Whenever I make a presentation on the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community, my
first task is to undermine the common perception of the community as an
undifferentiated sea of black automatons who wake up in the morning and receive
their marching orders from central command, like something out of Invasion of
the Body Snatchers.
The people with whom I interact frequently are as
different from one another as any other group of human beings. As the the Sages
of the Talmud say, “Just as each individual’s face is different so are their
ways of thinking.”
Like most people, I resent it when I feel I’m being
judged by externals. During college, I sported an impressive Afro that would
have done Jimi Hendrix proud. I remember being stopped in New York City by
someone who noticed my college T-shirt and felt compelled to tell me, “I went to
the University of Chicago, and you are a disgrace.” Yet everything that person
assumed about me based on my hairstyle – drug use, study habits – was almost
A few months ago, I found myself seated on a flight next to
someone reading John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty
. I attempted to start a
conversation by asking him whether he was a professor. A monosyllabic “no” was
the response. I commented that one doesn’t find too many people reading Mill on
airplanes, but that too failed to elicit any response or ignite a conversation.
I felt – though I could be wrong – that he assumed that no one whom he had seen
wearing a black hat could have anything of interest to say about On
In any event, I recently discovered that I have no right to
criticize non-haredim for any stereotypes that may color their judgment of me
before I open my mouth.
My eureka moment came on a visit to the Haredi
Center for Technological Studies (HCTS), where I was interviewing men studying
architecture, computer networking and construction engineering.
person I interviewed was a Gerrer Hassid in the architecture program.
told me he had slept for only two hours over the preceding two days while
working on his monthly project. I have only spoken with a few Gerrer Hassidim in
my life, and carried a number of negative stereotypes regarding their
These stereotypes, common in the circles I travel in, concern
their restrictions on contact between husbands and wives beyond that codified in
Halacha, their aggressive efforts to advance the interests of their community
and the need to stay out of their way when they form a phalanx in front of the
Those stereotypes, it soon became clear, provided me with no
useful information about the father of four in front of me.
I put those stereotypes aside I was not able to properly listen to him and
absorb what he was telling me, as he described his reasons for choosing this
course and the various ups and downs he had experienced along the way. I was
surprised, for instance, that his wife worked as a computer programmer in a
government office. I had thought that few Gerrer women worked outside the haredi
community at all.
After the interview, we joined the class in which the
students were presenting their projects. The two lecturers were tearing apart,
tag-team style, the model of a shopping center produced by another Gerrer
Hassid. As I watched the dissection, I leaned over to my new friend, and asked
him whether the one whose project was being critiqued would be able to take the
criticism. He replied, “It’s not enough to obtain a degree. We want to work, and
for that you have to be good. The only way to become good is to receive
When our interview began, I saw only a Gerrer Hassid, as if
that were some kind of generic brand. By the end, I saw a person with a full
gamut of thoughts, feelings, and hopes – i.e., as much an individual as anyone
But if it took me – a haredi Jew – time to adjust to the idea that
not all members of another haredi group are alike, how can I criticize any
non-haredi person who makes any number of assumptions about me? It is human
nature to view strangers wearing distinctive dress of one type or another as if
they were all alike. The best that we can hope for is that those stereotypes
remain at the level of what lawyers call “rebuttable presumptions.” And that
those whom we meet are curious enough and open enough to want to know us as
One of the reasons that I’m so enthusiastic about the Kesher
Yehudi program that has brought together more than 10,000 secular and religious
women as study partners is because of the stereotypes broken down in both
directions as the relationships develop.
STEREOTYPES HAVE THEIR USES. If
you are the 70-year-old owner of a jewelry store in downtown Washington and
three dudes, wearing lots of bling, seek to be buzzed in, the decision not to do
so may have more to do with potentially life-saving prudence than with
prejudice. But in general stereotypes that blind us to the infinite variety of
individuals sharing the planet with us impoverish our lives.
later, I’m back at the HCTS, this time to interview lecturers, most of whom are
not religious. Once again, each interview turns out to be filled with
All it takes is some show of interest.
the civil engineering lecturer, a graduate of the Technion, tells me that he is
“hiloni l’halutin“ (absolutely secular). Yet in the very next sentence he
mentions that he is Shabbat observant, a position he came to as a “man of
science” from his awareness of the perfection of the creation and multiplicity
of forces that had to be aligned just so for human life to exist.
shares with me that after his divorce he wondered how he would ever find a wife:
What secular woman would tolerate his Shabbat observance? What religious woman
would tolerate his lack of observance in other areas? Yet three months later, he
found such a woman, which he attributes to the merit of his Shabbat observance,
and now their two children go to local religious schools.
On the way back
from the interviews, someone from the morning class I attend gets on the bus. I
see from the volume of Talmud that he is carrying that he is learning daf hayomi
(the one-folio-a-day study of Talmud that takes over seven years to complete.) I
ask him what number cycle this is for him, and he replies it’s his fourth. He
adds that he never misses a day, even when traveling back and forth to America
where he works half of each month as a neonatologist. Though we have attended
the same class for some years, I would never have guessed either his level of
commitment to learning or his discipline.
That evening as I’m going down
the stairs from the ma’ariv (evening) prayers, a woman who lives upstairs is
walking up the stairs to a Talmud class in the adjacent beit midrash. I jokingly
remark that I did not know the class was now coed.
She tells me she is
taking her phone to put by the teacher so that her husband, a tour guide, who is
away with a tour group, can listen to the class. And then she adds with pride
that he never misses listening to the class when he is away, no matter how
rigorous the hiking that day.
Again, I’m astounded by the level of
commitment of someone whom I have lived almost next door to for well over a
Stories of respected people who turn out to have feet of clay are
more likely to gain media attention. And they can leave one wondering whom one
can really trust. But I’m convinced that with respect to most people, we would
discover much more that is admirable if we did not fall prey to quick judgments
and made more of an effort to really know them.
The Halacha permits a
certain amount of exaggeration of the deceased’s good points in a eulogy. One of
the leading commentators explains that limited exaggeration is permissible
because it almost certainly reflects the truth, as the positive qualities of
most people are at least partially hidden from others. Certainly, they are
hidden from all those who do not meet their fellow human beings with curiosity,
open ears and expecting to be surprised.
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