Is this American Jewish sociology?

Whatever the literary genre, Orthodoxy bashing is alive and has been for a long while.

By MARVIN SCHICK
May 13, 2006 23:14
4 minute read.

 
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When Wendy Shalit in a notable Sunday New York Times Book Review essay sharply criticized several Jewish novelists for their stereotypical writing about Orthodox Jews, the fictionalists were able to respond that, after all, they were writing fiction. No such fig-leaf is available to journalists and those with scholarly credentials whose writing is permeated by distortions born out of hostility toward religious Jews. There obviously are Orthodox who do wrong. There are scoundrels and immoral people. That's life, the unavoidable consequence of human failings that multiply as social interactions expand. This truth provides no justification for the lies, stereotypes and other tools of the trade of bigots who also have a pen. When the Orthodox challenge those who depict their community as steeped in wrongdoing, they are further accused of a cover-up, notwithstanding the further truth that there isn't another sector in Jewish life that comes close to the Orthodox in reaching out and attempting to deal with those whose behavior is dysfunctional. Sadly, too many Jews, most of whom are bedecked with liberal and humanitarian credentials, eagerly lap up everything that is hostile to religious Jews. I HAVE just read Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Winston. Winston is a strong writer, a talent that is not paired with scholarly skills. As she tells the stories - actually part of the stories - of some who abandoned hassidic life, she shows little concern as to whether what she is being told about entire communities is the truth. If another writer would write in a similar vein about Italians or Blacks or other ethnics, there would be the serious charge of bigotry. Alas, Orthodox Jews and especially hassidim are fair game. There are more than a handful of hassidim who have left the fold. This phenomenon was evident in European societies that were far more closed than America's is. Winston should have sufficient sociological curiosity to place the hassidic experience in the context of the experiences of other ethnic groups, for example what we know about defections among the Amish or Mormons or, for that matter, other Jews. If we assume that Winston's reporting is the full story of what has transpired in the lives of those who people her book - an assumption that I will not make - truthfulness would not relieve her of the transgression of stereotyping. A stereotype essentially is an accurate statement about wrongful behavior committed by one or more members of a group that is presented as characteristic of the entire group. Winston accepts what her storytellers tell her without wondering whether, because those who defect are likely to have axes to grind, their tales are often not the whole truth. We certainly should not accept as the final word what an angry person says about his father's words or behavior. By accepting as gospel truth what she has been told, Winston provides abundant fodder to those who depict hassidim as sexual abusers and predators and as crooks. I am confident that Unchosen will be cited by writers who are out to show the perversity and perfidy of hassidim. As an example - and I think that it is vile - there is this about Moti, one of the defectors, who in Winston's telling was "easy prey for some of the older men in the community. On many occasions, these men would grope and fondle him in the men's mikvah." This is followed by additional claims of widespread sexual abuse. I do not know what happened to Moti and I do know that there is a measure of sexual wrongdoing among hassidim, although I guess that it is significantly below what occurs elsewhere. It should matter to those who care about the truth that the men's mikve experience is a quick dip in public view, a circumstance that enormously reduces the likelihood of groping and fondling. Winston's lead character is Yossi, a failure in marriage and at various jobs who has a raging libido and foul mouth and, perhaps unbeknownst to the writer who is giving him a day in the sun, is presented as dysfunctional and repugnant. Yet, his words about his father and experiences are accepted without question. Yossi is Winston's muse for the following in which inanity and falsity vie for first place: "Young Hasidim are formally taught almost nothing about sex until the weeks immediately before their wedding when young men and women attend classes taught by specially designated members of the community. Those who have had the advantage of an especially savvy older or married sibling, had access to pornography, or, tragically, been the victims of sexual abuse may have some prior knowledge of the subject. But many are shaken by what they learn, and some - especially the most sheltered boys - actually faint on the spot after hearing what they will have to do on their wedding nights." I will not say that no hassid has ever fainted under these circumstances, no more than I would say that nothing untoward has happened to other people under whatever wedding experiences they had endured. For Winston to present this as typical of group behavior is stereotypical writing at its worst. There are problems in the hassidic communities and they ought not be shoved under any carpet. The alternative to shoving under the carpet is not to exaggerate and distort. The alternative is to deal truthfully and with empathy with the problems that arise.

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