make us extremists. We don’t rail against others and have no plans, as some religious extremists do, to harm or impose our will on anyone. We’re Orthodox, religiously observant Jews, but no more “ultra” than a typical observant Catholic, Mormon or Muslim.

Being tarred with the prefix “ultra” is only part of the problem. We’re demeaned in other ways, too. Enjoined by our faith to travel on the Sabbath only on foot, Haredi Jews tend to live near their synagogues, and what naturally results are Haredi neighborhoods and communities.

Why, when we buy homes in new communities, are we so often portrayed as invaders? We fully understand that the character of a neighborhood changes when members of a new ethnic or religious group arrive. We’ve been there ourselves. But no one should be able to discriminate against us in the home-buying process.

We also take our civic responsibility and legitimate self-interests seriously, so we vote in higher-than-average proportions. We embrace certain values and goals and seek to promote them at the ballot box. That’s the American democratic process at work.

Yet, when we exercise our right to vote in local elections, where our small numbers can still have measurable impact, we are routinely described as a “bloc,” a term that carries a sinister whiff of creepiness. Think “Soviet bloc” or “Communist bloc.” There’s often nonjudgmental talk of “the black vote” and “the Hispanic vote.” Why are Haredim a “bloc”?

There are other subtly disparaging tropes about Haredim as well, telegraphed not necessarily by specific words like “ultra” and “bloc,” but by negative stereotyping and harmful canards. These, too, are as lamentable as they are misleading. Haredim may all seem to dress similarly, but we are individuals, with individual, independent characteristics, views and skills.

Anti-Semitism, which always lurks beneath the surface of societies, has of late reared its ugly head. It has manifested in the streets of Brooklyn and in racist corners of the internet. And the targets of this hatred are often Haredim, visibly distinguishable Jews.

While there’s no direct line between subtle “othering” and physical violence, disparagement, even only in words, adds moisture to the dark cloud of prejudice. And sufficiently saturated, that cloud can yield, as a famous Jewish poet once put it, a hard rain.