We need to talk about the Charedi community

Shtisel is a form of escapism, but it raises many issues that concern Jews from all walks of life

June 04, 2021 11:51

The third series of Shtisel offers its wide and varied audience many things. For most, myself included, it is a window on a world that is a million miles from our own. The Jerusalem suburb of Geula provides few glimpses of what most of us would consider normal. Its fiction, if you can call it that, is different to those portrayed in Erinsborough or Albert Square. Shtisel highlights the exceptional in and amongst the ordinary. At its root, it makes an “other” of the strictly-Orthodox and invites the rest of us to observe them through prejudice-tinted glasses.

This escapism, which had me hooked in pre-pandemic seasons 1 and 2, took a U-turn midway through the opener of Season 3. Without giving too much away, Shulem, the ageing cheder teacher, hits a pupil. His younger colleagues decide he needs to move on. His dinosaur ways are an inconvenience even in this old-world education system. Shulem sets up a rival cheder. At first he struggles to recruit pupils but, following some ingenuity from his son, the boys flock in.

As the plot unfolded, I found myself sympathising with the old-timer, wanting him to succeed at the expense of those who urged him out. Were his actions really that bad? Isn’t that just how things are in his world? “That’s just how things are” is a sentiment I hear a lot in relation to the Geula on our doorstep — Stamford Hill. It’s not going to hurt anyone. Until it does.

The pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the mechanics of Charedi society, highlighting how the rabbis have a control which stretches far beyond the simple application of halacha (Jewish law). They are running a theocracy. Nothing can get in their way, not even the ultimate tenet of Judaism — that preserving life overrides all else. There are hundreds of people within the strictly-Orthodox world who need our support to give them a better life, in many cases a healthier life and maybe even a happier life. This is not the voice of modernity, patronisingly looking down at the shtetl. This is based on data. The data shows how women with cancer go undetected and untreated for longer than the national average. Data shows the delay in abused women seeking help. And, as we have seen over the past year, data shows those who died from an illness that would have been avoided if they hadn’t gone to a wedding that shouldn’t have been happening.

One of the great conundrums of our religion is the necessity to blend separation and integration. In many ways, withdrawing from society is not a sacrifice. It is the easy option. Engagement and interaction is the real challenge. And this, of course, cuts both ways. It is too simple for those of us whose clothes and hairstyles look “normal” to dismiss the black hats, sheitels and peyot as from another planet. We have taken the easy route of separation and it has not worked. We need to look for alternatives. There is no escape from our responsibility to our extended community that is being let down by its leadership.

This is not about encouraging those on one end of a spectrum to disown their friends, neighbours and traditions for another extreme. It is not about looking to bring the Charedi world in tune with what we consider to be the norm. It is about empowering those who hold Judaism and Jewish life dear to keep this integral to their being, whilst simultaneously furthering their own personal interests. The two are not mutually exclusive. But the barriers built up over many centuries will not be easy to break down.

That it has taken the unnecessary deaths of so many to bring this above the surface is a travesty. It has been obvious for years. A society that airbrushes women from its media, that censors health information to make it “acceptable”, that advises victims of abuse to consult with a rabbi rather than the police, all in the name of our religion, is not a society that we should turn a blind eye to and say, “that’s just how things are.”

I felt sorry for Shulem. My sympathies were misplaced. They have been for too long now. When it comes to the Charedi community, we can no longer just sit back and enjoy the show.

June 04, 2021 11:51

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