Sunday, May 07, 2006

Beauty and the Beast

She stood shivering and I wanted to lend her my sweatshirt. Nights are still cold in Jerusalem, and I craved the heartwarming "kol areiveim ze l'ze" smile that politely rejects, then smiles, then accepts my small act of hesed. But I also knew that such an act was an impossibility- that inside my head, a black-on-white poster of social mores told me "this is not done." Young, married, Haredi women don't take hooded sweatshirts from strangers.

Waiting at my bus stop, I realized that something was very out of place about this Haredi women next to me. She was strange all alone, shivering in the night- clutching her covered arms to herself, shifting her weight like it would somehow make her stammering legs stop- and at the same time quite charming. Oh! How silly of me not to realize! Of course she stands out of place! She is, dare I say, beautiful.

You see, the #1 Bus is an observatory: a place where boys that go to HaKotel watch Haredi Jews . . . go to the Koysel. I'm told that its best to avoid flash photography.

My time in the Jew Zoo- both the #1 and Israel as a whole- has revealed the utter lack of aesthetic beauty within Ultra-Orthodox society. The neighborhoods are famously drab, a piece of Eastern Europe better left behind. The men, rounded by a life-long Shalosh shedos, or bent and crooked by years of study, fail by western standard of masculinity. A recent article in Ha'aretz (I know where to go for Haredi-bashing, thank you) noted the recent findings of an Israeli sociologist: Haredi men avoid confrontation, are trained not to raise their voice, hold themselves close-legged, and learn to view sports and physical activity as Greco-Roman evils. Such is not the way of Western man; such is not the way of beauty.

On the other end of the gender gap, perhaps the most basic beauty of them all, Woman, is wrapped away behind a code of social reservation and navy suit-sets. Despite how most every aspect of their life is dictated by sex, the apparent goal for the Haredi woman is a sort of refined, regal masculinity. O how they dress neatly!: cropped, plain, and in moments of gasp-like daring, checkered. Can we even invent a better image than the bride- the paradigm of womanhood- shaving off her hair- that sweet-smelling, flowing symbol of all that feminity has to offer (boys like me). FOR THE LOVE OF G-D! Do something real and heartfelt, not held back by the all-powerful cultural bubble! Reveal but a hint of sexuality! Let beauty run like wine pouring down a kiddush fountain. For until you do, we can most safely say: Haredim are ugly.

But uglier than Haredim, is the American, Western, Hellenistic, and . . . modern (as in Orthodox) need for beauty. How much of the stigma- in every non-Haredi stream of Judaism- stems from this simple fact? Even if the hate is founded in the worlds of idea and policy, MO aesthetic revulsion is a constant reminder of our self-righteous inherent superiority. I think myself not nearly crass enough to voice it, but the classic piece of propraganda- the oily, pock-mocked face, with the nose of a crook and the facial hair of a yak- pops to mind upon nearly every Kotel visit. Maybe those anti-semites are on to something. Granted, we've brought charts and graphs of every moral argument and source of tension that lies between us. But rarely do cold political disputes translate into such negative feelings.

Negative feelings?! Hatred!! Hear my story: I detest the dogmatic approach to questions not necessarily Halakhic, despise the disregard for scientific and historic truths, and loath how the randomly selected culture of Eastern Europe ala nineteenth century has been codified into a religious marker, Humrasized ad infinitum . . . but, alas, these questions of religio-intellectual perspespective do not satisfy.

For whichever way Haredim perhaps sacrifice intellectual honesty- I don't hate the spiritual, fundamental, simple faith of so many!
For my personal, unlearned opinion that they distort G-d's word- I don't hate Reconstructionists!
For whatever political or economic harm my mind can invent- I don't hate the average Palestinian!

I've been struggling to cut out this malignant growth on my Neshama. When I pass Haredi kids playing like rats in the street, I replace the velvet with srugi and mush under the cuteness. When a skinny young bachur provides an accidental hip-check on the way through security, I see through his black hat to a purple beret and immediately understand that sometimes, people are in a rush. When I think of Haredim as selfish, "mitzvah" hungry machines too obsessed with their own Olam Habaah to remember concepts like Hesed or community, I try to focus on the poll recently published in the Jerusalem Post: the highest level of volunteerism is found . . . in the Haredi population. (If we worry that Haredim outdo our "Dati," it would be an absolute disaster if they also better our "L'umi.") When I think about the money extorted from the pocketbooks of taxpayers to the Hadar Ochel of the Mir, I remember how sit-down restaurants don't exist in Bnei Brak- afterall, how can you consciously sit and pleasure-bait your money away? And lastly, when I fail to find beauty in the trash-scarred streets of Meah Shaarim, I ask myself, "who cares?"


Eli7 said...

I'm not saying I find what you've pointed out any easier to accept, but I do think there is beauty within the Charedi world; it is just a different beauty than the one the Western world embraces.

Look at a Charedi shabbos table, perhaps not as replete with physical beauty as the average American shabbos table, but it is beautiful because they spend all they have on Shabbos.

And true, there is a sense in which Charedi women do not spend time looking beautiful, but I daresay that is not because they're not beautiful but because they save that beauty for their husbands instead of displaying it to the world.

I am not Charedi or Da'ati Le'umi and there are aspects of both sects that I find appealing and aspects that I find revolting, but I think it is unfair to say that a different perspective on beauty means there is a lack of beauty.

Amishav said...

Wow, this is a very interesting perspective. I had the honor of attending a Haredi wedding once, and was really inpressed by the women- all decked out in their finest fashions, with beautiful hats, all matching- they looked great. I supppose that perhaps some of them are so busy with their large famililes that it is difficult to dress up every day. Don't get me wrong- I find the white tennis shoes and long denim skirt thing to be not so attractive- but there may be some beauty there in this community that you miss.

Anonymous said...

Let me get this straight: Other people are in the moral wrong when they are apathetic about Darfur but the Morally Upstanding are permitted to bash Haredim because their kids run around in the streets like rats (your words, not mine)? Is my moral compass off, or am I sensing some hypocrisy? Maybe we need to stop thinking our own brand of Judaism is the only brand of Judaism.

Tzarich Iyun said...

Oh dear readers-
Yes, granted, indeed, and conceded: only from our (i.e. my) perspective is there such little beauty in the Haredi world. I've been to Meah Shaarim pre-Hag; I've seen girls giggle their way through shoes stores, women contemplate the lastest tznius fashions, and men analyze well-crafted silverwork with care and discrimination. But where they see classic, I see outdated; where they see stylish, I see unfashionable.

However, you must admit that the use of and emphasis on beauty in their community is less prevelant and less diffuse. Palace-like shuls and colorful simchas may be a time and place for beauty- but little else is.

But I don't feel the need to find excuses for Haredim- to justify their "sin." As I failed to make clear, its my fault, my Greco-Roman fault, for caring so much about beauty. You know what- I doubt they "save that beauty for their husbands," I doubt they ever escape the religio-social objection to sexuality- and perhaps that is both praiseworthy and wise.

So finally, Mr/s. Anonymous, yes- I think there is a moral difference between those that ignore the murder of thousands of humans and those that make stupid, albeit in this case misinterpreted remarks.

Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

Another good post Binyamin.

Anonymous said...

Overall, your points are valid. However, I disagree in one area. While we, the Mordern Orthodox, may be confined to modern conventions of beauty, that does not signify that the Haredim are void of beauty. On the contrary, their beauty may be more elevated than ours. In your words, "Let beauty run like wine pouring down a kiddush fountain. For until you do, we can most safely say: Haredim are ugly. " Their beauty does flow; in fact, it radiates as a beauty unmatched by physical counterparts. And yes, until they exhibit physical beauty we will call them ugly. But who really is more confined - them or us? We are restricted into seeing Hareidim as having limited contact with modern times. They must reject the modern, act against confomity to live their lives. We embrace the times, allowing ourselves to be engulfed by the flippant trends of the moment. Who is more confined - those who can travel beyond and behind the present or those who blindly accept it?

Sarah said...

Wow Ben, you have some really wonderful stuff here. Im eagerly awaiting an update.

Shoshana said...

Stumbled across your blog from somewhere (can't remember where) and I have to say that your writing skills are phenomenal, you really manage to capture the essence of things and use beautiful imagery. I hope you decide to continue writing!

Anonymous said...

you r a moron and i hope hashem sends you a refuah bkarov

Anonymous said...

you idiot the haredim dont want to corrupt themselves w the influence of the west unfortunately many jews myself included i have been influenced by this culture of only exterior beauty and all the other narishkeit of west civilization. look at mea shearim it is 1 streetthat the chareidim try to confine a little bit of kedusha into and people like you under the afforementioned influence come and look for only the exterior beauty ihate to break it to you not everything is exterior beauty eg a wife for the 1st couple of years you will find her attractive but after that its the interior beauty that wins you over

Anonymous said...

"justify there sin" hashem why the fighting in klal yisroel why over what that there lifestyle isnt appealing to you shea ye buneh beis hamikdash bimihera biyameinu

Anonymous said...

spiritual beauty is often more beautiful than physical beauty. have you ever met someone who is not exactly the best looking person, but once you get to know them, they look more beautiful to you?

yes, physical beauty is important. the Bait HaMikdash was made of gold and other precious materials, but dont forget, B'nei Israel lost the chance to keep it twice.

Tzarich Iyun said...

Thank you for your kind brakha- I had a slight bout of sniffles over shabbat and I am proud to report that they cleared up over the Motza"sh. You ought to work your tefilla magic with people more in need than a moron like myself. Refuah Shleimah indeed.

As I emphasized in my piece and reiterated in the comments: this article was a viddui. In the past, before posting the blog, I was unimpressed and perhaps offended by Haredi aesthetic norms. But in the course of my writing I overcame myself and realized that my anomisity was a sophomoric and poorly considered sinat hinam. The habits of Haredim are not bad, gross, or less sincere than my own. Perhaps, for how and who measures such esoterica, they are exceedingly better. Perhaps.

But admitting something is not “bad” does not make it disappear. If I didn’t abandon labeling Haredim as ugly, it is only because they are! It is nearly impossible to debate this point against me; by the standards of their neighbors, they fail. Denying it leaves you in the sticky gray area between ignoring an important phenomena and simply lying about it- that my friend, has no part in my vision of “akhdut yisrael.” The ugly exists, and you can either praise it or lament it- in a way, I think I did both.

Oh, before I forget, I never commented on their “spiritual beauty”- a term that I imagine is a recent invention in Jewish circles, quite possibly in response to and defense of more physical ugliness.

So to end with my own brakha: I hope you realize the shallowness of defining kedusha as flight from Western culture. Firstly, Haredim, like all forms of Judaism, have lost that war- the society they have constructed is as much a response to and part of Western culture as Modern Orthodoxy, and (shock!) looks very little like the shtetl of yore. Secondly, you ignore the the tools that the West offers towards avodat hashem, and belittle the rishonim and gedolim who have felt there was what to be had in a little sophistication.

Tzarich Iyun said...

About the above:

I was looking through old responses I wrote, but unfortunately had technical issues in posting: it was sort of speaking to Ben of half a year past.

So yes this is late, but one day soon a blog-surfer will stumble upon poorly-updated TzarichIyun, will have a few questions that beg clarification, and will find it in this belated letter. Kol Tuv.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

what does style and fashion have to do with beauty?

Ben-Yehudah said...

B"H There are sit-down restaurants in B'nei Braq.