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Posts Tagged ‘Ziona Greenwald’

Where’s The Outrage?

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

When the disproportion of terrorist acts committed by Muslims – and the resulting hordes cheering the carnage on the Arab street – lead clear-minded observers to conclude that jihadism is the dominant strain in the Islamic world, we are accused of painting with an unfairly broad brush, discounting the silent (and invisible) majority of Muslims who oppose violence and crave peace.

I am ashamed at how fitting the comparison is to the current behavior of certain haredim in Beit Shemesh and parts of Jerusalem. Harassing women, terrorizing schoolgirls, assaulting police officers and journalists, vandalizing property—the so-called Sikrikim seem to have styled themselves after the Iranian vice squads. It matters not whether the perpetrators of these acts constitute 5 percent or 25 percent of the haredi community. Because all we hear from the background is a deafening silence.

There have been no public statements or rallies to oppose this outrageous behavior by those who claim to speak for them. In fact, the only rallies by haredim have been to protest the way they are being victimized by the media and Israeli authorities – including a huge rally last week in Meah Shearim featuring men in yellow “Jude” stars and children dressed in concentration camp uniforms. A handful of haredi rabbis have spoken out against the Sikrikim, but most have not, choosing to reserve their public pronouncements for other matters.

This can only lead one to conclude that a large number of haredim agree with the viewpoints espoused by the activists – even if they do not condone their tactics. They share the worldview that, as one man interviewed at the aforementioned rally was quoted as saying, “there’s only one Jewish way.” If you are not like us, you cannot profess to be frum, to love God and fear Him, to deserve basic human dignity.

Such an exclusionary – dare I say hateful – way of thinking is totally antithetical to Torah and many of its most foundational teachings: “V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha” (Love your fellow man as yourself); “V’halachta b’drachav” (And you shall walk in His ways); “D’racheha darchei noam v’chol nesivoseha shalom” ([The Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace); “Derech eretz kadma laTorah” (Human decency comes before Torah). . . .

Why has the haredi leadership taken such a passive stance on this cancer metastasizing in their midst? It pains me to say this, but their silence – and that of their followers – is not surprising. The most consistent, persistent message that the extremely right-wing religious leaders send out to their followers, at least publicly, is not ahavas Yisrael, achdus, or continuous introspection. Instead, it is “Banned!” “Treif!” or “Anyone who does [X]or uses [Y] is not worthy of respect.” Whether it’s the Internet, digital cameras, smartphones, music (even by frum artists), public transportation, clothing that offers a hint of femininity, or stores with any percentage of non-mehadrin inventory, the circle of exclusion is forever expanding.

As a result, more and more people – regardless of whether they are indeed shomrei mitzvos and yarei Shamayim – fall outside the parameters of toleration. Holiness equated with quarantine will naturally give rise to disdain for anyone perceived to be “less than.” And so, I believe, this “cheirem culture” has created a monster: a society where it is seen as acceptable to lash out – physically, verbally, or otherwise – at fellow Jews.

What about the rising wave of anti-haredi – and indeed, anti-religious – sentiment in Israel, which has also given way to incidents of real harassment? Of course it is wrong. Completely indefensible. There is no excuse for attacking others (physically or verbally) who have not lifted a hand (literally or figuratively) against you, just because you find their lifestyle, or that of others who look like them, unpalatable.

But for the haredi community to cry victim – without in the same breath disavowing the actions of those who claim to represent their values – is nothing more than a red herring. The anti-haredi incidents are a backlash, and there would be no backlash had no women been heckled out of their seats on a bus and no little girls terrorized as they tried to make their way to school.

There surely are many haredim, whether in Beit Shemesh, Beitar, or even Meah Shearim, who abhor what is happening. But according to Chazal, silence is tantamount to acquiescence. So silent majorities are no bulwark at all – they are simply passive enablers of a grave chillul Hashem.

Ziona Greenwald is a full-time mother who has worked as a court attorney and magazine editor. She currently does freelance writing and editing from her home on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Occupied Territory

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Ever since a light bulb went off in Yasir Arafat’s head and the idea of a Palestinian people was born, Israel has become known to the world as an “occupier.” The narrative of occupation, despite being a complete fiction, has turned the founding of modern Israel from a miraculous story of Jewish rebirth into a sordid genocidal project.

Language serves as one of the Palestinians’ (I use the term for convenience only) chief weapons in their war against the Jews.  The word “occupation” is supposed to conjure images of an arrogant colonial power, hungry to amass land and wealth regardless of who might be trampled upon like scrambling insects.  It paints in black and white:  one party as perpetrator, the other as victim.

Interesting, then, that the hordes of squatters who have, since September, been camped out in Zuccotti Park at the bottom of Manhattan have chosen to call themselves “occupiers.”  The Occupy Wall Street movement portrays itself as representing the victims in this country’s economic downturn, the poor grasshoppers whose rights and interests got squeezed out in the government’s bailout of big financial institutions.  (The gripe about the bailout is but one item on their motley list of grievances, and one of the only coherent ones.)

To me it seems clear that the makeup of the OWS crowd is overwhelmingly liberal, lefty, even a smattering socialist. The same elements who are the first to criticize Israel for every move it makes, to demonize the Jewish state and its supporters and swallow every lie that comes out of the Palestinian propaganda mill, are now raging against the American capitalist machine.

Thus, I find it curious that the protesters adopted for their movement the same pejorative terminology used against Israel.

Any connection here?  I doubt that Israel or the Palestinians were on the protesters’ minds when they hatched their ragtag operation.  Not consciously, anyway.

But I think there’s a notable irony.

This movement is grounded in an entitlement mentality that promotes self-pity above self-sacrifice.  The attitude is: We’ll stay as long as we like, we’ll appropriate the space and resources we need, and we’ll conflate activism with proactivity.

There are many things wrong with OWS—a lack of clear goals, a unified voice, a determinable endpoint, a hodgepodge of complaints as loosely related as Obama is to the pope. But what stands out most, and especially rankles me as a resident of lower Manhattan, is the utter disregard for the rights of others whose daily lives, routines, quality of life, and even livelihoods have been upset for nearly two months.

Police barricades, as well as offensive odors, require pedestrians (not to mention motorists, who are already under assault in Bloomberg’s New York) to reroute themselves, or avoid the area altogether. The already strained NYPD and FDNY, which have suffered diminishing ranks as their budgets continue to shrink, have had to allocate their scarce resources toward protecting the protesters and maintaining some semblance of order and safety in the area.  And local businesses have suffered severe downturns.  The months-old Milk Street Café, a huge, upscale kosher eatery that was drawing both kosher and non-kosher crowds, has already laid off more than 20 employees, and its owner has said he may have to close.

The rapidly growing OWS movement—last I checked, copycat groups had sprung up in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Sacramento, Toronto, Denver, Chicago, Atlanta,  Minneapolis, Omaha, Oklahoma City, Nashville, Oakland, Montreal, Vancouver, and many more – has spawned violence and vandalism, all in the name of peaceful social protest.

Just last week in Oakland, riot police arrested dozens of demonstrators who had started a fire on a downtown street and threw chunks of concrete and metal pipes – this after the group had managed to shut down the nation’s fifth busiest port. Even right here in New York, over 800 people have been arrested, most on charges of disorderly conduct.

The Illusion Of Privacy

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Anthony Weiner is the latest in a long line of public figures caught by surprise at the unveiling of their own closet misdeeds. Weiner (and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the still-presumed-innocent Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and so many others before them) lived in a bubble of false security, created in part by their own hubris. Perhaps their biggest mistake, however, was believing their personal lives were somehow sacrosanct, impermeable, separate and apart from their public lives.

The scary truth – for all of us – is that privacy is often an illusion. Even as we go about our everyday lives, minding our own business, someone might be watching without our knowing it. I am not talking about stalking here, but about the natural consequences of living in a society – any society – especially one with as few degrees of separation as the Jewish community. Unless you live underground and converse only with gophers, your zone of privacy is probably narrower than you perceive it to be.

This truth hit home for me recently when my uncle asked me what I had been doing walking alone along the East River promenade under the FDR Drive on the Sunday before Shavuos. (He was not suspicious, just curious.) For the record, I had gone to a store at the South Street Seaport to buy my son a new shirt for Yom Tov and was getting in some exercise and rare “me time” by walking home. My uncle and aunt had been driving by and had honked their horn vigorously, albeit unsuccessfully, to get my attention.

Later that same week, at the preschool pickup, another mother asked me, “Was that you walking home from Chinatown earlier?” Guilty as charged. Unbeknownst to me, she had been traversing the same route on the other side of the street most of the way.

In both of these cases, there was no snooping, no prying, no “gotcha!” moment – just one person observing another in the course of their normal activities.

And yet, learning that I had been “watched” sent a tiny quiver of discomfort up my spine. Certainly, walking down a public thoroughfare carries no expectation of privacy. Yet when we believe we are in a realm of relative anonymity, we shed some of our innate self-consciousness. That peeling away is freeing – but also a little bit risky. We might do, or not do, things that would otherwise embarrass us, maybe for good reason.

Models walking the runway in the glare of flashing bulbs and hundreds of ogling eyes calculate their every step and gesture. Though hopefully nowhere near as artificial, we, too, calibrate our behavior according to our audience (or lack thereof). But as finite beings with a limited field of vision, literally and figuratively, we can’t always gauge the reach of our words and deeds.

Privacy is much coveted by those with power – the same people who expect a media stampede at the mere mention of a news conference. And how do the scandals that spell their downfalls always break? Someone once part of the circle of trust decides to cash in. Everyone deserves a private life, but those in the public eye, and probably the rest of us, too, should remember that the only actions we can control are our own.

Reflecting on my own experiences as well as the Weiner debacle made me better appreciate the prohibition on maris ayin (doing something in public view that could lead others to sin). The classic example of violating this principle is going into a non-kosher restaurant to buy a drink or use the restroom (barring emergency, of course); even if you do not so much as touch anything treif, an unknowing observer might think the eatery is acceptable – or that religious people like to sneak in a cheeseburger every now and then.

Whether at the bus stop, the airport, or the zoo, you really never know who is watching. It could be a neighbor or it could be a stranger – perhaps one whose opinion of Orthodox Jews will change forever based on how you interact with a sales clerk or family member.

Of course, even if there is no one around for miles, we are always under surveillance from Above. The key to avoiding sin, Chazal teach, is remembering that at all times there is an Eye watching and an Ear listening, and all our deeds are being recorded (Pirkei Avos 2:1). Scary? Yes. But apparently a healthy dose of fear is just what we need to keep from giving in to our own worst impulses. It sure would have done Anthony Weiner some good.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

We just celebrated Purim, which has always stood out in my mind as unique among the Jewish holidays. Unique for the giddy exuberance it brings, the gastronomic indulgence, the focus on unity and community, the retelling of arguably the most dramatic tale of Divine salvation in Jewish history – but most of all for the strong, spirited heroine at its center.

Megillat Esther is one of only two books of Tanach named for a woman. And while the megillah conceals the hand of Hashem – it does not even contain His name – Esther’s role is not concealed but celebrated. Her femininity is not an obstacle but a path to a higher purpose. Through her beauty and charm, she wins access to Achashveirosh’s inner sanctum and to his heart, where she is later able to successfully plead for mercy on behalf of the Jews. Yet, unlike her predecessor Vashti, Esther conducts herself throughout with utmost humility, dignity, and tzniut.

A toy store recently distributed a catalogue of children’s Purim costumes. Children are shown modeling all the outfits. The selection was impressive – from astronaut to pirate to Raggedy Ann and Andy – with a host of choices for both boys and girls. So what’s the problem?

To be sure, the preconceived gender roles (boy as pilot, girl as flight attendant; boy as doctor, girl as nurse) reinforce stereotypes and subtly shape children’s sense of possibility. But what shocked my conscience so utterly is that in every photograph of a girl, the face was completely wiped out. Blanked. Blotted. Zombie-like.

The list of reasons why it’s wrong to literally erase the faces of Jewish girls is long indeed. What rankles most is that this misguided act of zealotry is carried out under the guise of Torah. The Torah belongs to each of us, to protect and keep it holy. Just as we would be concerned about the release of a faulty translation of the Bible, we should be concerned about actions carried out publicly in the name of Torah yet in complete dissonance with its ideals.

Perhaps those who treat women like a problem to be managed sincerely believe they are doing something righteous. Or perhaps they are out for attention or to out-frum their neighbors. Either way, their ever-devolving stands in the name of Yahadut do damage both within and without. How would you begin to explain the faceless photos to your child, whether boy or girl? What about to a neighbor or co-worker?

Sadly, these disturbing pictures are not the only example of this kind of thinking passing for piety. There are kollel students being advised to take off their glasses when walking down the street so as not to view immodestly dressed women. There are girls being discouraged from wearing seatbelts on dates because the cross-body straps call attention to the female figure. And then there are the infamous burqas of Beit Shemesh. Besides the disregard for safety inherent in those first two pearls of wisdom, what these practices reflect is an attempt to disengage from reality – from the world Hashem chose to populate with both zachar u’nekeivah (male and female).

I am not going to attempt a halachic exegesis on the laws of tzniut or male-female relations. I will leave that to those more qualified. But the idea that males of any age would be somehow led astray by viewing pictures of little girls in Purim costumes is so far beyond absurd that it would be funny if it weren’t so perverse. There are, to be sure, people out there with all kinds of obsessions, but that hardly means we should regulate our communal life around them.

Unfortunately, over-exposure is the norm in society today, and maintaining personal modesty requires careful calibration of our engagement with popular culture. Yet Torah is supposed to make us stronger, holier, more discerning, more focused, more respectful. That is, if we truly internalize it. What is all the learning in the world worth if at the first sight of a woman – or even a prepubescent girl – a man will lose control of himself? Of course, I don’t believe that is what normally happens. But even the inference offends.

On Purim, we celebrate v’nahapoch hu – everything gleefully topsy turvy – to remember the way our fate and our enemies’ both turned around, so that we were saved and they were slain. But topsy turvy thinking – like erasing the faces of beautiful Jewish girls – should have no place in our everyday lives.

Taking Judaism Public

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Every year at around this time, my husband and I have the same spirited debate: Public Displays of Judaism (PDJs) – good or bad?

Simchas Torah sparks the first round of discussion. In our community, as in many others, the festivities on Yom Tov eve extend outside the synagogue. A portion of the street is closed to traffic, and dancing and singing echo in the chilly air. Then comes Chanukah. As the rest of the world is abuzz in Christmas lights, giant menorahs are lit with great fanfare in public squares all across the city. A few months later, it’s Purim, with kids (and some adults, too) parading through the streets in costume.

Whatever your instinctive position on PDJs, the issue is well worth reflecting upon, as it raises important questions about the proper posture of Torah observance in galus and the sources of anti-Semitism.

Let’s take Simchas Torah. As an initial matter, closing the street does inconvenience motorists (i.e., non-Jews and non-observant Jews), but it’s usually just one block and not a peak traffic hour, so the imposition is minimal.

Of greater concern is that any time people gather in a large group with license to celebrate, there is the risk of some individuals taking things too far. Over the years, I am sure we have all seen Simchas Torah festivities lead to uncouth, sacrilegious, downright offensive behavior. It is bad enough when this takes place inside the shul. But outside in the street? Beyond the pale. One year, my husband and I were visiting family in another community. When the dancing moved outside, one man, apparently well past the point of inebriation, keeled over and vomited into the street. I was appalled – especially because of the police officers standing a few feet away. If I was so turned off, what could they have been thinking?

Assume for a moment, however, that the outdoor festivities are not unduly boisterous, and that there is no intoxication or inappropriate behavior such as mixed dancing or lewdness. Such a decorous scene might not be the norm, but it is not implausible – it’s more or less what takes place in my neighborhood in lower Manhattan.

If, like my husband, you find dancing outside with the Torah objectionable even under these assumed conditions, then it is not the particulars of the setup that raise a problem but the idea of bringing even the sincerest expressions of Jewish observance into the public sphere.

We are in exile. Although we are (most of us) tax-paying, productive, fully integrated citizens, we do not own the place, so to speak. Outside of Israel, we are not masters of our domain – “am chofshi b’artzenu.” For this reason, my husband argues, it behooves us to keep a low profile. The rationale is not simply to avoid stirring up anti-Semitism (more on that in a moment). It’s more basic than that – a matter of good manners almost. Don’t make a spectacle. Don’t invite commentary. Don’t give fodder to the cultural voyeurs, the wisecrackers looking for a good punch line. Let’s maintain our privacy and thereby elevate the spiritual quality of our Jewish rituals.

Then there is the concern about anti-Semitism. With PDJs, there’s always a risk of chillul Hashem. Someone inevitably will do something that could be perceived in a negative light. This not only tars Hashem’s name but the image of Jews everywhere, as anti-Semites paint with a broad brush. To further generate resentment, add noise pollution, traffic disruption, and diversion of police resources to the list of grievances an onlooker might have.

Setting out the anti-PDJ argument, I have almost persuaded myself. And yet I do not believe we should forswear PDJs altogether.

A public gathering in the name of Torah creates a level of achdus, a sense of shared identity and purpose, and a groundswell of Jewish pride rare in our everyday lives. Private venues are inherently self-limiting, at least in terms of crowd capacity. More important, however, they do not have the open call, “Mi LaHashem Ailei!” dimension of a public staging. What an incredible sight it is to see a cross-section of Jews coming together in service of God. From their first Uncle Moishy tape, our children hear the message: You are Hashem’s foot soldiers; you march to a different beat. Be proud of who you are! Celebrate your Yiddishkeit! PDJs make this lesson come alive.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/taking-judaism-public/2010/10/27/

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