Sunday, February 1, 2009

The View says: Observant Jews are strange. Really?!

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

I first heard about Loving Leah this past Thursday when someone asked me about the film at an adult education class I taught; she wanted to know if Jews still practice Yibbum. [The answer: Not in Ashkenazi communities; we follow Abba Shaul’s talmudic ruling and perform chalitzah instead.]

Then, courtesy of the Haveil Havalim edition linked above, I was introduced to the real meat of the controversy: Portrayal of observant, particularly Hasidic Jews, in movies. It seems that some are offended by comments from talk-show hosts and actress Susie Essman on a show called The View. The offending lines include, “Hasidic women are not good dressers,” “You see what these women look like,” and more. Video available here.

I agree with the critics – those comments are insensitive.

I further stipulate that were the word “Hasidic” removed from the sartorial criticism above, and replaced with “Black” or “Muslim” there would be a massive uproar, possibly including the torching of embassies, or at least a studio or two. The Council on American-Islamic Relations would have a field day with it; has anyone heard anything from the ADL on this one?

But קבל את האמת ממי שאמרו, I believe in we have to accept the truth from whence it comes: Within the context of American society, Torah-observant Jews are strange.

*We believe that our ancient text is accompanied by a comprehensive, yet hair-splitting, oral tradition which advises us in detail on everything from social morality to personal hygiene.

*We dress, eat, work, worship and groom ourselves in a manner which sets us apart, intentionally, from society.

*We believe in the imminent arrival of a personal Mashiach who is going to lead billions in the path of righteousness, as wel understand it.

*We see nothing wrong with the idea of animal sacrifice, including the placement of that animal’s blood on an altar as part of religious ritual.

*We believe that our customs have the force of law.

*We wrestle with the credulity of honored sources on issues like demonology and astrology.

Remember the Country Yossi song? “I do the strangest things a man could ever do, ‘cause I’m a Jew, I do that too.”

Yes, we are an עם לבדד ישכון, as Bilam said in his tongue-in-cheek blessing; we are a nation that dwells apart, apparently as desired and enforced by Gd via the Torah.

We aren’t the only social misfits out there; look at the Amish, who have learned to accept their strangeness and even turn a profit on it. But we are most uncomfortable with our unassimilation. We want the sense of purpose that comes with being different, without the stigma that comes with having that difference highlighted, rejected and denigrated.

And I’m not sure that’s a realistic expectation.


  1. You are correct. If you want to be different you have to accept that some people are going to make cracks about it.

    The question in my mind is whether it leads to be mistreated. That is clearly unacceptable.

  2. I'm offended - you mean you did't learn about Loving Leah from my review?

    I think part of the problem is hiring actors/actresses who denigrate the 'strangeness' of a group to portray members of that group. As I noted, their performance becomes somewhat of a parody, to the detriment of the film AND the reputation of that Othered group.

  3. Jack-
    So the big question, I suppose, is determining what qualifies as mistreatment.

    Sorry, I hadn't seen it. If you would deign to post more frequently, I would check more often...

  4. Correct. If you are being discriminated against for housing or employment that clearly crosses the line.

    But I think that this is not as black and white as some people would like.

    As you mentioned every religion has people whose practice causes others to wonder about them.

    Listen to how some of the evangelicals talk about the Catholics. Or the Unitarians talk about Pentecostals. It gets pretty graphic.

  5. Jack-
    Not to mention those who practices cause them to wonder about themselves...

  6. Need I point out that the tune for "Cause I'm a Jew" is stolen from the Johnny Cash song "Walk the Line." Country Yossi steals quite a few of his songs from Johnny Cash.
    Are we allowed to listen to Jewish songs whose tunes are stolen since by doing so we are being party to their theft? Is it really that different from illegal downloading?

  7. Hello Izgad,
    Tunes actually have explicit protection in civil law. But are you sure it was taken without permission? I know that Shlock Rock acquires permission from original artists; I don't know what Country Yossi does.

  8. I am not sure what you mean by protection in civil law. You do not have a blanck check to take tunes written by other people. It is no different than a text.
    You are allowed to do satire, which cover Shlock Rock.
    In most cases with Jewish music, though, the whole point is that people should not be lisening to non Jewish music and should not be familiar with the original. So satire is out. On the contrary the point of the Jewish song existing is to take away from the secular original.
    The burden of proof would be on the side to show that Country Yossi had permission. You would not want to eat something unless you had proof that it was actually kosher. Why would you want to listen to "traif" music that was stolen.
    As I see it, it is better to listen to non Jewish music where I have less of a reason to suspect that tunes were stolen than to pop Jewish music where I have very good reason to suspect theft.

  9. "protection" is the legal concept you are trying to describe - protection of the rights of the author. In other words, I am agreeing with you.

    That said: Satire does not permit copying a tune. One must still acquire permission - which Shlock Rock does.

    As far as your side point, that the whole point is that people should not be lisening to non Jewish music and should not be familiar with the original, I'm not sure why you think this is the whole point. As I understand it, the major point is that they want to use a popular medium to convey a positive message, much as DARE and similar programs use celebrities as spokespeople.

  10. My understanding was that someone like Weird Al Yankovic does not need to get permission to use tunes because he is doing satire. His songs assume that the listener is familiar with the original and is not meant to replace the original. I would assume that Shlock Rock is in the same category. I may be wrong on this. I am not a copyright lawyer, just a historian.
    I went through the Haredi system. Jewish music and Jewish books were shoved down our throats precisely in order that we should not listen to non Jewish music or read non Jewish books. For example, I can recall the director of Camp Rayim telling us the first day of camp that we are not allowed to read non Jewish books and that we have no reason to want to read non Jewish books when there are such wonderful Jewish books to read.