Saturday, February 26, 2005

Fiction Posing as Fact

Wendy Shalit's primary offense is not that she wrote an essay critical of several Jewish novelists whose tales disparage Orthodox Jews. Far worse, her piece was published in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, which added prestige and weight to her argument. The publication decision was, of course, not hers to make, but Sam Tanenhaus', the editor of the Book Review who suggested that a conventional review assignment be turned into a broader essay. He is, incidentally, the son of Joseph Tanenhaus of blessed memory, one of the noblest persons ever to grace academia and my dissertation supervisor with whom more than forty years ago I co-authored what remains the definitive study of how the U.S. Supreme Court decides what cases it will decide.

The storm that arose after Shalit's article was published induced me to purchase Tova Mirvis' "The Outside World," she being one of the novelists taken to task by Shalit. Mirvis is a splendid writer, but her book is defective and not only because of highly improbable plot twists. Her characters are cardboard figures whose words and acts are meant to represent different types of Orthodox Jews, often in an unflattering way. Mirvis' description of Orthodox life is generally knowing and this authenticity adds to the distortion when she presents as aspects of Orthodox behavior details that veer sharply away from reality.

The misrepresentation of how these Jews live obliterates the empathy that I believe Mirvis has for all but one of her stereotypical characters. In a fierce response published in the Forward, Mirvis charges that "apparently The New York Times Book Review now runs tzitzit checks. Or, in my case, a sheitel check." She concludes, "Oh, and as for my own sheitel? Sorry, Wendy. Only my hairdresser knows for sure." There's nothing in Shalit's essay to warrant this silliness, although in the novel Mirvis looks under the skirts of Orthodox women to describe what they are wearing and with a touch of smuttiness she manages to get it wrong. She also gets wrong much else, including the mandatory size of engagement rings, flowers at Orthodox weddings, television sets in Orthodox homes, etc.

Shalit has hit a raw nerve. Her critics charge that fiction writers can create whatever they want to create and they invoke Cynthia Ozick who has written that "fiction has license to do anything it pleases. Fiction is liberty at its purest."

That's true in a legal sense and, I suppose also in a literary sense, but the right to write does not immunize writers from criticism, including on the ground that the product is biased. There are thousands of reviews each year criticizing novelists and rarely does anyone yell foul because, after all, it's fiction that is being reviewed and the authors have a license to write whatever they please. Wendy Shalit did not argue that the authors she targets did not have a right to have their material published.

It is interesting and telling that Orthodox-bashing is a respectable literary genre. When other ethnics are maligned, as for example when Italians or Blacks or Jews are presented as stereotypes to be disparaged, our sense of decency flares up and we call the writers to task for their bigotry, without the eminent Ms. Ozick being trotted out to sermonize about liberty. When Jews gripe about Shylock and Fagin, it's not sufficient to respond that Shakespeare and Dickens were great writers who had a license to write whatever pleased them, including what may fairly be characterized as anti-Semitic. When we read T.S. Eliot's notorious lines "The rats are underneath the piles. The Jew is underneath the lot," we do not make excuses or say that Bleistein is just a fictional character in a poem. We know that Bleistein is meant to represent Jews. When Orthodox Jews are disparaged, we turn a blind eye to bigotry.

Much of the discussion about Shalit focuses on her insider/outsider typology, her notion that novelists who are hostile to Orthodoxy are Jews who are estranged from the tradition that they write about. This thesis is not new, as it was formulated about sixty years ago by Kurt Lewin, a great psychologist who is all but forgotten. Lewin wrote about Jews at the edge of Jewish life whose marginality bred self-hatred. Similarly, there are Jewish writers - and others - who are at the edge of our religious life, a condition that induces a narrower yet potent form of self-hatred.

Shalit's important essay is a challenge to those who write about Orthodoxy - whether in fictionalized form or as reportage - to reflect on the distortions that inform much of this writing. As she notes, there are Orthodox Jews and perhaps too many with serious character defects. As I have written, this is a community that like all others has major problems that need to be confronted. No more than any other people can the Orthodox fully escape the failings that inhere in the species or the corrosive impact of hedonism and modernity.

Yet, there is glory and transcendence in Orthodox life and it is manifested in thousands of homes where modesty and piety are ordinary forms of behavior, where giving and helping are integral, where Torah study is exalted, and where parents with many children struggle to meet their obligations with dignity, humility, decency and truth. Jewish novelists and those who report on the Orthodox community rarely present this picture.

In a sense, what Shalit is saying is what many Orthodox Jews are saying: Enough with the stereotypes and distortions. This is not a cry coming from the more fervently religious or charedi Jews, few of whom read these novels or even our communal newspapers. The Orthodox Jews who feel most hurt by the distortions are those of a somewhat modernist orientation, people who refuse to accept the sophistry that Orthodox-bashing is an acceptable path to literature.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Israel As A Messenger Boy

It's easy to understand conservative Jewish enthusiasm for President Bush. There is a high degree of ideological congruence on social issues that is reinforced by an overt attitude toward religion that has not been seen at the White House since the place was built. Unlike his father, George W. Bush has said all the right things about Israel - providing support in the UN, isolating Yasir Arafat, and resisting European pressure for a harsher approach to the Jewish state.

There is, however, more to the picture. Mr. Bush is a master at delivering a message and this is a key to his success. He knows instinctively that rhetoric determines perception and perception is more potent than action. Inevitably, this means a disconnect between words and deeds, as is too often evident in the domestic sphere when with his trademark grin and wink he says things that are at odds with what is occurring on the ground. There is a similar process in Middle East policy, although Jews who are in the President's corner seem not to notice the problem.

As an important example, there are the current Israel-Palestinian negotiations. American Jews who back Prime Minister Sharon's policies are overwhelmingly anti-George Bush, while those who are tearing their hair out over plans to leave Gaza and to give up more of the West Bank and release additional Palestinian prisoners are American Jews who are rabidly pro-Bush. This makes political sense only if the U.S. is a bystander as Israeli policies unfold. But nothing can be further from the truth. The State Department quite openly - as in Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice's remarks during a recent Middle East visit - and the White House far more covertly have relentlessly pushed Israel to make further territorial concessions and to release prisoners with blood on their hands. Tellingly, the Bush Administration has not supported Mr. Sharon's security wall.

It's not sufficient to say that politics begets strange bedfellows. For most American Jews, there is the understandable explanation that they can support the President when they agree with him. If only because they assert that Mr. Sharon is recklessly endangering Israel, conservative Jews cannot shrug off Washington's Middle East policy by saying that this is an area where they disagree with the President. From their standpoint, too much is at stake.

What is at work is the dialectic of friendship, of Israel being subjected to greater U.S. pressure and less capable of resisting precisely because of the close relationship between the two countries. We see a similar process in ordinary relationships, as we are less able to say no to friends than to persons who are more distant. Friendship breeds expectations and also the inability to escape situations that one would like to avoid. When the White House invites Mr. Sharon for meetings with Mr. Abbas, the invitation is something of an order and the Prime Minister cannot readily demur, though he knows that he will be asked to make additional concessions.

From its earliest days in 1948, Israel has had what is frequently referred to as "a special relationship" with the U.S. Whatever benefits are derived from this - and there have been plenty - there is the flip side of subservience. The present situation is different and more dangerous because Iraq and Iran have priority on the White House's Middle East agenda, which means that to an extent Israel is hostage to how this country's policy makers view America's national interests.

Iraq illustrates the point. The emergence of a Shi'ite government in Baghdad may be good for the U.S. But it is not good news for Israel. Those who do not understand this do not know where Iraq is located on the map. One day, the U.S. will be out of Iraq. Israel obviously must remain in the neighborhood.

Iran is at least as worrisome, if only because of the Iran-Iraq Shi'ite linkage. There have been reports of a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, a notion that is preposterous and ultra-dangerous. Along comes Vice President Dick Cheney who says, "If, in fact, the Israelis become convinced the Iranians had a significant nuclear capability, given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards."

This is scary stuff, more so because hardly a word of protest has been heard from our major organizations. Is Israel the U.S.'s messenger boy? Is what's good for America always good for Israel? Are we to ignore the painful reality that a further stirring up of the Islamic world is a clear and present danger to Israel? Who will clear up the mess in the Middle East if things get out of hand?

The too-close relationship between Mr. Sharon and the White House is problematic. Israel is further forfeiting its sovereignty when it does the bidding of the Bush Administration. Of course, the President does not want to hurt Israel. But foremost on his mind is what he can do to achieve his goals in Iran and Iraq. No one can know the outcome of aggressive U.S. Middle East action. We do know that if things go wrong, Israel will be endangered.

I have for years favored a Gaza pull-out and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Gaza is a huge challenge but before Mr. Sharon goes further he needs to assess whether his concessions have brought about the hoped-for benefits. Hamas and other terrorist groups have signaled that any cease-fire is a temporary expedient as the primary goal remains the destruction of Israel. Mr. Sharon needs to tell the Bush Administration that he cannot yield more now. Put otherwise, he needs to recognize that a friendship that has become too cozy may turn Israel into a messenger boy.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Drugs, Drink and Other Don'ts

I do not drink or do drugs and I have never taken as much as one puff on a cigarette. This is the short - some may say complete - list of my virtues. I will let readers fill in the other side of the ledger. Whether abstinence makes me a better or poorer judge of those who do not abstain is a question that I will leave unanswered as I discuss alcohol and drug abuse among Orthodox youth.

Whatever its incidence, the problem is serious, if only because lives are at stake. Abuse is addictive and therefore difficult to counteract and it takes an enormous toll on those who drink and do drugs and their families. Without minimizing the problem, these forms of wrongful behavior are significantly less prevalent among the Orthodox than among other Jews of comparable age and certainly among American teenagers. We pay heightened attention to the Orthodox because that has become par for the course and, paradoxically, because the Orthodox are more likely to develop communal mechanisms to intervene in these and other problem areas.

The vastly greater number of secular Jews are indistinguishable faces in the American crowd. Their behavior is not labeled "Jewish" and their problems rarely generate Jewish intervention.

The greater the receptivity to modernity, the greater the likelihood that the problems of modernity will affect behavior. There is accordingly a higher incidence of alcohol and drug abuse among the Modern Orthodox than among other Orthodox, which is not to minimize an apparently growing problem throughout Orthodox life. Yet, stories that appeared after a shameful incident involving students at a Modern Orthodox high school presented unreliable statistics.

It is said that our schools bear much of the responsibility for what goes wrong among our youth. There is room for improvement, but schools are not to blame. Nor are shuls to blame, this despite the offensive and foolish practice known as kiddush clubs. We need to get away from the great American blame game, the indulgence in pop psychology by the media and charlatans. There are parents who do everything right and whose children do not turn out right. There are schools that do nearly everything right and yet some students disappoint greatly. There are mysteries to life - to every aspect of human behavior - and not everything that goes wrong has a ready explanation.

Primary responsibility for drugs, drink and other don'ts, notably in sexual behavior, among our teens lies in the general society, in conditions and pressures that impel the young to do at times what they should not do. Add to this the rashness or adventurousness of many of the young, their risk-taking and, at times, rebelliousness and what comes out often spells trouble. There is also peer pressure which results in too many kids doing what they know that they should not be doing. Under contemporary conditions, coeducational high schools heighten the prospect that, especially for girls, peer pressure will lead to questionable activity. This is an issue that the Modern Orthodox should reflect on.

It does not help that many teens have too much money or access to credit cards, that at an early age they are ensnared by hedonism and the impulse for instant gratification. The night scene among affluent Orthodox youth, notably the Moderns, is not attractive. Affluence is a factor in the year-in-Israel phenomenon, usually to study in a seminary or yeshiva. When study and other spiritual pursuits are the primary activity, as is usually the case, the year contributes to religious growth and lays the foundation for the healthy entry into adulthood. But, as described in a balanced story last week in this newspaper, there are students who should not be sent to Israel because their problems are already evident.

Other students utilize the year in Israel primarily to have a good time. They run the risk of returning home in worse shape than when they arrived. Yeshiva officials need to be careful about what amounts to the blanket advocacy of a year in Israel.

Self-esteem or its absence is the root cause of much - but certainly not all - that is untoward in the young. When a problem child is shipped off, the process is likely to further erode whatever tenuous fibers of esteem are still operational. To the greatest extent possible, a problem child should be nurtured by and among those who deeply care because they are family and have demonstrated their love.

Self-esteem is the great unappreciated issue in education. We are increasingly caught up in a complicated web of standards, tests and marks. Students can overcome what they lose when they receive an inferior education. Few can overcome assaults against their self-esteem. With their dual curriculum, our schools have in an important sense two entry points to challenge how students feel about themselves. There is, I am certain, a correlation among Orthodox teens between low self-esteem and wrongful behavior.

Our school officials contribute to the difficulties facing our youth by being too hasty in ridding themselves of students who don't meet standards. When a student's behavior adversely affects other students, there usually are grounds for expulsion. Not doing well academically is not an adequate ground, a position that I have expressed for many years, but few school officials agree with me.

It is intolerable that one person, usually the principal, has the sole say on who stays and who does not. When the prospect of expulsion arises, there must be a process involving several persons who are competent to decide. I cannot understand why the Orthodox community tolerates the sinful practice of allowing one person to make so vital a decision regarding the life of a youngster. There is no halachic justification for the practice.

Expulsion and other severe punishment obviously attacks self-esteem. The sins of those who act hastily toward our young directly beget the sins committed by those who engage in wrongful behavior.