The elephant and the Jewish community

The elephant and the Jewish community

A recent intriguing article about Roman Vishniac got me thinking well beyond him.

Vishniac, of course, was the famed photo-chronicler of pre-war Jewish Eastern Europe whose 1983 collection “A Vanished World” is celebrated for its evocative portrayal of shtetl life, Jewish destitution, and religious Jews at home, work, and study.

The article, by veteran journalist Alana Newhouse in The New York Times Magazine, focuses on the work of an assiduous researcher, Maya Benton, who has uncovered evidence that some of the narratives accompanying Vishniac’s photographs are unreliable, that what seem candid shots were likely posed, and that, as per the photographer’s assignment in the employ of the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish world he captured on film was a constricted one – a mere piece of a universe considerably larger, more diverse, more complex.

There were, after all, not only frightened, disheveled, and poor children in pre-war Poland but happy, well-adjusted, and well-off ones; not only cheder boys but progeny of parents whose ideals were more cosmopolitan than religious; not only study halls but cabarets; not only babushkas and housewives but debutantes and artists.

Whether Vishniac’s ignoring of parts of the Jewish world he roamed in the 1930s makes him some sort of artistic mugger is an open question; all artists, in the end, choose their foci. But it’s hard to argue with Ms. Newhouse’s contention that the photographer’s constrained spotlight on Eastern European Jewry’s religious and impoverished elements (largely the same) presents a less than complete picture.

It is a real one, to be sure. But communities, in the end, are like elephants, their observers the proverbial blind men, one touching an ear and concluding that the beast is floppy and thin, the other feeling a leg and imagining the subject tree-like, a third encountering its trunk and pronouncing the pachyderm a python.

American Jewry is a good example. The air of one part of that population is permeated by academic achievement, economic success, and social concerns. It constitutes a parallel universe, though, to that of the Orthodox community, which extols Torah study and observance and breathes an atmosphere of religious tradition.

In fact, and sadly, the two worlds barely acknowledge one another. Many Jews who define themselves as non-Orthodox or unaffiliated tend to view those who consider their Jewishness paramount as relics, either amusing or threatening, depending on the day and circumstance.

And all too many Orthodox Jews, especially those of us in the more insular haredi world, can be oblivious to the large mass of our distant relatives beyond the physical and conceptual ghettos we inhabit. And when we do think of them, we often see them essentially as objects of “outreach.” A laudable goal, to be sure, born of the desire to share something precious, but qualitatively removed from the deeper recognition that they are worthy of our concern and love as fellow Jews even if they never choose to live like us.

Back, though, to the elephant. A photographer could easily produce a volume portraying one American Jewish world or the other. Only a book, however, that portrays both (and likely several others in-between) could rightfully lay claim to the ambitious title “The American Jewish Community.”

Even within each part of the American Jewish scene, a constricted focus can be misleading. Some non-Orthodox Jews profess atheism or agnosticism, but others ponder God and their purposes on earth more than do some Orthodox-by-rote. And so it would be a disservice to truth to present either sub-group as emblematic of the non-Orthodox whole.

As it would to imagine, inspired by some popular media, that the Orthodox world is rife with white-collar criminals and slumlords or harbors a disproportionate number of child abusers. We Orthodox surely have our share of scoundrels, knaves, and hypocrites. But examining the dirt under the elephant’s toenails conveys nothing at all of the animal’s majesty. As a whole, measured by the vast majority of its members, the Orthodox community is precisely what unprejudiced observers come to see: a world of broad and deep religious dedication, charity, and kindness.

Assuming that a group stereotype is a group description is the essence of prejudice. As the Vishniac article reminds us, even the most compelling snapshots can mislead. Ears and trunk and feet are not, in the end, the elephant.

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