Jonathan Tobin, the editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, brings some of our local 'color' to the Jerusalem Post this week. In a story called "An 'eruv'? Not in this neighborhood," Tobin discusses some of the deep-seated antipathy to Orthodox Jews that prevails among liberal Jews in the Philadelphia suburbs.
This phenomenon is on display for all to see in the November issue of Philadelphia magazine in a feature by Phillip Weiss, tastefully titled "Oy Vey, There Goes the Neighborhood."
The neighborhoods in question are Lower Merion and Bala Cynwyd, once the heart of the traditionally WASP-ish and prosperous Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia. While large numbers of upwardly mobile Jews have been a fixture in the area for generations, the problem, at least for some quoted by Weiss, is that in the past two decades have come the influx of Orthodox Jews into the area.
I live a bit further out the Main Line than Lower Merion and Bala, but I've been noticing this influx there over the past few years with interest. I see it as a good thing. You'd think that a group of pious people whose kids tend not to drink or use drugs or carouse would be a welcome addition to any neighborhood. Not so.
So what's the problem? According to Weiss, seculars "are put off by the fundamentalism and narrowness of the Orthodox Jews." Even worse, Weiss says that these secular and presumably politically liberal Jews worry that the Orthodox are "diminishing an enlightened community importing a culture of narrow-minded fundamentalism."
ONE REASON for this sentiment is a function of the Orthodox community's tendency toward greater political conservatism. Another, he points out, is the nature of Orthodox religious belief, which has led to what Weiss calls a degree of "evangelism" about Shabbat observance and lighting candles on Friday nights.
This "Jewishizing of Lower Merion," as Weiss puts it, has put secular Jewish teeth on edge. Even worse, he writes, is the fact that the Orthodox have views about gender relations, homosexuality and sexual morality that clash with the beliefs of those who embrace the popular culture of our day.
This must be a new phenomenon. In the past, communities have worried about newcomers importing crime, violence, noise, moral decay. But different political views? Yeah, well, maybe it's not all that new, after all.
THE PATTERN is a common one. In the case of Lower Merion, as Weiss puts it, the new Orthodox arrivals "altered the character of a liberal suburb." He writes of non-observant Jews sitting in a nonkosher, "Jewish-style" restaurant on the Sabbath, viewing flocks of the observant walk past them on their way to shul. The implication is that the diners are somehow threatened by the shul-goers.
It seems the Orthodox presence isn't a form of diversity that an otherwise liberal community would extol. Why? Because the shul-goers are viewed in some way as a challenge to the seculars, who feel that their own way of life is threatened by the Judaism proliferating around them.
I do think the irony here may be a bit lost on Tobin, who goes on to compare the liberal Jewish fear-of-Orthodoxy to what he sees as a parallel fear-of-evangelicals. Or maybe it's not lost on him at all. The absurdity that Tobin points to, the notion that Orthodoxy could somehow prove infectious, that liberal, multicultural types will somehow be polluted by it and lose their own values, that the proximity of religion is a threat to the secularism of the native population -- that has an odd ring of familiarity about it.
Perhaps we need to introduce some legislation to prevent this phenomenon. We could call it "The Defense of Secularism Act." Or perhaps it would be okay for the Orthodox to move into liberal neighorhoods so long as they didn't dress or talk like, you know, old world Jews. So long as they didn't parade their differences. So long as they didn't try to force other people to be like them through the simple fact of being who they are.
Diversity, tolerance, acceptance of the other. Lovely thoughts, lovely sentiments. Too often observed in the breach.