Clarifying (The Media’s) Definitions Of Orthodox Jews

Marcel Apperloo

One of the things that tends to drive me up the wall is the inaccurate media definitions of Orthodox Jews. They seem to carelessly and loosely define the term, as well as make it synonymous with Chassidic Jews, as well as having to clear distinction made between “standard” Orthodox Jews and “Ultra-Orthodox Jews“.

First of all, let’s start with the basics. An Orthodox Jew is simply a Jew that believes that the Torah is divine and that all of its laws are binding. There are many Orthodox Jews who physically appear no different than your average American in terms of dress and mannerisms. Many of them live and work in areas and environments that are mainly non-Jewish. These types of Orthodox Jews are generally blind to the media due to their non-distinctiveness. A good example of such a Jew would be Dr. Mayim Bialik.

Chassidic Jews are actually the real darlings of the media due to their distinctive dress and lifestyle. However in the U.S., there are only about 180,000 Chassidic Jews; with a large percentage of them located in New York. Compare this to the Amish population, which is about 249,500. Speaking of the Amish, Chassidic Jews may look like they are stuck in the 17th century, but the reality is they engage in modern pleasures and technology just like mainstream America does. For example, B&H Photo is owned by Chassidic Jews and you’ll most likely see a good number of them working there when you go to their showroom in New York. What really distinguishes the Chassidim however is their commitment to maintain separation between their culture and lifestyle and that of the non-Jewish world around them.

Similarly Charedi Jews go to great lengths to maintain their Jewish distinctiveness in regards to dress, lifestyle and culture. There are many differences between Charedi and Chassidic Jews, mainly that Charedi Jews are misnagdim; however I believe these differences are not really discernible to outsiders. What I would like to point out though is that just about every “Modern” Orthodox Jew I know either has Charedi Jews in their families or are acquainted with Charedi Jews socially. So in spite of their “distinctiveness” we share yom tovim (holidays), simchas (joyous events) and learn with them. So in many cases, the designation is far more significant outside of the Jewish community than within it.

The trouble arises when the media says the term “Ultra-Orthodox”, because you are never quite sure who they are referring to. Judaism itself has no division or group called “The Ultra-Orthodox”…so its a term that is open wide to interpretation. Surprisingly, the term Chassidic is also twisted in the media; as clearly demonstrated by the Pearly Reich story. Her appearance on Dr. Phil along with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach made me cringe:

First of all, let me address the whole “arranged marriage” notion. No modern day group of Jews have true arranged marriages, comparable to what you would find in India even, where the parents (or someone else) chooses their children’s spouse and they have no say whatsoever in the matter. I have personally known Satmar Chassidic Jews who were 25 years old and unmarried simply because they did not want to be married. What there is within Orthodox Judaism is a very strong and ever pervasive social pressure to get married and have children. For Orthodox Jews, marriage is the start of adulthood, and it is one of the greatest mitzvahs (good deed/Jewish law) that the common Jew can fulfill. Therefore an Orthodox Jew of any sex will feel some level of ostracization for not being married. To some extent, their family may feel this as well. However, social pressure is not the same as having arranged marriages. Even Chassidic Jews are to marry someone who they desire to marry; and divorce is possible as well.

The next inaccuracy portrayed in this segment is the presentation of Ms. Reich and Rabbi Boteach as cultural peers…when they are not. Pearl Reich is from Borough Park, so was most likely a member of the Bobov, Ger or Satmar (among others) Chassidic groups. She is most likely not Lubavitch, like Rabbi Boteach is. To be fair (or fairer than the media however), Dr. Phil would not have been able to get a non-Lubavitch Chassidic rabbi on his show; since in general they feel that disputes between Jews need to be handled by Jews and is of no concern to the non-Jewish world (its like airing your dirty laundry out onto the street). However the nature of Lubavitch is to publicize and market Judaism to the unobservant Jewish masses. So they are very different than other Chassidim in this way.

In fact, it still amazes me at how easily the media equates Lubavitch Chassidim with Chassidim in general, with absolutely no regard to this. It happened when Oprah spent time with a Chassidic family and focused on that; downplaying the fact that they were Lubavitch Chassidim who actually differ from the rest of Chassidim (and non-Chassidic Orthodox Jews) in many ways.

Which brings me to my concluding pet peeve; the amazement at how Orthodox Jews eschew television and popular media…and wider exposure in general. The media tends to marvel at the general ignorance that many Orthodox Jews have about television of popular American culture. But the reality is no one is knowledgeable about things that they have no interest in or invest any time interacting with. For example, I know nothing about Chinese opera. Many elderly people have no clue about hip-hop. These facts shock few people. However it may come as a shock to some people that I myself don’t have cable TV. I am not a Chassidic or Ultra-Orthodox Jew, but my priorities in regards to what I spend my money on are different than that of those who are non-Jews.

In closing I would just like people to realize that the media is not always interested in imparting truth and knowledge. Most of the time, they just want your attention & if they have to gloss over the facts every once and a while to do it, so be it.