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Fun with Labels

Hi, my name is Aliza. I’m an Orthodox Jew. Sorry, but that doesn’t mean I’m a crazy religious fanatic.

A reader emailed me an article from the Forward, “Invoking Rosa Parks, Haredi Women Move to Back of the Bus” The article details a situation that has Haredi women in Israel showing their modesty by choosing to sit on the back of the public buses. “I see Haredi women who sit at the back as being the Israeli Rosa Parks,” said writer Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, one of the leading proponents of segregation. “We see it as a stand against the deterioration of standards in the public arena, and view the chance to sit at the back without men gazing at us as a form of empowerment.” Modern Orthodox writer Naomi Ragen is fighting the situation after being threatened by “self-appointed enforcers from the Haredi community.”

Now, you may expect me to go into a long winded nuanced retort on the article. But in fact, I’m going to surprise you by bringing you back to the reader who forwarded this article to me. The reader’s email subject line was glaring: “Isn’t Orthodox Judaism a beautiful thing?” I think he meant…isn’t Orthodox Judaism a crazy thing?

I received an apology for the email eventually. An apology that noted that there are different forms of Orthodoxy but still expected me to rail against all the Haredim. Only the Modern Orthodox are sane, right? That’s what the apology seemed to propose, anyway.

Sigh. I refuse to put all Haredim in a little box. I’ve seen the ugly ways Jews box each other in. The Modern Orthodox sling the term “haredi” around like a joke and the Haredim throw back “Modern Orthodox” around like the same joke. I picture little kids on the playground sticking their tongues out at each other on different sides of a chain-link fence. And of course in this image, all the kids have the same curly hair, big brown eyes and freckles that would mark them as close relatives.

A “observant” friend who knows that I label myself “Modern Orthodox” almost threw up while asking me if I thought he was “Modern Orthodox.”

“Well, do you think you’re Modern Orthodox?” I asked him.

“Oh, G-d no!” he said in a disgusted tone…as if I’d asked him if he’d like his green eggs with some ham or if perhaps, we should kill slaughter some small animals during Shabbos dinner.

Sigh.

At LimmudLA 2007, an happy event that brought together Jews from all over the spectrum, an angry redhead threw a tantrum when she arrived at dinner and discovered that there weren’t very many vegetarian options.

“Those Orthodox people and their meat!” she yelled with venom that threatened to poison my dinner plans.

Behind her in line, I thought about my friend the vegetarian Modern Orthodox rabbinical student. I thought about how I was going “pseudo-vegetarian” for cholesterol reasons. Then, I calmly tried to set her straight.

People, I think, are usually more complicated than the labels they identify with and the labels that are thrust upon them.

3 thoughts on “Fun with Labels

  1. I think you are right in that we get caught up too much with labels. I like to identify myself as an “Open Orthodox Jew” but that said polarizations are never helpful. Robert Barron, a professor at the Catholic Mundelein Seminary here in Chicago, likes to describe himself as a “12th century Aquinian” (for Thomas Aquinas.) By that standard I’m an Uzielian Torah Jew, a devoted follower of Rav Ben Zion Uziel, the first Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Medinat Yisrael, who took a very open approach towards Halakha and diversity in Jewish life. It’s too bad he passed awy in 1953 and that his works are just starting to be translated into languages other than their original Hebrew.

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  2. This is why I’m on a mission to get every Jew in the world to define him/her-self as Underconstructionist 🙂 We’re all under construction, nu? It’s a label that fits all Jews across the board.But ach. I had a friend message me this morning about the conversion crisis and how I feel about it and I mentioned to him a listserv I’m on and how it’s all the women want to talk about. I just can’t bother myself with it all. Since the Sadducees there have been schisms, and I’m over it (I say this now, of course). We’re a funny bunch, aren’t we? 🙂

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