The following is an essay about how stereotypes of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews as harsh, rigid, outdated, " ultra-orthodox," etc. get in the way of understanding our culture and way of life. This essay was originally part of an online converation about antisemitism in the FidoNet INTERFAITH conference during the winter of 1996-97.
It has been edited here for brevity and clarity.
Pretty impressive resume, right? Now let's see what this Harvard big shot from UPI (remember, he was their senior Mid-East correspondent) does with reporting on Hasidism in Israel.
First, I looked up "Hassidim" in the index and was told to " See Jews, Ultra-Orthodox." Now, "ultra-Orthodox" is a negative buzzword invented by the media --we do not use it to describe ourselves. So already we have a stereotype -- and we haven't even gotten past the index! So I go there, and am sent to pp. 145-151, where I find the most disgustingly negative portrayal of Orthodox Jews you can ever imagine. Pippert starts off with a litany of extremist positions on things taken totally out of context, which are guaranteed to turn off the average non-Jewish reader, then says:
Many Orthodox men wear kippas or skullcaps, the only outward sign of their devotion. The ultra-Orthodox are much more obvious. They wear the black, suits long jackets, hats, and earlocks in every season. One wonders how they survive in the summer heat...
Earlocks in the heat? I've never found my earlocks to be a problem in the summer -- especially since the rest of my hair is very short! Funny thing -- Pippert doesn't wonder how Arabs survive the heat in their long robes. For that matter, Navajo Indians wear long sleeves and the women wear many layers of velvet skirts in the hot southwestern USA. The fact is, desert peoples find that exposing your skin to the sun is very unhealthy. Skin cancer and all that. Multiple layers of clothing also insulate and keep the heat out, not in. But he isn't really concerned with our comfort -- he is concerned with making Orthodox Jews look ridiculous. He continues:
The attire actually is patterned after the Eastern European gentry and nobility, their oppressors. They have appropriated it for themselves now...
This is only partly true, in that men in Eastern Europe wore dark coats and pants for dress occasions. But the so-called gentry did not wear earlocks or prayer shawls, and the Hasidic hats are quite distinctive also -- so much so, that you can often tell which sect by the hat alone. However, the purpose of this comment is to make us look stupid by saying that we are identifying with the oppressors. Implying, of course, that we supposedly stole our mode of dress from the gentiles -- note the use of the word appropriated -- and have no real culture of our own. (This is a common antisemitic stereotype about Jews in general.) He then goes on:
Although they are often called "the blacks," the more formal name for them is the Hassidim...
As far as I know, neither Orthodox nor Hasidic Jews ever call themselves "the blacks" (referring to clothing, not race.) This is a perjorative used by secular people to put us down. The above statement is analogous to saying of American blacks that "Although they are called 'niggers' the more formal name for them is African Americans..." No journalist would never get away with that! But Pippert does it to us Jews with impunity.
True, some Jews do call themselves 'Black Hat,' but they are not the Hasidim! 'Black Hat' Jews are non-Hasidic Orthodox groups descended from the yeshivas (seminaries) of Lithuania who are strongly opposed to Hasidism! But our UPI correspondent is not aware of the sub-groups. He simply lumps us all together by our clothing. Oh well, at least he didn't call us "cockroaches" which is the perjorative Israeli street slang... Anyway, after a cursory comparison with the Amish and a scene in the movie Witness, (funny, he does not wonder how the Amish survive in the heat in their dark ankle-length dresses), he then continues:
The ultra-Orthodox, like many zealots, have a tendency to be ugly.
A tendency to be ugly? Because they are zealots? How's that for racism? Must be those thick lips and big hooked noses. Or maybe the ugliness gene is linked to the fanaticism gene? Then again, what about all those handsome blond SS men?
They are utterly oblivious to the existence of anyone else -- unless one of their laws is broken...
Utterly oblivious? To the likes of him, maybe. He then proceeds to give us a series of news items about Jews who threw rocks on the Sabbath or vandalized billboards, etc. (The Sabbath is always a target of people who want to call us fanatics. Even the Romans thought we were lazy because we didn't work seven days a week.) Of course, Pippert does not tell us that most of these incidents were the work of teenage vandals who in many cases were later reprimanded by their parents and rabbis. It was hardly the venerable old sages of Jerusalem who threw the rocks. He also does not tell us about the secular teenagers who go joy-riding through Hasidic neighborhoods and starting fights. But his purpose is not to objectively report the news. It is to portray us as a bunch of thugs who are never arrested because, in his own words:
...It is difficult to make an arrest because all the Ultra-Orthodox look alike and they will gang up on anyone, including police, who tried to restrain them... (p. 147)
They all look alike --- Yes folks, he really did say that! We all look alike, even if some of us have light hair and skin, and some of us are dark-skinned, some tall, short, fat, skinny, old, you name it -- not to mention male and female, young and old. But Mr. Pippert does not seem to be able to see us as individuals with distinctive faces -- he can't get beyond the clothes. At least now we know why he lumps all Orthodox Jews together as Hasidim -- because we all look alike to him! He then comes back to the accusation that we are supposedly oblivious:
On the airliner, they can be seen reading their Hebrew Bibles and dipping their heads rapidly in prayer, or eating their own food -- as if they were the only persons on the plane. They spend much of their time locked in study and vigorous discussion on some minor point...
So there we are, wasting our in-flight time reading our Bibles and discussing religious matters (note that he denigrates it as "some minor point" ) instead of watching the movie or doing homework on our laptops! But are we any more "oblivious" than anyone else? I mean, I've sat next to some pretty oblivious gentiles on the plane -- but they are reading magazines and secular novels, so I guess their concentration doesn't count as obliviousness... And then, of course. we Hasidim have the further audacity to keep kosher and not eat the airplane food -- how utterly crass of us!
What does Mr. Pippert care how we spend our flight time anyway? If I want to study religious texts, what's it to him? But again, this is to make Hasidim look like fanatics -- if, indeed, they really are Hasidim. Since we all look alike, how can he even tell?
After this less than sympathetic portrayal, Pippert laments on page 149:
For the journalist, especially the foreign correspondents, the ultra-Orthodox are the least covered group in Israel. Abraham Rabinovich, a native New Yorker who was assigned to them for the Jerusalem Post for five years, told me it is very hard to cover them.
So tell me -- how does being a native New Yorker make this Rabinovich guy qualified to cover Israeli Hasidim? Because he's a "New York Jew" maybe? (One Jew is as good for the job as another, I guess... after all, we all look alike anyway.) Didn't it ever occur to Mr. Pippert that maybe the guy just doesn't know how to do his job? If I had a reporter on my staff who could not get a story after five years I'd replace him! Pippert continues:
They have no spokesmen, no sources, and they won't talk. The Ultra-Orthodox are increasing in numbers -- they have very large families -- and in influence...
AHA! So now we come to the heart of the matter. The real purpose here is to make us look like a dangerous, clandestine conspiracy that won't talk to the press. And of course -- horror of horrors! -- we have large families, a politically incorrect no-no in these days of abortion and birth control. We are multiplying like... well, er, cockroaches...
Need I go on? And remember, this drivel was written by the senior correspondent for UPI, who specialized in the Middle East at Harvard University! I shudder to think what their novice reporters are like. (Then again, maybe their junior reporters, being of the younger generation, are more up-to-date in multi-cultural awareness...)
With such friends who need enemies? No wonder we come across to the general public as a bunch of loonies. One more revealing point: I found the sole mention of Jewish holy days on page 92, where there is a mere list of the days -- with no explanation of what they are -- under the subheading of Sloth!!! [No, I kid you not.] Pippert tells us nothing about what the Jewish holy days represent (does he even know?), but spends a whole page lamenting that Israelis are so lazy because they observe so many holy days and Sabbaths:
Israelis don't observe just the holy day itself but generally the previous day as well. We arrived in Israel in September, just before the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Holidays, which that year came on Thursdays. Thursday and Wednesday were thus effectively omitted from both the weeks. Since very little business is ever done on Friday mornings because of the start of the Shabbat [Sabbath], those weeks were effectively over by Tuesday night in terms of getting anything done... Ohad Gozani, my astute sabra [native Israeli) colleague, theorizes that the hard-work ethic of the Israelis was a casualty of the 1967 war... (p. 93)
Excuse me? This Pippert jerk is a guest in somebody else's country, he arrives in a major holy day season, and chalks it up to sloth because the offices and stores are closed???? Funny, but I've noticed that a lot of things in America shut down on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as well as New Year's Eve and New Year's Day... Heck, the schools all shut down for a couple weeks at that time. Must be sloth, I guess. And there also seems to be a pattern of taking four-day weekends on Memorial Day and Labor Day, not to mention that an extra Monday has been added to Easter weekend... How utterly slothful!!! Whatever happened to that good ol' Protestant work ethic?
No wonder nobody in the Orthodox and Hasidic worlds will talk to the press -- with attitudes like that, I wouldn't give this guy an interview, either! Who knows what further distortions he would write? But sadly, it is from books like this that the general public gets its opinions of Hasidism. Frustrating, isn't it?
But enough already! I have to go pack my suitcase. If you happen to be on the same flight, stop by my seat and say hi -- I'll be the bearded guy who is dressed like a cockroach and obliviously reading his Bible while munching on a kosher bagel sandwich...
Update 2001: Wesley Pippert now teaches at the University of Missouri. In November 2001, at the request of a number of readers here, I emailed him to ask if his attitudes had changed any since the book was published. He replied: " "I had an Israeli Ph.D. student in Middle East history at Harvard double-check my manuscript for accuracy." (Was I supposed to be impressed by that?) When I asked Professor Pippert if such "accuracy" included those comments about how "they all look alike" and "have a tendency to be ugly," etc. he did not answer the question.
Come on, folks, those were not the words of some anonymous student proofreader. They were Pippert's, published under his name. Frankly, I think it's pretty sleezy to try and pass the buck that way. Or was his grad student a secular Israeli with a nasty beef against "'the Orthodox?" Either way, the final approval of the text before publication would be Pippert's responsibility.
Pippert was "puzzled" (his word) as to why I had contacted him 13 years after the book was out of print. I explained that there are still copies around, that people read them, and my question was: Had his attitudes about Hasidic Jews changed since the book was published thirteen years ago? He never answered this question, even though I told him that if he did have updated comments on his former work, I would post them on this page and/or link to any page of his choice. He did not accept that offer. Instead, he asked for the email addresses of those who had contacted me so he could contact them privately. I said no. If you want to contact him yourself, his email address at Missouri State is: email@example.com. But frankly, I suspect it would be a big waste of your time.
©copyright 1997, 2002 by Yonassan Gershom.
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