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Those Insular Orthodox -- Cave Dwellers or Those Who Refuse
to Cave?

Eytan Kobre, Esq.

Those Insular Orthodox --
Cave Dwellers or Those Who Refuse to Cave?

Eytan Kobre, Esq.*

Media coverage of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, following his nomination as the Democrat's vice-presidential candidate, created a brief national fascination with Orthodox Jews and Judaism, during which numerous pundits undertook the varieties of Orthodoxy and where Sen. Joseph Lieberman fits on the spectrum of observance: The Modern Orthodox, so the conventional punditry goes, embrace modernity and the world at large. Their fervently Orthodox compatriots to the right, however, see that the world as a forbidding and irredeemably impure place from which they recoil in horror and retreat to they insular communities.

This neat little street map of Orthodoxy undoubtedly plays well in the American heartland, where at least until recently, people learned all they know about Orthodox from Woody Allen films.

But equally certain that as the commentators drone on about the "insular ultra-Orthodox," many New Yorkers of all faiths from Midwood to mid-Manhattan and all points in between, must be shaking their heads in disbelief. Those who live and work in the "Ortho" capital of America know the reality of observant Jewish life far more accurately than either the media's "talking heads" ir those who pose as "authorities on the Orthodox community" for bewildered reporters on deadline.

This is the real world, one in which Orthodox Jews are visibly, even disproportionately, represented in the city's largest law firms, most prestigious hospitals, and throughout its corporation, universities and government. They are very much in the thick of New York's business life, to the point where the sight of an identifiably Orthodox Jew strolling down Fifth Avenue or seated in a bank on Broadway, a cell phone to his ear and a laptop on his side, elicits nary a second glance from passersby.

All of this is true not only of the Modern Orthodox, but also the fervently Orthodox, many of whom sport beards and dark suits and hats -- the full nine yards. In fact, a recent cover of Upside, a glossy business monthly of the high-tech community, featured a photo of a decidedly fervent-looking Orthodox international venture capitalist.

It is true that Hasidic Jews largely shun pursuit to secular education that gives entree to many professions (although even in the professions one encounters the occasional Hasid who artfully tucks his long payot under his yarmulke or behind his ears).

The lack of a sheepskin has not, however prevented large numbers of Hasidim from making successful marks in a host of fields, from computers consulting and financial planning to high-tech hardware, which brings them into daily close contact with secular Jews and non-Jews alike.

Even the community of yeshiva scholars, who, because they pursue intensive programs of high-level Torah study, are less engaged with the so-called "real world" are by no means hermetically sealed off from it.

Consider that for the last two decades, when yeshivot recess for three weeks each summer, hundreds of single students and married scholars and their families spend their vacations as volunteer scholars-in-residence in scores of Jewish communities nationwide, where they study and interact with Jews across the religious spectrum.

What of the attitudes of the fervently Orthodox toward the scientific, cultural and natural resources that the broader world has to offer?

Once again, New Yorkers can readily attest to the remarkable twice-yearly ritual, when for several days each autumn and spring institutions devoted to science, culture and nature, and recreational facilities throughout the greater metropolitan region are inundated by fervently Orthodox families whose children are on holiday break.

There are, of course, certain venues in which one will not find these Orthodox families out in force -- movie houses, Broadway theaters and public beaches -- and there's the rub.

Within Orthodoxy, there are varying approaches, as might be expected in any diverse, intellectually vigorous and spiritually serious community, to the issue of involvement with the larger surrounding society. Certainly, however, the fervently Orthodox do not, in wholesale fashion, spurn engagement with contemporary society; they merely choose to engage it on their own thoughtful, principled terms.

Their is a conscious, and conscientious, choice not to "buy ," reflexively and indiscriminately whatever media and entertainment regimes wish to peddle as the fad or moral posture du jour. Instead, they reserve, and regularly exercise, the right to sift through current societal values and behaviors to determine which are consonant with what they believe are the timeless spiritual and ethical teachings of a God-given Torah.

It is not lack of familiarity with secular culture that motivates this circumspection. On the contrary, these Orthodox folks are only too savvy about who and what reigns supreme in present­day American culture. They know that Eminem and 'N Sync rule, not Tanglewood and NPR; Lopez and Combs are the couple of the moment, not Astaire and Rogers.

They believe that pursuing the goal of, in sociologist Samuel Heilman's phrase, "finding some harmony with contemporary America, which....[is associated] with its high rather than its popular culture " is not necessarily wrong, just rather naive, and frankly not worth the effort it entails given the danger with which it is fraught.

When wildy popular flicks like Scary Movie and South Park escape teen-proof ratings they deserve, and prime-time TV is saturated with fare of the Married With Children genre, can parents who wish to raise decent kids to be faulted for pulling the plug/swimming against the societal current? When millions of American homes observe a sacred weekly ritual of watching Survivor, which the show's own publicist described as confirming that "the mean shall inherit the earth". is it not sensible for people who aspire to ethical living to dissent?

As for the oft-heard claim that sophisticated adults and well-adjusted teens aren't affected by a mere two-hour movie, perhaps someone should tell that to the corporate sponsors who paid $600,000 per second advertising slot on Survivor's finale.

Late this [past] summer, but tragically decades too late for generations of kids. four major medical and mental health associations announced their findings that-surprise-viewing violent entertainment fosters aggressive and destructive behavior.

In contrast to the one-dimensional caricatures often used to depict them, fervently Orthodox endeavor to chart a nuanced, ethically-based path through the very midst of the world, while preserving for an eternal Torah veto power over the temporal vagaries of society. That is genuine "engagement."

*Eytan Kobre is a writer and lawyer who works in New York City. This essay originally appeared in the Jewish Sentinel in February 2001 and is reprinted on with Mr. Kobre's permission. [BACK]

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