A friend of the blog e-mails this appalling article, as published in the local Far Rockaway paper, The Wave
, subscription required). It's such a piece of garbage journalism that I think I have to attack it on a point-by-point basis. Here we go, with my commentary interspersed:
From the Editor's Desk
(More People Have Died In The Name Of Religion Issue)
Commentary By Howard Schwach
More people have died in the name of religion than anything else throughout history. You don't believe that is true? Take a look at the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust, the ongoing bloodshed in the Middle East, the long-standing Irish "problems," Kosovo, the ongoing war between Sunni and Shia over who has the right to rule Muslims, and any number of little wars in Africa. Now, tell me that religion is a benign factor in human life.
Ok. People have died in the name of religion. I wont engage in a debate about whether a godless person like Hitler murdered people in name of a religion. And I'll try not to focus my attention on the latent racism in the phrase "little wars in Africa," as if the millions killed on that continent is an afterthought. Either way, it's clear that this piece must be about a very serious brand of religious fanaticism that affects the safety of people on a daily basis. Right? Wrong. Keep reading.
A few months ago, I was in Cedarhurst early in the morning to shop at the bookstore (how I wish there was a bookstore in Rockaway). When I got there, the Nassau cops had a few cars in front of the store. I went in. One of the young clerks was from Far Rockaway and knew me from previous visits. She told me that they found a note on the door that warned them that the store would be destroyed by fire if they continued to open on Saturdays. The note was unsigned, but the store manager at the time told me that they had lots of problems with the Orthodox Jewish community that has all but taken over the shopping areas in Lawrence and Cedarhurst.
Um, a threat of arson? If the store continued to remain open on Saturdays? That certainly sounds
pretty serious. If, of course, the threat was deemed at all credible. And considering that it did not show up in any local publications, I have to assume it was not. As a matter of fact, I think the most damning indictment of the author's claim is the fact that the author himself did not report on this alleged story in his very own newspaper! Any explanation for that serious journalistic lapse? I doubt. Let us continue...
A few days later, my wife and I were in the Carvel a few doors away from the bookstore (this was prior to my diet, when I could enjoy a Brown Bonnet). There was an Orthodox man arguing with the Asian owner of the store, telling him that he needed a certificate from the local Orthodox Rabbi if he wanted to stay in business. The owner pointed to a framed document on the wall and told the man he already had a Kosher Certificate. The man told him that it wasn't good enough and that if he didn't pay for one from the local rabbi, nobody from the community would ever again come into his store.
Three weeks later, the store was closed. In my mind, that was worthy of the Mafia and the shakedown antics of the Chinatown gangs.
Riiiiight. The Mafia. The kind of Mafia that somehow allows stores with large and visible Orthodox customer bases like Hewlees and Haagen Dazs to stay open without a Vaad Certification, but threatens stores like Carvel - in the presence of the store's customers, no less. Sounds a little improbable to me.
What brings this to mind is a recent long piece in the New York Times Magazine called, "The Orthodox Paradox," by a "Modern Orthodox" man named Noah Feldman.
Feldman, who is a law professor at Harvard University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells of the Yeshiva Day School he attended for 12 years and its tenth reunion.
Feldman says that he was photographed with his fellow alumni and their wives, but when the picture was published, he and his girlfriend had been cropped out of the photo. Why? Because his girlfriend (now his wife) was Asian and the mantra of the modern Orthodox school he attended (and, of the religion as a whole) was "no marriage outside the religion."
Ahh. The legacy of our friend Mr. Feldman. The guy who the New York Times claims never said that he was purposely cropped out, therefore obviating his - or the Times' - need to issue a correction. Except that reader after reader, like Mr. Schwach here, seems to have understood Mr. Feldman's claim precisely as that he was purposely cropped out of the photo by the school's administration. Which, as we all now know, he was not
Feldman says that the goal of modern Orthodoxy is to "normalize the observance of traditional Jewish law - to make it possible to follow all 613 biblical commandments assiduously while still participating in the reality of the modern world."
In a modern society, however, people understand that others have differing viewpoints, and that religion should not drive secular affairs such as how an ice cream shop does its business and whether or not a bookstore is open on Saturday in contravention of Orthodox Jewish teachings.
True. Except that the two examples of the local Orthodox community supposedly making a stink about a bookstore and ice cream store staying open on Saturday are simply not credible - so Mr. Schwach doesn't really have a leg to stand on.
There are many people who believe that the influx of Orthodox to the Five Towns has ruined it for the rest of the population. A great number of the stores and restaurants have been taken over by Orthodox owners. They are closed from early Friday night to Sunday.
I am quite sure that there are many people that feel that "the influx of Orthodox to the Five Towns have ruined it for the rest of the population." (But thanks for spelling those feelings out for us so clearly, Mr. Schwach!) I don't doubt at all that there are many non-Orthodox local who resent that their beloved Manhattan Steak House has been taken over by a Kosher burger joint. Or that Judaica stores proliferate instead of, say, electronics stores. Or so on and so forth. But guess what? Tough. That's how the free market works. If a store cannot draw customers from the demographic of the community it inhabits, it cannot succeed in its present incarnation. That happens on any given day, in communities all over the earth. Demographics change. People need to either change with the demographics - or risk going belly-up. That's always been the reality of owning a business that relies on customers to succeed. Small office supply stores can moan and groan all they want about the big-box office suppliers that undercut their prices and drive customers away, but unless they find some method of their own to continue to draw customers, all the complaining in the world won't keep the small store solvent.
For a great example of someone who rolls with the punches of changing demographics, take Jay Todtman, the hilarious (and sometimes quite rude) owner of the excellent local bagel store Toddy's. Jay, who himself is not Orthodox, realized that the community was changing. He made a choice to hold on to the local clientele by changing in kind, and his the quality of his delicious lox and cream cheese has not changed a bit since becoming certified by the Vaad. Mr. Schwach, perhaps you should head into Toddy's to try a vat of iced cappucino fudge with Cholov Yisrael milk. I guarantee you that it tastes no different than a coffee made with non-CY milk. Of course, that is if you can abide standing in line in the store, so close to all of the Orthodox clients who can't seem to get enough of Mr. Todtman's product. It seems that might be a problem for you
- though not for them.
That community has tried, as with the bookstore, to force those not owned by them to close as well.
As I mentioned above - I don't buy that claim. It's based only on Mr. Schwach's hearsay - and never even reported in his own paper
. It's also not borne out by any
evidence whatsoever. Borders bookstore is absolutely packed with Orthodox of every stripe on a Friday afternoon. Go see for yourself. That doesn't exactly speak of any type of Orthodox boycott attempt. Mr. Schwach's readers' intelligence is insulted by any claims to that order.
To my mind, that is not being a good neighbor. In Bayswater, the Satmar community is taking over, buying property and converting many of the large homes into synagogues. Granted, the Satmar are Hasidic and not considered modern Orthodox, but they are simply a more extreme brand of orthodoxy.
Horrors! People who don't look exactly like you are legally buying homes, and (gasp!) living in them! Call the troops in the white sheets! Wait...is that mentality of not allowing people who are different from you to live in your community a throwback to a different era, perhaps? Like, pre-civil rights?
Since the Orthodox have their own schools, their own stores, their own courts, their own community groups, their own newspapers, their proliferation leads to a separation that is untenable in a modern world.
Who says it's untenable? Orthodox Jews do not have their own schools at the expense of paying school taxes. Seen my tax bill lately? Nor do they have their own courts at the expense of participating in secular courts. Any idea how many attorneys, who participate daily in the court system, live in the Five Towns Orthodox community you denigrate? A whole bunch. And regarding having "our own newspapers" - what do you expect us to do? Read your
newspaper where you write anti-Orthodox diatribes, riddled with falsehoods, like this one? Or subscribe to the other local papers, who allow political advertisements that play on bigotry
To get a glimpse of what I'm talking about, read the Times piece.
Since no work is allowed on the Sabbath, even the carrying of money or turning on an electric light, the word "work" had to be defined over generations of thinking and writing.
Saving a life is allowed on the Sabbath, because life trumps the Torah. Turns out, however, that saving only a Jewish life is allowed, not saving a non-Jewish life unless saving that life somehow led to better relations between Jews and non-Jews.
That is what we are talking about.
Except that this is just not the case. Find me one Orthodox doctor, anywhere, who will ever inquire as to the religion of a patient before treating him/her on Sabbath. One. Find me one contemporary Rabbi who will say that Jewish emergency workers, EMT's, doctors or nurses should deny a patient care based on his religion. Good luck.
Now, you can call me an atheist (although I do believe in a God, although not in organized religion) or a Secular Humanist (the worst thing in the world in the view of religious zealots), but I think that I am levelheaded, worried about the impact of religion on my life and the health of my community. I simply cannot understand why any religion would be so egotistic that it would demand that people of other faiths (or not faith at all) should live by its tenets.
I read recently that the Pope said that we cannot be saved, cannot go to heaven if we don't accept Jesus as our savior. Orthodox Jews tell us that we can't shop on Saturday because they don't believe in it. Then, they make up rules, such as the use of an Eruv, to get around their own rules when it suits their fancy. An Eruv, by the way, is a wire set up high around a particular area that allows for the fiction that people within that wire are at home and can do some things they might otherwise not be able to do.
You have got to be kidding me. First of all, no one is demanding that you practice our religion. Proselytizing has never been the Jewish approach. And the notion that Orthodox "get around their own rules when it suits their fancy" is demonstrably false on it's face. If that's the case, and it's simply about what is more convenient for us as opposed to being rooted in our laws - which, with your limited understanding, you clearly might not be able to grasp - then why wouldn't we "make up rules" for eating pork or lobster? Or driving on Shabbat? God knows the past few Saturdays have been sweltering. It would have been real sweet to drive my air-conditioned minivan to shul, instead of pushing a heavy double stroller. But I guess we haven't "made up" those rules yet. Too bad.
I understand that there is a demand that the Orthodox be given their own time slots at the pool being built as part of Arverne By The Sea, under the theory that men and women from that community cannot mix and that Orthodox youth may not mix with non- Orthodox youth at any time.
Is that what we want our community facility to become?
I once taught part-time at an Orthodox girl's school in Brooklyn.
The Rabbi told me that I could not teach about the Crusades because they were not a "matter for Jews." I couldn't teach about meiosis (the determination that is made when sperm meets egg) because that is "a dirty lesson." The textbook we used had a photo of a priest holding up a cross over the Niagara Falls. That page was ripped from the textbooks. The math teacher was warned not to use a cross as a plus sign, to make sure that the lines crossed right in the middle.
I could go on and on.
I fail to understand how the religious fundamentalism of the Orthodox community discussed above is much different from the fundamentalism of the Christian community that wants us to teach creationism in the schools and fights the use of stem cells when it is clear that their use can save untold lives down the line.
Or, the Muslim fundamentalists that beat people because they go into a bar, wear "seductive" clothing or watch an American movie.
Interesting. So, you "fail to understand" the difference between the violent fundamentalism you describe and the fact that a Yeshiva chooses to cross their plus signs in the middle. You "fail to understand" the difference between choosing not to teach young children about certain aspects of reproduction - and Muslim fundamentalists who beat people because they go into a bar. You "fail to understand" the difference between peaceful requests for a few gender-separate swimming hours in a community pool - and bloody violence. You have a limited understanding for these types of things, it seems.
Feldman's New York Times piece drew so many letters that an entire page of those letters ran in last week's paper, an unusual occurrence for a paper that gets hundreds of letters on each of its major stories. Very seldom does one story get an entire page of letters.
One rabbi, the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, wrote, "It was Feldman's choice to send as clear a signal as he could, through his marriage, that he was rejecting fundamental principles of the community. His expression of surprise at the reaction of the community's institutions, including his alma mater, where he was taught these principles, strains credulity... Feldman's own life seems to be a testament as to what can happen, in the worst case, when one loses this balanced view of Jewish life, losing the balance between engaging with modern culture and a core commitment to Orthodox traditions, which so many others continue to maintain with dignity and much fulfillment."
This question is not one that is simply academic or global in scope. This question could easily overtake Rockaway as it has the Five Towns area.
I don't really understand this whole paragraph - it must have lost some meaning to overzealous editing. But I will attempt to refute it anyhow. First of all, what exactly is the significance of there being a whole page of letters? Especially as most of the letters were expressing displeasure with Mr. Feldman's take on things? Also, there were many non-Orthodox critics of Mr. Feldman's piece.
I know that it was an aberration, but I once rode through West Lawrence (once called Far Rockaway) during the Sabbath on a story and had a group of young Orthodox students at a Yeshiva on Reads Lane throw rocks at my car and curse me for riding on Saturday.
Wow. That sounds serious. Youths throwing stones? I hope you called the police. I'm sure they would have taken a threat like this seriously - especially as you know which Yeshiva the boys came from, which should make it easy to identify them. I expect that you brought these students up on charges, as any responsible citizen should do. It's truly shocking that Mr. Schwach has had so many violent encounters with Orthodox residents of this area - he's like the Forrest Gump of the Orthodox zealot set. I would love to see some of these police reports so that I can post on these terrible occurrences. Or I would love to have seen the story on this dangerous crime in Mr. Schwach's paper. Alas, it was never reported. I'm sure a local paper like The Wave has few more pressing stories that concern local public safety to report on than youth throwing stones.
That community is one that has isolated itself from the rest of the residents.
That, my friends, is never a good sign for any community's health.
Speaking of isolation, let me ask you a question, Mr Schwach. Have you ever attempted to engage any of your Orthodox neighbors in discussion on these matters? I find it difficult to believe that you have, given your one-sided examples of your experiences with Orthodox members of your community.
And let me leave you with a even more pressing question. Is publishing a hate-filled, dishonest piece such as this one simply a result of Mr. Shwach's own misinformation, or something much more troubling? Because to me, it seems that despite Mr. Schwach's attempts to prove otherwise, all he has proven here is how intolerant he himself is. It is clear that he is unhappy with the culture of others encroaching on his former stomping grounds. I'm sorry for him that such a demographic shift occured, changing his beloved Five Towns and Far Rockaway that was once populated by an Orthodox minority that he evidently deemed appropriately small enough to make him feel comfortable. But people move, and populations change. That said, I think it's clear to everyone that bigotry is bigotry, no matter how one may try to back it up with one's own dubiously sourced experiences. And I think Mr. Schwach has proved himself a bigot, plain and simple.