Tensions between religious and non-religious Jews and religious Jews occasioned by the move of religious Jews to upscale suburbs have long been a staple of both American Jewish fiction and sociological writing. Nearly half a century ago, Philip Roth wrote a short-story, “Eli the Fanatic,” satirizing the horror with which suburban Jewish burghers react to the sudden appearance in town of a Jew in Chassidic garb.
In Jew vs. Jew, Samuel Freedman, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, devoted a section of the book to the dispute in Beachwood, Ohio over a request for a zoning clearance in order to build a large Jewish complex and mikvah. Battles over efforts to erect eruvin pitting Orthodox Jews against their non-observant brethren have raged in a number of communities in the New York metropolitan region and as far away as Santa Monica on the other coast. These battles have been played out in local zoning boards, city council meetings, and in the courts, both state and federal.
In many cases the issue has been baldly framed by the long-time residents of the community: We fear the influx of too many religious Jews to the community. Non-religious Jews understand that without an eruv, or without zoning variations permitting the use of single-family homes for minyanim or allowing the building of a mikvah, young Orthodox Jews couples, with their large families, will be deterred from moving into the neighborhood.
In some cases, this opposition is put in dollars and cents terms. The non-Orthodox residents fear that since Orthodox Jews are almost sure to send their children to private religious schools, they will vote against any school bond issue, and the result will be too little money for public education and a decline in the public school system. That particular fear is not entirely far-fetched and one that the broad Orthodox community should be looking for ways to counter.
But more typically, the problem is less concrete: a discomfort with Jews whose appearance and lifestyle clearly set them apart from the general assimilatory trend of American Jewry.
THE LATEST SOCIOLOGICAL REPORT from the battlefront, entitled “Oy Vey, There Goes the Neighborhood,” appears in a recent issue of Philadelphia Magazine, and describes the move in recent years of an estimated 400 Orthodox families to two suburbs on Philadelphia’s famously WASP Main Line. (While this influx has been primarily Modern Orthodox, there is also a kollel of Lakewood yungeleit in the area.)
Though Weiss quotes one or two non-Jews about the advent of religious Jews
in the area, the focus of the article is on reactions of the long-time Jewish residents. Indeed, the two gentiles quoted describe themselves as nonplussed by their new Jewish neighbors.
Not so the long-time Jewish residents, in Weiss’s telling. For them, the presence of Orthodox Jews conjures up many feelings – none of them pleasant. Some of the long-time Jewish residents seem to be afraid of being identified with the newcomers. They have spent their whole lives fleeing what they imagine to be traditional gentile stereotypes of Jews, and now these newcomers appear to remind the goyim that identifiable Jews continue to exist.
For many of the non-Orthodox residents, the invasion of Orthodox families serves as a reminder of the decline of their brand of Judaism. The ultimate symbol of Orthodox ascendancy, at least in this particular area, is the purchase by Chabad of the General Wayne Inn, “an icon of the inner Main Line,” in which one of the newer Orthodox residents speculates a Jew had probably not set foot in 300 years.
Weiss contrasts the declining number of Reform and Conservative Jews, as a consequence of assimilation and intermarriage, to the rapid growth of Orthodoxy. He writes that Orthodox worship “is soaring, up by about 50 percent in the past decade.”
If his interviews are to be believed, these trends are not ones of which secular Jews wish to be reminded. One anonymous friend of Weiss’ mother tells him, “I just wish they’d go to a different neighborhood” – a wish apparently linked to the fact, as she puts it, “I don’t have any Jewish grandchildren. They’re half Jewish. And they’re terrific, they’re good people. I actually think that religion causes most of the problems in the world, more so today than ever.” One cannot help but hear in her distaste for her new Orthodox neighbors more than a little trace of guilt in her own inability to transmit Jewishness to her own offspring.
The comparison of Orthodox Jews to some of the more unattractive religious fanatics of our time is a trope that recurs throughout Weiss’ piece. The secular Jewish residents are “put off by the fundamentalism and narrowness of Orthodox Jews.” Secular residents’ chief concern, according to Weiss, is that the Orthodox will bring about a diminution of an enlightened community by “importing a culture of narrow-minded fundamentalism.” Though he uses the term “fundamentalism” repeatedly, Weiss never defines it, or explains how it applies to Orthodox Jews.
While none of the secular Jewish interviewees explicitly links their new neighbors with Islamic suicide bombers, the more traditional gender roles and large families of the Orthodox are enough to mark them as beyond the pale.
The closest that Weiss comes to eliciting specific complaints about the Orthodox is that they crowd narrow side-streets on Shabbos as if there were no traffic (a complaint also featured in Samuel Freedman’s account of the Beachwood, Ohio dispute). And one Conservative Jew reports that he was accosted in the supermarket by an Orthodox Jew who wanted to know why he was buying non-kosher chickens, as a consequence of which he now shops on Shabbos to avoid the looks and comments of his censorious Orthodox neighbors.
To be sure, Weiss’ portrait of the Orthodox residents of Bala Cynwyd and Lower Merion is not entirely, or even primarily, negative. He admits that the Orthodox women he met conformed to none of his stereotypes of Orthodox women. While they may have been dressed modestly and covered their heads, he admits that they are anything but dowdy and downtrodden looking. They look like what they are in fact – affluent and well-educated. The Orthodox interviewees come more alive as people, in part because far more of them are willing to be named, and they are given a chance to offer their own perspective on gender roles in their own lives.
IT IS PERHAPS AN ENCOURAGING SIGN that the Philadelphia Magazine story drew a great deal of negative flack. Bruce Schimmel in the Philadelphia City Paper called it a parody of investigative journalism, noting that every secular Jew quoted in the piece remained anonymous. Schimmel quotes Gary Erlbaum, a local federation leader and father of three Orthodox sons: “My theory is that here’s a guy who’s writing a story to get paid for, and his mother is helping him out.” Schimmel points out that both the author of the piece and the editor of Philadelphia Magazine who headlined the piece on the cover, “Jews Take Over the Main Line,” may have had an axe to grind.
Weiss describes how his own mother gave birth to six children in part to counter the loss of Jewish children in the Holocaust, but that two of them, himself included, have married out. And the editor of Philadelphia Magazine – also of Jewish descent – writes in his editor’s note that he and his wife like to play a charming little game on Shabbos called “Spot the Jew,” in which points are accumulated by being the first to yell “Jew” upon spotting Orthodox Jews walking to shul.
Jonathan Tobin, editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, and probably the best writer in the Anglo-Jewish press, took a different tack. He did not question Weiss’ findings. Indeed, he argued that they confirm one of the dirty little secrets of American Jewry – many American Jews are anti-religious bigots, and the victims of their bigotry are both religious Jews and evangelical Christians.
Far from the “notion of educated, sophisticated, and even affluent Jews embracing an Orthodox lifestyle with all it entails [being something] profoundly disturbing,” as it is for those “who saw assimilation into the mainstream as the main goal of American Jewry,” writes Tobin, the community should view it as a “positive development.”
My own guess is that both Schimmel and Tobin are right in their critiques. Like Schimmel, I do not fully trust Weiss’ reporting. The anecdote about a modern Orthodox Jew peering into another Jew’s shopping cart and criticizing his choice of meat taxes my credulity. That is not how highly successful professionals and businessmen, who spend their entire lives interacting with gentiles and non-observant Jews, tend to behave. Much more likely, the Conservative Jew who related the alleged story was projecting the guilt feelings aroused by the presence of an Orthodox Jew.
At the same time, I suspect that the undercurrent of discomfort with Orthodox neighbors described by Weiss, and more sophisticated observers, like Samuel Freedman, is real. With respect to that discomfort, we can at least be heartened that it is occasioned by the rapid growth of American Orthodoxy. And we can be further heartened that a sympathetic but non-Orthodox writer like Jonathan Tobin has seen fit to take pen in hand against anti-Orthodox bigotry.
Originally appeared in Yated Ne’eman USA.