I recently saw a picture of the first Agudah convention taken almost 100 years ago. What struck me was what the attendees looked like as compared to those who attended the Interent Asifa a few moths ago.
The look at the Asifa was literally a sea of black hats along with the pro forma accompanying white shirts and black pants and jacket. That is the “look” of our day! (The recent Agudah Siyum that had a variety of “looks” is an exception since it was attended by many non Charedim which was in fact encouraged by the Siyum organizers.)
But archival picture which boasted attendance by some of the greatest Gedolim of that era including the Chafetz Chaim had people in all manner of dress: light suits, dark suits, vests… some had hats, some caps, some just plain Kipot. Many clean shaven, few with peyos… All were there and all were the equivalent of the Charedi world we have today. This was the Agudah of Yesteryear.
What has happened in our day is a sad commentary about the value placed on irrelevant externals like the black hat. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in an article in The Jewish Press by Penina Scheiner.
Mrs. Scheiner describes what it was like for her to move from an environment that valued those externals as she did into one that couldn’t care less about them. She does not say where she moved but from the context it sounds like a small community where religious Jews did not buy into any of these things.
She at first seemed horrified that her children picked up the town values (or more precisely the lack of her external home town values). For one thing her sons did want to not wear black hats. Nor did they want to wear the pro forma Kipa of the right – the velvelt one. They preferred to wear what their classmates were wearing – the suede Kipa.
Mrs. Scheiner couldn’t believe that the “values” she grew up with were being destroyed! She felt that they only moved to this town so they could influence the community. Instead her own children were being influenced by them!
She goes on to describe other symbols of the Charedi lifestyle that her children discarded – at first to her great dismay. But she has long ago come to terms with it and now quite properly understands how irelavant those things are. They are nothing more artificial artifacts of outward appearance whose sole purpose is to divide rather than to unite.
It is of course easy for those of us outside the camp of Charedism to understand that. But in the world of the Charedim, they see these things as definitive to Judaism. As incredulous as that sounds, here’s the money quote from the article that illustrates that:
Then it was time for shidduchim. Everything seemed to be going well until I mentioned to the shadchan that my son did not wear a black hat. She inhaled deeply. “Oh,” she said. “Then he does not have yiras Shamayim.”
…He also answered “no” to a different well-meaning shadchan who advised him to wear a black hat – just on the first date. ‘But everyone does it for the first date,” she said. “It will make a good impression.” My son refused. “How about just putting a black hat in the back window of your car?”
As if that weren’t bad enough she tells the story of an earlier time when she was still worried about her son losing the external values she grew up with. She was at the time thrilled that this would now be corrected by the Charedi Yeshiva her son was accepted to. Here’s how that went:
Our son noticed some un-yeshivish behavior at this school and told me about it. I was concerned, and also a little naïve. I called the administration, expecting the matter to be resolved quietly. Instead, our son was taken from the dorm that very night in full view of the other boys and asked what he had seen. When my son returned from the interrogation, the boys believed him to be an informer and ostracized him. They vandalized his belongings and threatened him. One Erev Shabbos, my son called to wish us a quick good Shabbos. “I’m not sure if I will survive over Shabbos,“ he whispered and hung up the phone. What an anxious Shabbos that was! My fourteen-year-old could not understand why the boys were acting menacingly to him and was very unhappy.
This – along with other examples is what the world of the right has become. This is the house they have built!
One does not need even to read this story to know about this obsession with Chitzonios. A few years ago, Yeshivas Chaim Berlin Had a photo of its Beis HaMedrash re-touched to remove someone that was wearing from blue to white! God forbid! …someone get the wrong idea about that Yeshiva.
Why should any of this bother me? Because for the umpteenth time, these people are our future. Like it or not they are the ones growing in leaps and bounds. They are the ones with the largest families. They are the ones who are teaching children in the newly formed Orthodox demographic I call the New Centrists – where moderate Charedim and right wing modern Orthodox Jews have combined to form one big community (mostly in large Jewish populations centers like New York).
The day schools and Yeshivos that their children attend will almost certainly be staffed by Charedi Mechanchim who have those values and will insist on them for their students. Making matters worse is the fact that these schools are instilling these values in children at younger and younger ages. One school I am familiar with has only this year implemented a rule that their 8th graders must wear black pants and white shirts to school or they will be sent home.
Which brings me back to that 100 year old picture of the Agudah convention. The Gedolei HaDor of that era knew what was important. And it wasn’t the color of your hat!
Today? You’d better dress right or else!
We believe that each generation that is further away from Sinai is a lesser generation. The current emphasis by the right on appearance seems to validate that fact.
About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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