The media's fascination with Orthodox Jews seems to only intensify with time. Some of us Orthodox may be discomfited by reports that television and motion pictures have come to increasingly offer up observant Jewish characters and observances; but one supposes that is simply the price of our community's growth in numbers and visibility. Feature stories, at least those that don't treat the Orthodox as some sort of freak-show exhibit, are generally unobjectionable. Legitimate news reports, of course, are fine.
One might question, though, whether some news stories are truly newsworthy, especially when they give vent to sentiments that regard Orthodox Jews as sinister or threatening.
A recent article in the business section of The New York Times may or may not have been journalistically justified. It was, though, thought-provoking.
The piece described how some residents of the Long Island community of Great Neck have come to feel oppressed by a growing Orthodox Jewish population in the village. The problem? Several stores have been closing on the Jewish Sabbath.
One woman lamented how, wanting to buy a box of nails one Saturday, she found the local hardware store dark. Another had a similarly disconcerting experience with a liquor store. The horror.
And so, the whispers (and comments spoken aloud to reporters) these days include phrases like "pressure from the religious community," and sentiments like the fear that the neighborhood is "going Orthodox" and being "targeted" by observant Jews.
One patron told The Times, "Everyone is entitled to practice their religion as they choose, but please don't push it on me."
"Pressured?" "Targeted"? "Push it on me"? Observant Jews who purchased homes in a suburban community are an invading force? A merchant who decides to close his business on the Jewish Sabbath is pushy? What year is this again?
Something beyond mere inconvenience, one suspects, is at work here, some resentment with roots deeper than the need to drive a few more blocks one day a week to buy some nails. The "don't push it on me" patron may have revealed a gnarled limb with another comment she made, simple and straightforward: "It annoys me no end that stores are closed on Saturdays."
Her annoyance seems visceral, its source the Sabbath itself. Or, perhaps more accurately, the fact that there are Jews who insist, even in this day and age, on its observance.
The annoyed may include non-Jews, but Great Neck has a substantial Jewish population, and it has often been the case that Jews are at the forefront of objections to the appearance of Orthodox fellow-Jews in a community. But why would any Jews feel discomfited by other Jews' honoring the Sabbath? Would they be piqued if they lived in a devoutly Christian community where merchants chose not to do business on Sundays?
What it brings to mind is the story of the Jewish fellow who found himself seated on a plane next to a bearded man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a long black coat. Unable to control himself, the clean-shaven gentleman gives the other one a disapproving look and a long lecture about how Jews today need not look or act like their great-grandparents, how Judaism has evolved, how we Jews should be Americans first, Jews mainly in our hearts, and so on.
With a bewildered look, the bearded passenger quietly responds: "I'm Amish."
The lecturer turns crimson and apologizes profusely. "I want you to know," he stammers, "that I so respect your determination to live by the ideals of your faith and your community's traditions. It is inspiring to know that there are people who put eternal truths before society's whims and fashions…"
"Just joking," the beard interrupts, with a mischievous smile. "You were right the first time."
Such Jewish multi-personality disorder deeply disturbs some Orthodox Jews, and understandably. Why indeed should a Jewish person fully accept a non-Jew's choice to honor his faith and tradition yet resent a fellow Jew's choice to honor his own?
Maybe it's my naturally optimistic bent, but what occurs to me is that, on the contrary, something positive lies in Jewish discomfort over Jewish observance. If there are indeed Jews in the Great Neck posse, the fact that they would never even feel, much less express, chagrin over Amish folks' or Catholics' or Muslims' observance of their faiths yet are "annoyed" by Jews observing theirs can only mean one thing: they truly care about Judaism. Enough to be bothered when reminders of how Jews were meant to live intrude on the complacent comfort of their lives and puncture their consciences.
Their aggravation, in other words, is just fallout from the self-assertion of their Jewish souls.
If only they would decide to think instead of fume. Then their pain could be turned to great gain.