Monday, October 28, 2002

The Grandchildren of Eli the Fanatic

Literature and other cultural expressions can anticipate social change by getting under society’s skin and describing developments that are in the womb of time and not discernible to demographers, reporters and social commentators. After the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey appeared, an incisive sociologist asked why there was a fuss about the 50%+ intermarriage rate when the powerful trend toward Jews marrying out had been depicted for at least two decades in literature and movies.

The best example I know of this anticipatory capacity is Philip Roth’s great late 1950’s story, “Eli the Fanatic,” published initially in Commentary and then in the breakthrough/breathtaking collection, Goodbye, Columbus. The story tells of Woodenton, a pleasant upscale New York suburb where Jews who had made it came to as an escape into affluence and modernity and away from the old-world Jewishness of the inner city. Their peace of mind is disturbed when a small number of religious Jews arrive, with plans to open a yeshiva.

The newcomers are not welcomed by their putative co-religionists, one of whom says “if I want to live in Brownsville, I’ll live in Brownsville.” Another paints this frightening scenario: “It’s going to be a hundred little kids with little yarmulkahs chanting their Hebrew lessons on Coach House Road.” Still another wonders whether the “next thing they’ll be after our daughters.” These fictionalized Jews who doubtlessly saw themselves as liberal and tolerant do their best to keep the Orthodox out. They engage one of their own, an attorney named Eli Peck, to invoke zoning ordinances to block the yeshiva. Ultimately, Eli is transformed, as he comes to respect the religious way of life and understand the hypocritical bigotry of his neighbors. He identifies with the Orthodox by putting on their distinctive dress, hence the story’s title.

The use of zoning regulations against religious groups is a feature of the American landscape. In hundreds of localities, life is being made tougher for those who want to build houses of worship or parochial schools, as zoning ordinances are being interpreted in a fashion that is hostile to religion and, at times, flagrantly discriminatory. The frequent excuse is that the proposed facilities do not include sufficient parking spaces or would result in traffic congestion.

What is happening is especially harmful to religious Jews who require a communal infrastructure for the fulfillment of their religious obligations. Nearly everywhere there is local opposition to building plans, which is costly in terms of time and money. The usual pattern is for an accommodation to be reached after the religious group agrees to substantially scale down its project, including – and I regard this as probably unconstitutional – by committing to limit enrollment or other usage. On occasion, plans have been scrapped altogether.

Some of this is reported, but not much. In this era of yenta journalism, it’s preferable to give front page coverage to a minor squabble in a Brooklyn shul than to report on the six-year – and still counting – effort of a New Rochelle synagogue to get zoning approval for its badly needed and long-planned facility.

Whatever small justification there may be for using zoning rules to inhibit the building plans of religious groups, there is no excuse for the anti-civil libertarian reliance on them to prevent Orthodox Jews from establishing eruvs, those unobtrusive demarcations that allow the Orthodox to carry within a particular area on Shabbos. This form of discrimination is alive and well in American, invariably spurred by secular and religion-hating Jews who are about as hypocritical a species as can be found.

One sad illustration is the effort of Tenafly, New Jersey officials to block an eruv that relies on the inconspicuous use of telephone and power lines and municipal utility poles. They dug up a zoning ordinance whose violation they had constantly countenanced to prevent the eruv. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia ruled that by applying the ordinance “selectively against conduct motivated by Orthodox Jewish beliefs,” Tenafly had violated the free exercise of religion of observant Jews.

There’s a good prospect for an appeal because those who are motivated by hostility toward the Orthodox are willing to go to great lengths and much expense to have their way. Their notion of freedom is aptly articulated in the notorious clause of the 1936 Soviet Constitution that guaranteed the freedom to be anti-religious.

It’s sadly telling that Tenafly’s mayor is one Ann Moskowitz and its attorneys are named Bruce Rosen, Walter Lesnevich and Noah Feldman.

At the 1999 Tenafly Council hearing on the eruv, there were echoes of the language and sentiments of the assimilated Jews of Philip Roth’s Woodenton. In the words of the Third Circuit opinion, “many of those present expressed vehement objections prompted by their fear that an eruv would encourage Orthodox Jews to move to Tenafly.” One Council member expressed “a concern that the Orthodox would take over,” while another voiced “serious concern” that “Ultra-Orthodox Jews might stone cars that drive down the streets on the Sabbath.”

At times, bigotry is just a short step away from madness.

More often, it is predicated on hostility to the distinctiveness of other people, most often toward their color in the form of racism or, as in the case of Orthodox Jews, toward their special way of dress. Distinctiveness is regarded as a threat and it breeds protective and discriminatory action, at times to block the strangers from moving in and on other occasions to make it more difficult for them to live comfortably and to achieve our Constitutional guaranty of the pursuit of happiness. In the case of eruvs, there are secular Jews whose anger boils over when they see religious families walking home as a unit and being happy on Shabbos.