Jewish Journal


August 9, 2010

Haredi Stereotypes, Jewish Stereotypes


Today’s Independent newspaper in London reports that a group called “the Guardians of Sanctity and Education feared that some temptations would simply prove too much, and deployed an army of snoopers to photograph members of the ultra-orthodox community, also known as Haredi, at a mixed-sex pop concert.”

Here’s how their reporter, Catrina Stewat, describes that community:

    “Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox Mea Shearim neighbourhood offers a snapshot of another era. Medieval-style buildings overhang the narrow little alleyways through which black-hatted men with sidelocks hurry, heads bowed and books in hand.  Here, the focus is firmly on religious study. Most ultra-orthodox men enter the yeshiva, studying the Torah until well into their 40s. But not only is it a drain on Israel’s economy; it puts many young men, some of them less spiritually minded, under tremendous pressure to conform.  Their communities have their own buses, where women are relegated to the back, and they stick closely to rigid rules that govern every aspect of their lives. On the Jewish Shabbat, or Sabbath, they are forbidden from driving, operating a light switch and lighting fires, ruling out any barbeques.”

Just last week the Financial Times offered a similar view of haredim as exotics from a lost era:

    “Mea Shearim, home to several thousand members of Israel’s ultra-orthodox community—its streets and courtyards offer a poignant trip back to the centres of Jewish life in 19th-century eastern Europe.  Defying the Middle Eastern heat, men still wear the long black robes and fur hats of their ancestors. Strictly observant, they tend to shun the secular workplace, dedicating their lives to religious studies and prayer. Yiddish remains widely spoken. Television, the internet, miniskirts and pop music – all are kept at bay by a rigorous moral code that rejects the values and gadgets of modern society.”

The Independent’s account of modesty enforcers shares the FT’s view of haredim as living anachronisms—which is what many Christian sects used to teach about Jews generally.  Another Christian caricature cast Jews as Pharisees, splitting hairs over the letter of the law rather than seeking its spirit; banning miniskirts and Saturday barbecues in the name of morality falls neatly into that latter narrative.  That these old stereotypes are still casually perpetuated by respected newspapers reveals, albeit unintentionally, the limits of the widely professed British multiculturalism.

Bob Goldfarb is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem.  He also blogs at eJewishPhilanthropy.com, and Tweets about Jews, the arts, and Jewish culture at twitter.com/bobgoldfarb.


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