White Horse, Red Ribbon… Yellow Journalism?

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“Oy,” said the fellow at afternoon services first of the “intermediate days” of Passover. “Did you see the front page New York Times story about Kiryas Joel?”

I had, I confessed. As Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs, I’m supposed to keep tabs on the media, even during days when freedom from the wider world’s machinations and mischief is the Jewish order of the day.

My interlocutor elaborated on his groan. “They did a real job on the place,” he said. “Not good, not good…”

I understood how distrust of the media combined with a standard-issue dose of Jewish worry could easily yield such an assessment. After all, the article’s headline called Kiryas Joel, the Satmar community about 50 miles northwest of New York City, “A Village With the Numbers, Not the Image, of the Poorest Place” in America. And the piece noted that “about half the residents receive food stamps and one-third receive Medicaid benefits and rely on federal vouchers to help pay their housing costs.”

Moreover, it quoted an assemblywoman representing an adjacent district who has demanded an investigation into why Kiryas Joel received state and federal funds for a 60-bed postnatal maternal care center. Residents, she said “may be truly poor on paper [but] they are not truly poor in reality.”

And then there was the sociology professor who generously admitted that he “cannot say as a group that they are cheating the system” but does think “that they have, no pun intended, unorthodox methods of getting financial support.”

Still and all, the article acknowledged that crime is “virtually nonexistent in Kiryas Joel”; highlighted the assistance provided the needy by members of the community; noted that rates for stays at the postnatal center are not covered by Medicaid, and that “poorer women are typically subsidized by wealthier ones”; and described economic opportunities undertaken by locals. And it ended—the final lines of an article are the most important ones, as they “bring it all together” for the reader—with a quote from the village administrator, who pointed out that Kiryas Joel has “no drug-treatment programs, no juvenile delinquency program, we’re not clogging the court system with criminal cases, you’re not running programs for AIDS or teen pregnancy. I haven’t run the numbers, but I think it’s a wash.”

The Talmud, in fact, teaches that poverty brings out the best in Jews, that it is “beautiful” for them, “like a red ribbon on a white horse” (Chagiga 9b). The article presented no evidence that Kiryas Joel’s residents were anything but honest and needy, and deserving of what social largesse our wonderful country makes available to the materially deprived. In fact, it showed how poverty and beauty can dovetail.

Yet it wasn’t only my shul friend who was unhappy with the report. So was someone far from the Orthodox world.

Ron Kuby is a well-known criminal defense and civil rights lawyer. New Yorkers with the questionable habit of listening to talk radio know him as a left-wing pundit who co-hosted a popular program for eight years. About 15 years ago, he contacted the Agudah about a legal issue of common concern and, after that interaction, over subsequent years I occasionally wrote to chide him about on-air comments he had made. We have carried on a lively conversation ever since. We often differ, but I have come to consider Ron a cherished fellow Jew and true friend. (For his part, he has called me his rabbi—although I’m not entirely sure what it means to be a self-declared atheist’s clergyman.)

When he saw the Times article, he was chagrined by what he regarded as its tone, and wrote me. “The writer,” he opined, “calls the poverty ‘invisible’ because no one appears to be suffering…” It’s as if, he continued, the reporter was upset at Kiryas Joel’s residents. “How dare these people devote their lives to Talmud (and producing children) and be happy while being broke! How dare they not have cars! How dare they receive charity from their co-religionists…!”

A better article, Ron continued, would have come from “a deeper meditation on the nature of a life well-lived.”

We agree on that.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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