Friday, June 29, 2012

Another Valentine from the Times to the Hasidim of NYC

Its hard to track exactly how many things Joseph Berger gets wrong in the little love note to Hasidim he published in today's New York Times. His subject is clothing, specifically the black, heavy clothing worn year round by Hasidim, and his purpose is to explain to readers that wearing fur on a ninety degree day isn't quite so painful as you may have thought.

The problem isn't that pieces such as this one roundly demolish the perspective of people like Yaakov Menken and various Jewish Press columnists who hold, without qualification or reflection,  that the mean old New York Times is forever plotting new ways to embarrass Jews. (Actually I'm rather pleased to see Menken's silly notion disabused. Again.)

Nor do I object to the Hasidim receiving some friendly PR.

What I don't like is how Berger has unquestioningly bought into the Hasidic view of history. Instead of operating as a skeptical, responsible  journalist, Berger endorses their errors and ratifies their fantasy that Jews, even Hasidic Jews, have always dressed like Brooklyn Jews c2012. Instead of pointing out, for example, that the sainted ancestors often replaced their fur hats with caps when the temperature rose, Berger allows the people-on-the-street he interviews to repeat their myths unchallenged.

A better journalist would have mentioned that Hasidim, like Orthodox Jews every stripe, are sliding to the right and accumulating pieties with the passage of time. A generation ago, for example, some wore blue hats. Denim had not yet been banned. And a frum Brooklyn women was able to go outside in a color other than black without being made to feel like a whore. Instead of discussing this sociological trend --something he could have done without editorializing -- Berger entirely buys into the lie that nothing in Judaism ever changes.

Another quibble:

"Using a Hebrew name for God, [Channie Friedman] added, “That’s [ie hard-core Hasidic outfits] what Ha-Shem wants from us.”

An even-handed journalist might have asked a non-Hasid to comment on the possibility of Hashem wanting anything. The idea of God having desires is heretical in some Othodox circles, but even those who allow for the possibility that God might be lacking something we humans can replace might object to the idea that His divine itch can only be scratched via dressing like a Hasid. One phone call to YU would have provided Berger with a competing perspective that would have improved his article.


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