In a New Republic review of Gal Beckerman’s well-received book on the struggle for Soviet Jewry, Yossi Klein Halevi who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in Israel tells of his Jewish Defense League involvement during that crucial period and then offers the following nasty parenthetical aside, “The ultra Orthodox community that did virtually nothing to save Soviet Jews now tries to prevent their full absorption into the Jewish people.”
We can perhaps forgive Klein Halevi for being inaccurate, as he was young when the events being described occurred and he was certainly distracted by the efforts of his JDL buddies to engage in violence. What, however, does “virtually nothing” mean? More pointedly, his current bias is not an excusable offense. There was significant activity by the fervently Orthodox on behalf of Soviet Jews, although much of it was out of the public eye, such things as Chabad’s role in keeping Jewish life alive in the USSR, at times at great risk. There was the work of Rabbi Pinchas Teitz of Elizabeth and Rabbi Harry Bronstein of Brooklyn, both now deceased, and the remarkable efforts of Rabbi Mordechai Neustadt who remains active. Malcolm Hoenlein who played a key role working for Soviet Jews early in his distinguished career of Jewish public service points out in an email, “Agudah types certainly came to the rallies.” There was a good deal other involvement from this small sector which is now being smeared once more by a writer with a bigoted agenda.
Why the distortion? There are patterns in how people live, in their friendship circles, food preferences, values, use of language, etc. So it is with groups. This is what is meant by culture. Yossi Klein Halevi does not write on a clean slate. Negativism toward the Orthodox is ingrained and all the better when “ultra” can be added to the identification, so as to convey a picture of extremism, even fanaticism. It is as if denigrating the Orthodox is a Jewish cultural imperative.
I have protested against the “ultra Orthodox” usage, to little avail. No other religious group in the world, including those that stone people or amputate limbs or engage in violence, have “ultra” as part of their identity. We Orthodox are the chosen people, whether in the New York Times or most major Jewish and general publications. Constant usage does not impart legitimacy to the term, nor accuracy, as is evident from its application to Shas, the Israeli political party that caters to Sephardic needs and whose share of Knesset votes tops by a wide margin the percentage of charedim announced by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. The governmental data obviously consists primarily of chassidim and persons in the yeshiva world. Although Shas is labeled ultra Orthodox, more than a few of its loyalists can be found at soccer games on Shabbat and engage in other distinctively non-Orthodox activity.
The flip side of deprecatory writing about the Orthodox is what is neglected. If there was an English-language daily Jewish newspaper, most of us would imagine that it would get tons of attention. There is such a phenomena and it is called Hamodia. It has been around for a bunch of years and is read each day by thousands. To boot, it’s well-written and the layout is superb. For nearly all American Jews it does not exist, not because they do not read it but because they have never heard of it and that’s because this and other newspapers that report on much trivia in Jewish life pretend that it does not exist.
There is a galaxy of Orthodox magazines – I dare not call them ultra – including two under Hamodia auspices, as well as Mishpacha, that are attractive and interesting reads and they too do not exist in the mindset of nearly all American Jews. The talented people at Hamodia, under the direction of Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein, a remarkable woman, have produced a major work on the Holocaust called “Witness to History” that is perhaps the first textbook on this critical period. It is already in use in many high schools. Sir Martin Gilbert and Dr. Michael Berenbaum are among the major scholars who were involved in its preparation. Why the neglect?
ArtScroll represents another aspect of the treatment of activities associated with the fervently Orthodox. Attention is paid, too often in a deprecatory fashion, and rarely with adequate appreciation of the quality of the scholarship or how it has transformed the study of sacred texts, notably of the Talmud, which is its most glorious achievement. I admire Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz for his monumental career, yet his Talmud which gathers favorable press at the drop of his name cannot hold a candle to ArtScroll’s, not in usage and not in usability. This is evident in Modern Orthodox and some non-Orthodox homes.
Attention, at times inordinate, is paid when there is real or alleged Orthodox - and especially ultra - wrongdoing to report on. No claim for immunity from coverage can be made when the story concerns a communal matter or official. Even then, balance is required. A couple of weeks back, the lead story, if it can be called that, in this newspaper was about how North Shore Hebrew Academy high school was raiding or recruiting students from the Solomon Schechter of Nassau County. I am not sure how this is wrongful. The more important story should be about the sad and steep decline of this Solomon Schechter school, a decline so pronounced that documents I have seen deal with the continued viability of its high school. This situation merits attention, if only because it might engender support for the school.
In view of the extent of Orthodox activities to assist the needy, much of it ultra inspired, it is probably too much to hope that sufficient credit be given to these achievements. Is it too much to hope, however, that the next time Yossi Klein Halevi veers toward anti-Orthodox bigotry, he might just ponder this activity?