Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Separation anxiety: A tale of two eras

My husband and I were discussing a seeming emotional coldness that we’ve noticed in some Jewish families and between some Jewish couples. The Punster theorized that this coldness is a defense mechanism left over from the “old country” (in our case the eastern and central European Ashkenazi community), when one had to keep one’s emotions and behavior under strict control in order to “fly under the radar” of the local anti-Semites and not attract their negative attention. He expressed his relief that matters have improved in modern times, and that, as the generations become farther and farther removed from the old country, they will become farther removed from old-country uptightness, as well.

I begged to differ.

I printed out a copy of part of the Sunday, October 17, 2004 post Ai du from the blog of the London chassid The Shaigetz, some of which I’d quoted in my Sunday, July 31, 2005 post, “The new Qumran community”:

"With . . . the separation of the sexes at weddings and functions now starting at the car park I sometimes wonder whether some of these couples would recognize their ‘other’ in a crowd.

The late Rabbi Shlomo Baumgarten was the Rav of a yekkishe shul [yekkishe = of German Jewish origin—Jews of German origin have a reputation for being great practitioners of decorum] on the Hill and a great man. He would greet the ladies of the congregation, waiting to walk home with their cloven, with a polite Good Shabbes as he left the shul. With the Chassidisation of the Hill today, no Rav would risk being drummed out of town for that. In fact one the commenters on the previous post brought to my attention a paper urging women to leave the shul as soon as the davening ends so as not to be seen by the men when they leave.

In my opinion it is some of the elders’ obsession with visual temptation that is stifling the cleaving of many young families. I do not believe that the generations before us, where couples walked home from shul together, went together to sheva brachot and barmitzvas, that were celebrated at home and in rooms with no mechitza (partition wall between men and women), were more likely to cleave with the wrong mate than we who are so well insulated from any potential pitfalls. Nor do I believe that the reason five year old girls are no longer allowed to enter the men’s shul even on Simchat Torah is because there is a real problem of anyone being led astray by their good looks. I have never noticed any risk of cleavage with a five-year-old girl and if the strict segregation we practice leads to impure thoughts about kids then it might be high time we abolished either the rules or the kids

So this is an improvement? In some quarters, these attitudes are getting worse, not better.

After he’d read the above, I told him a story:

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, there lived a band of merry musicians. For the most part, they tended to play close to home, where there were yeshivot by the score and kosher take-out places on every other corner. But every now and then, they got invitations to play their music in distant lands.

Many years ago, this band of merry musicians was asked to give a performance in a land where the yeshivot are few and far between, a place so isolated from the huge Jewish community in which the band members lived that, to this day, there’s not so much as a kosher pizzeria in the entire kingdom. They were welcomed with open arms, housed and fed, and given rehearsal space. Their kind hosts even brought them tea. Eventually, though, one of those fine folks stopped bringing tea to one of the band members—and married him instead.

Fast-forward about 19 years, give or take. An article in the New York Jewish Week described the set-up at a recent performance of the Jewish rock band Blue Fringe at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women: There was a mechitzah of balloons placed between the band members, all male, and the students, obviously all female. Not because they were davvening. Just because. Because that’s the way it’s done, these days.

I’ve been to their website and listened to some of their live performances. Yes, the teenyboppers are screaming in the background just as those of my generation screamed at the Beatles. But how many of these young ladies, in this day and age, would even be allowed close enough to any of these guys to serve them tea? Folks, Blue Fringe is composed of four musicians. Male. Jewish. Orthodox. In their twenties. None of them married. These guys have the words SHIDDUCH MATERIAL practically plastered across their foreheads. Do they ever get near enough to any of their myriad screaming fans even to be able to ask for a date? Okay, maybe things aren’t quite that bad. Maybe I’m exaggerating. But by how much? Do you think it’s an accident that they’ve written a parody of the current trend toward non-matchmaking in the Orthodox Jewish community called “Shidduch Song?”

[Official tangent warning.

I must confess that one of the things that distressed me, in reading the description of a funeral in the Jewish community only a few months ago, was not only the age—or lack thereof—of the deceased and the fact that she’d left behind children as young as less than a year old. I admit to having been more than a bit taken aback to read that there had been a mechitzah at the funeral. Do the rabbis of our day have so little faith in us that they don’t trust us to have the common decency to behave in a respectful and appropriate fashion even in the presence of the dead?]

End of tangent.]

That story must have given the Punster food for thought because, as I walked out of his office/our son’s bedroom to go scrub the tub, he called me back.

“Do you think it’s really a good idea for us to take ________ Israeli folk dancing with us?’

I was puzzled by his question. For openers, the plan had fallen through, for a very understandable reason. Also, I’d e-mailed the father of the prospective invitee in question, a student at a Jewish women’s college under Orthodox auspices, assuring him that I would dance “outside the circle” with his daughter, along with the two female Orthodox “regulars” who never dance with men. Since she wouldn’t have been dancing with any of the men, what would have been the problem?

“Don’t you think there’d be hell to pay if she went folk dancing with us?”

My jaw practically dropped as I realized the implications of his question. “Do you think it would ruin her reputation in her community?”

“They’d throw her out of school!”

Holy _____!

Invitation officially withdrawn.


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