None of the common stereotypes of charedim infuriates members of the community quite so much as that of mindless, interchangeable automatons blindly following whatever we are told to do by our rabbinic leadership. Because that description of charedim as lacking all individuality, as well as any capacity for independent thought, is so incongruent with reality, we assume that it can be attributed only to malevolent hatred.
Yet it may well be that this tendency to group all strangers on the basis of one or two external similarities is typical of all of us, as a recent experience of mine suggests.
Just after Succot I arrived at work to find the hall in front of my office filled with black-frocked chassidim. Over the next two days, every two or three minutes we would hear cheers coming from the adjacent conference room that would not have been out of place at a Ohio State-Michigan football game.
The conference room, it turned out, was being used for a Dale Carnegie course.
Inasmuch as Dale Carnegie is not exactly a Yiddishe nommen, the association with chassidim puzzled me. My curiosity piqued, I wrangled an invitation to the final session, in which each participant makes a three-minute speech describing why he took the course; some incident in which he has already employed the lessons of the course; what he envisions himself doing in a few months, and how he will feel.
THE FIRST surprise was the participants’ openness in sharing their vulnerabilities with one another. (Though most of the participants were Belzer chassidim, I did not get the feeling that they had known each other well prior to the group.)
One had come to learn how to make friends more easily; another to gain the confidence to give a talmudic discourse in front of a group of peers in yeshiva; a third to be able to lead the daily prayers; a fourth to improve communications with his wife, and yet another so that he could talk more easily to his children.
A few were engaged and obviously concerned with getting married life off to a good start.
By opening up to one another as they had they had made it possible to receive the support and encouragement of the group – i.e., the raucous cheers emanating from the room. And in the process each discovered, as one put it, “abilities I did not dream I possessed.”
One young man who told his parents that he would refuse to speak in front of a group had already done so on the first day. And the one who wanted to be able to lead the prayers led afternoon services the second day.
The participants described how they had learned the power of a smile, a compliment, and speaking with animation. One said he had never before thought of himself as someone who could help others. But by using some of the techniques of the course he had succeeded in drawing his depressed father into a conversation.
Others told how they had carried on conversations with neighbors to whom they had never done more than nod, or even with people they had previously disliked.
One fellow described how, when he returned home from the course one day, his young son asked him as he entered the apartment why he had not greeted his mother-in-law sitting downstairs on a sidewalk bench. He could not understand why the boy was asking since he rarely exchanged more than the most perfunctory few words with his mother-in-law. Nevertheless, he went outside and greeted her. And when she came into the apartment he complimented her on having traveled so far to help another daughter pack her apartment for a move. With that compliment, her face was transformed, and she replied that she only wished she had come earlier.
I AM not a complete stranger to the chassidic community. Of the four or five Torah leaders with whom I speak most frequently and openly, all but one are chassidic. I have close chassidic friends. Still, I found myself amazed by much of what I heard as I listened to these touching snippets of others’ lives.
And I discovered that I, too, viewed those chassidim I did not know personally as an undifferentiated mass. For that reason I was astounded to hear that a Belzer chassid might feel embarrassed and uncomfortable to enter a Belz study hall where he did not regularly learn or pray.
And I was no less surprised that chassidic parents would be concerned with such modern concepts such as developing their children’s self-confidence or improving their interpersonal relationships, especially given that the course is not cheap. Yet there were a number of pairs of brothers in the class whose parents had picked up the tab.
Now, I know that those who write or speak about charedim as robots indistinguishable from one another do not necessarily do so because they hate us (though they may do so), but because that is how they see us. We all have a tendency to organize that which is unfamiliar to us in terms of a few external traits. Strangers, for instance, will often tell a mother how much alike her children look, whereas she can barely see any resemblance, so firmly is each child etched in her mind as an individual.
The test is not whether we have stereotypes of those outside of our community or group – we all do – but how hard we struggle against those stereotypes and strive to know others outside our narrow world as individuals.
Originally published in the Jerusalem Post, November 13, 2006.