A few nights ago I was invited to a Jewish storytelling event. Here in Denver we’re fortunate to have a team of three young Jewish guys who are dedicated to arranging high quality Jewish events for young people in the area. The event was co-sponsored by the hip Jewish publication that goes by the name of Heeb Magazine. Whilst it was on the whole a highly entertaining evening and most of the storytellers were very funny and their stories in good taste, there was one act that gave me specific pause for thought.
She was an ex-haredi-cum-academic. In her story she related about her personal experiences growing up as a very religious young girl in the haredi section of Boro Park in Brooklyn, New York. She could have given the audience, which was mostly made up of non-religious Jews, an interesting insight into the lives of Jews with whom they do not often associate. Instead, it turned into a session that made a mockery of our religious rituals. The fact that the story teller was an academic who teaches at a local university made her particular storytelling technique all the more troubling.
Let’s put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. What if the same type of story would have been told by a recent Baal Teshuva (returnee to observant Judaism) mocking non-observant Jews? I can just hear the outrage. “How could you be so judgmental?” people would ask. Or worse still, people would rightly accuse the storyteller of religious snobbery and of a reprehensible and insensitive type of condescension and arrogance.
It is not that I cannot laugh at myself or that I have no sense of humor – I was not even offended by this lady’s stereotypical depiction of the haredi community of Borough Park. In fact my sentiment was quite the opposite. I felt sorry for her – sadly she had a need to publicly poke fun of and deride a community which she herself admitted gave her a very enjoyable and happy childhood. In addition I do not believe in censorship – people should be able to say whatever they like as long as it does not defame an individual. The double standard, however, is what surprises me.
The root of this double standard is a type of intellectual snobbery. Many people think that a person who adheres to an ancient tradition with all its seemingly strange rituals must be intellectually inferior to those who have rejected such ideologies as fantasy. This is why one of the easiest ways of insulting a religious Jew is by making fun of the way they dress or of a law or custom they follow that, if not properly explained, seems fanatical and absurd to the uninitiated.
In fact, in addition to laughing as some of the idioms used in the Boro Park haredi community, this storyteller attempted to make us – religious Jews – look idiotic by mocking our laws. So for example, she dramatized and exaggerated the Jewish law of not pealing a Band-Aid on the Shabbat so that it seemed completely irrational to the audience. This was especially cynical because having grown up and gone to school in a haredi community she must have known that there was a rational explanation for that law.
Clearly one cannot have it both ways. If you want to be considered open-minded and non-judgmental, you must look at people who believe in and practice religion, no matter how crazy their practices seem to you, in that same way. But please, don’t portray yourself as being liberal and then go on stage and be condescending, insulting and nasty to those who you have decided to disagree with. I just won’t buy it.
Rabbi Levi Brackman (www.levibrackman.com)
is executive director of Judaism in the Foothills (www.jitf.org). His upcoming book, about Jewish Business Success, is set to be published in late 2008.