Dear Jew in the City,
I was curious about some of the run-ins I’ve had with the women in local Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox communities. Sadly, they’ve been pretty negative. I’m gonna guess that majority of my interactions are with the ultra-Orthodox since I can easily identify them by their conservative outfits. Any attempt I’ve made to smile, say hello or good morning, hold open doors, offer help to carry baby carriages, etc has been met with silence and deflection.
I dress modestly. I’m not harsh or pushy. I’m not hands-y nor do I invade personal space. I’m just being polite and, personally, am a little determined to break the ice. I’ve lived in NYC my whole life (31 years!) and have gotten maybe two “thank you’s” in reply. I once even helped a family turn down their thermostat during Shabbat and then was immediately kicked out without a thank you. Orthodox men, on the other hand, have been more mixed with some positive and friendly interactions. So what am I doing wrong with my fellow female gender? Is it me?
I am so sorry that you’ve been treated this way – you sound like a lovely, thoughtful person! No, it is not you!
“Why are Jews so rude?” is the second most searched question on Google if you type in “Why are Jews…” (“Why are Jews so smart?” precedes it and “Why are Jews rich?” and “Why are Jews so rich?” follow it!) So Jewish rudeness or Orthodox Jewish rudeness (we are the ones most identifiably Jewish) seems to be on lots of people’s minds. Even the image for this post was found on a stock photo site under “Orthodox Jew;” it seems there are, unfortunately, too many people who think of rudeness (or meanness) when they think of our community. (And honestly, I grew up thinking the same thing!)
I asked a Hasidic friend about this, as most of the complaints I’ve heard about rudeness seem to be about the Hasidic community. (Modern Orthodox students at Yeshiva University were recently named one of the ten most polite college kids in the country!) He made an interesting point and explained that a culture of politeness is a very American phenomenon, whereas Hasidic culture stems from the Old Country which operated very differently – more distant, more serious. However, he noted that lack of politeness should not be equated with a lack of kindness. Visiting the sick, having over lots of guests for eating and sleeping, and preparing meals for the needy are all very common in these communities. Far more kindness and giving is engrained into the people of these communities than what most “polite” people would do! (I would say the ultra-Orthodox world also practices more of these kindnesses than the Modern Orthodox world.)
Something else to keep in mind: one of the major divides between the Modern Orthodox world and the ultra-Orthodox worlds (particularly the Hasidic world) is how much interaction occurs with the larger world. While Modern Orthodox philosophy is that God gave us an entire world and we should use as much of it as is kosher, the Hasidic approach, particularly after the Holocaust (as a reaction to the destruction) is that the outside world ought to be avoided as it is both physically dangerous and will cause observant Jews to lose their way. It should be noted that this community is nearly 100% survivors or descendants of survivors, many existing in a closed system. So not only is much of the Hasidic community insular, it is fearful of interacting with the outside world.
Now why have some of the men been friendlier than the women? It’s a good question, and our Educational Director, Rabbi Jack Abramowitz had an interesting answer when I asked him why he thought this was: the men are more likely to have a job in the secular world and have therefore interacted with and are more comfortable around different types of people.
One final point: A story is told about a great rabbi (one of the greatest in his generation) named Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky (an ultra-Orthodox rabbi) who lived in New York and died around 20 years ago. After his funeral, when his family was sitting shiva (the Jewish week of mourning), a prominent nun from the community came to the house of mourning to pay her respects. She said that this rabbi would pass her by on the street every day with a big smile and a friendly “hello” and it really meant so much to her. This story of Reb Yaakov is very meaningful to me, because despite the fact that some communities conduct themselves in less friendly ways, I believe that Reb Yaakov’s approach captured the essence of what it means to be a religious Jew.
All the best,
Allison (aka Jew in the City)
P.S. Li mentioned in a later email that her mother is Jewish and I invited her for Shabbos so we can finally introduce her to some friendly and polite Orthodox Jews!