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How the Other Half Lives

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06/18/2009

It’s hard for me to keep quiet, even at a bridal shower, when I hear ignorance spreading thicker than chunky, vegetable cream cheese on a toasted bagel. In my opinion, it’s a courageous act to correct misconceptions. After all, who else will shed light on the truth? If not me, who? If not now, when?

So there I was, nibbling on cheese blintzes, surrounded by twenty chatty ladies I had never met. I overhear one woman across the table confide to her friend about a movie she had just seen; Kadosh by acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, produced in 1999.

“I had no idea those Orthodox women were treated so terribly,” the woman shook her head in dismay, proud to be part of the liberated world. Her conversation collaborator nodded with her. Together they paused for a moment as if to mourn for their imprisoned religious female counterparts.

I couldn’t hold back from rolling my eyes and cynically laughing under my breath. “I saw Kadosh,” I blurted out. “I didn’t care for it.”

The noise of cream pouring into coffee must have drowned out my words, for the women seemed to miss my outburst. Luckily, this gave me a moment to breathe, reconsider, and join a different conversation at the other end of the table. There is a time and place, after all, I reasoned, for confrontation. If the main objective for the next hour and a half was clapping hands and giggling at the bride-to-be unwrapping tissue-papered pots and pans, this bridal shower did not seem to be the most suitable arena for intellectual discourse.

What better location than the Oy!Chicago blogosphere?

Kadosh is a fictional account of two women trapped in a religious community in Israel. One is forced to marry an emotionally abusive man she is not interested in. She ends up running away at night to be with her former secret lover. The other woman has been childless for ten years, and the tensions between her and her husband because of it are painful to say the least. The problem obviously lies in the structure of this oppressive religious society into which they had the misfortune of being born.

There are shades of truth I’m sure in the storyline, as there are people who corrupt the system in every strata of society. I could barely finish the movie, but not because of the women’s tormented life. The coloring of these women as powerless, miserable puppets who were a product of the religious system was hard to swallow. I live and participate in a religious community, yet never having come into contact with such a constrained culture as this cinematic depiction, I was skeptical to accept its representational authenticity.

Working with public high school students, I once had a teen speak with me in disgust about how all religious women shave their heads when married. I had to explain to her that though a very small minority, including in the Satmar community, apparently do shave their heads for various reasons, this is an obscure exception to general practice. Rumors about the religious community have a long history of lumping diverse groups of people into a single accusation.

I think about Aya de Leon, a profound spoken word artist who critiqued Apple Computer’s usage of Ghandi’s life as an advertising tool. She warned that we must be careful with who we let tell our stories and who we let control our pasts. Likewise, one should be wary of treating Kadosh filmmaker Amos Gitai as the premier journalist documenting the religious world.

The responsibility of examining authorship occurred to me as I pored over a recent Time magazine article about Mormons later that week. While I found that reading about the Mormon faith amusing, I couldn’t help but think that the same magazine writer could easily contort a bris ceremony to appear as pagan, bloodthirsty, buffoonery.

As a Jew who observes shabbat, kashrut, shomer negiyah, and tzniut, I would be classified as “Orthodox”. Yet I don’t emotionally/spiritually associate with the term—I’m not your typical “Orthodox Jew.” I am in and out of all categories. Some religious Jews find me too old fashioned when I refrain from singing in front of men. Others look critically at my Zionist convictions and casual conversations with the opposite gender. I am too strict and too lenient simultaneously for this Orthodox world.

Growing up in public schools and universities, I certainly did not always act or think as I do now. Yet people busily decide what types of people I am friends with and where I’ve traveled in life, before actually hearing me out.

Don’t let me stop you; listen as much as you want to these “anthropologists” who watch communities from afar and cluck at their primitive methods, barbaric rituals, and oppressive misogynistic designated roles. Or push yourself to interact with different communities and listen to their own explanations. Go for a meal, take a class, make a real friend of that world.

And for G-d’s sake, don’t invest your important time in this life watching Kadosh. Or watch it, but only if you desire a fictional tale that merely cynically impersonates a crevice of reality. Maybe it’s true, maybe there are communities much more right wing than mine that are emotionally strangling their women through their doctrines. It’s entirely possible they exist, albeit most likely as an exception and not a rule. Until I actually get to the bottom of it and speak to more people, you’re not going to see me wasting any moments of my life mourning for these “unfortunate souls”.

 I am starting to come to terms with many truths that are not always self evident; not all Time magazine articles, no matter how fancy the pictures, are completely objective, and not even Israeli filmmakers, no matter how much they love hummus, can claim a monopoly on the reality of  religious life. These shades of gray in a polarized world are critical for comprehension.

Who knew bridal showers would be so conducive for cognitive development!

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