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Mar 7 2012

Let’s Not Be Hamans

By at 4:31 pm

unorthodox deborah feldmanOn Monday, I taught my weekly Jewish Thought and Culture class to adults at the 92nd Street Y. My subject was, predictably, Purim. We explored the historical context, the story, the celebration. But mostly, I used the Purim story as an example of Jewish oppression over the ages. How a personal antipathy (in this case, Haman’s towards Mordechai) can generalize to become public policy towards an entire group (the massacre of the  Jewish population of the Persian Empire.)

We have many examples of how antipathy towards one or a small group of Jews takes on a life of its own resulting in prejudice, intolerance, and violence. Mordechai and Dreyfus, Jewish radicals and Communists, and the “Jewish liberal media,” all had profound effects on the entire Jewish population. We were lucky if we just got bad PR and didn’t get killed.

I was thinking about this a lot when one of my students asked me about the recent memoir by Deborah Feldman, Unorthodox.I have not read the book but I did surf the internet and read things by and about her and saw some video clips of interviews. Deborah (whose real name is apparently Suri) casts aspersions on the entire Satmar hasidic community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

I have no wish to denigrate her or her story. Clearly she had a very unusual upbringing which is certainly not typical–she claims that her mother abandoned the family when Deborah was very young to live the life of a lesbian atheist, her father had an IQ of 66 (how she could possibly know this, especially given the educational system she describes, is a puzzle to me–I don’t know my own, my husband’s, or my kids’ IQ’s) and she was raised by her grandparents. Most astonishing to me is her claim that the “entire community” knew she did not consummate her marriage for an entire year. Given the community’s extreme modesty in all matters, especially sexual matters, this claim absolutely defies belief.

The Satmar community is indeed insular, strict, and suspicious of “outsiders.” They look, dress, and talk differently than most Americans. Their educational system does not conform to American norms. They do arrange marriages. And Deborah did, apparently, have an awful experience among them. But her indictment of the entire community, based on her experience, and the publicity she has garnered to cast aspersions on an entire group of people is too close to home for me as we approach Purim.

I’ll tell you my own recent experience with the Satmar community.

For the last two months, my husband was very sick. He had major surgery and we spent almost two weeks in the hospital. The hospital in which we found ourselves, like most Manhattan and Brooklyn hospitals, has a “Bikur Cholim Room.” (“Bikur cholim” literally translates as visiting the sick but implies helping to take care of the sick in a larger sense.) In the basement, opposite the Radiology Department, down the hall from the ER, is a bright room with a refrigerator PACKED with kosher food and drinks, boxes of snacks on the counter and two microwaves, one each for dairy and meat.

Women in Williamsburg, who often have six to fifteen children, volunteer to cook in a commercial kitchen in Brooklyn. Each day, the food is brought to the hospitals for the patients and their families. When I came into the room on Friday to put some food in the fridge for Shabbos, I found out that I did not have to bring anything–the warming drawers had enough hot food for 200 people(!): chicken soup, chicken, cholent, and all the trappings. There were electric candlesticks if I wanted to light candles on Friday night.

There were people with sympathetic ears if I wished to share my story. The guy with the long black coat, long payes (sidelocks) and shtreimel (fur hat) was in as much trouble as I was. No, we didn’t talk. Yes, it’s true that he probably didn’t look at me. Yet we silently shared the camaraderie of being two, fashtayrd (Yiddish, in a state of sorrow) Jews eating egg salad sandwiches.

There were Jews who looked and spoke differently from each other. No one asked questions. No one was interested in your denominational affiliation, where or whether you went to shul (synagogue) or observed the mitzvot (commandments) that the Satmar revere. I split a container of soup from the fridge with a guy I never met nor would meet again. I chatted amiably with the Satmar women “on call” in the room. In their long dresses and long sleeves, shaitels (wigs) and hats on top of the shaitels, they could not have looked more different from me in my pants, short sleeves and uncovered curly hair. Not once did I feel judged. On the contrary, I felt embraced by women who cared about me just because I was Jewish. And they didn’t only care–they did what they could to alleviate my distress by creating an environment that felt homey compared to the ICU, that smelled of cholent, not disinfectant, that met my needs as a Jewish woman in a place I really did not want to be.

And no one asked for money or a donation. The Satmar community assumes the entire cost of stocking these Bikur Chloim rooms.

So let’s not be Hamans in our own lives. Let’s refuse to participate in the indictment of any group based on a specific experience or a particular person’s behavior. Let’s be better than that and be part of tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of making the world a better place.

Let’s learn from those generous, compassionate Satmar women.


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