Monday, June 29, 2009

To Lakewood to Boro Park to the Gay Pride Parade in Manhattan: My Weekend (Part I)

For my final weekend here in the United States, before going to England, I went to New York with father and step-mother. They were going to a wedding and a bar-mitzvah of the children of friends of theirs (No it was not the same people getting married and bar-mitzvahed.); since these were families that I am also close to, I came along as well. Both of the families are very Haredi so I could count on sticking out at these events even more than I usually do. At Ohio State I may be a strange sight, but someone like me still makes sense as a legitimate member of that society. Also at Ohio State I can count on a lower rate of statements made as a matter of casual fact that I not only disagree with but find downright immoral and offensive.

The wedding was Thursday night in Lakewood New Jersey, a bastion of Haredi Orthodoxy where everything from a serious secular education to the internet is banned. Soon after arriving, a little kid asked me why I did not have a black hat. I told him jokingly that I had lost mine. My other response in my mental rolodex for such situations is that I still need to grow up. Truth be told, I wore a black hat until two years ago. (I had been thinking of stopping to wear it since I was a teenager, ever since I became conscious of the gap between me and the Haredi world, but could never summon the initiative to stop engaging in a daily ritual; how do I justify not doing something one day when I had been doing it the day before and the day before that? I often ponder this as a major religious challenge. If I found it so difficult to back out of such a trivial practice than how could I ever hope to summon the intellectual courage if I ever wished to point blank abandon Orthodox Judaism. If I lack the hypothetical intellectual courage to abandon Orthodox Judaism than my decision to remain within the bounds of Orthodox Judaism becomes an exercise in rationalizing away my own cowardice.)

As the wedding was dying down I called my friend, Nick Connelly, to tell him that I was calling from Lakewood. Nick is not Jewish but knows a lot about Jewish politics. I gave him permission to come in, beat me over the head, and drag me out if I failed to leave of my own volition. Nick then told me the news that Michael Jackson had died that afternoon. Having been away from the internet the whole afternoon I had been unaware of this. To which Nick responded that this proved that I was in Lakewood.

After the wedding my folks and I went over to Borough Park in Brooklyn New York, another bastion of Haredism. Friday morning, in search of an internet connection I made my way to a local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, where I managed to get in several hours of fruitful work besides for internet surfing. I was struck by the amount of clearly Haredi individuals coming into the library, many of whom were clearly not there for the libraries remarkably extensive Judaic section. I was pleased to hear one young woman ask about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Chaucer's the Canterbury Tales. The most intriguing thing was the parade of Haredi men coming in to use the internet on the library’s computers. (No I was not close enough to see if they were looking at porn; I sincerely hope they were not.) As someone who believes in studying history from the bottom up and from the edge, I am intrigued by such people and their motives? Here they are identifying themselves with a given community, breaking a taboo of that community in a public place where anyone (even me) could see them. One assumes that these people do not have access to the internet in their homes, a more serious infraction of the internet taboo, but also less public. I hope that a future writer of the history of Haredim in the early twenty-first century would have the subversive turn of mind to look beyond those putting out the bans and make these Haredi internet users the center of their discussion of Haredim and their attempts to ban the internet.

Over Shabbos I got into a number of interesting conversations and I must say that everyone was really nice to me. (This is probably the community’s greatest strength. Contrary to stereotype, once you get past the initial barrier and establish yourself as a non-threat, this is a very welcoming community that will embrace outsiders.) A particular one that comes to mind was a conversation I was thrown in middle of as to whether there are more people alive today than all the people from past times combined. I vaguely remember hearing such a thing, but I do not have the sources to back the claim up. Population Studies are not a field that I have any expertise in nor do I have much of a head for mathematics. Furthermore I was asked to attempt combine rabbinic assumptions about populations in the ancient world with the views of academics. This creationist style thinking, combining a veneer of scholarship with academic nonsense, is something that usually appeals to my intellectual sense of absurdity, but this is the sort of absurdity that requires my brain to be working at full capacity, which it was not at that time of night. Word got around about me, even to strangers, that I was a historian. This brought with it a certain level of curiosity. One boy came up to me to tell me that he had a rebbe in Lakewood teaching them Jewish history, who was a genius. The optimist in me wishes to believe that even in the bowels of Lakewood there could be someone trying to teach Jewish history and not simply Haredi propaganda. The realist in me assumes otherwise.

(To be continued …)

No comments: