Parallel cultures

Parallel cultures

Many times, people will tell me that they see similarities between the Hasidic community and other cultures that have no religious connection, but are nonetheless somehow related. The most common comparison I hear is, of course, to the Amish. I hear it all the time; even within the Hasidic community, people point out parallels. I did a tour for a Mennonite group a few years ago, and it was definitely strikingthe parallels but also the obvious differences. People also often share with me ties between marriage practices in India and arranged marriages in Williamsburg. But to me, the most interesting analogy for the Hasidic community is to East Asian countries like China, Japan, and Korea.

Mennonite Tourists

When people from East Asian countries visit Williamsburg, we often have interesting conversations and find ourselves emphatically nodding during discussions on social pressure, living for others, and the entrenched gender norms. One Japanese woman said in broken English, “Being a good mother, yes, also in Japan, very important.” An American man who teaches in Korea described a kind of barrier between him and the students, as the students pedestalize him as an American. They don’t open up to him, but happily use him for bragging rights. People are obsessed with superficial appearances, like brand names. Anyone can come to Williamsburg to see that the Bugaboo is as important there as the North Face jacket is in Korea. Interestingly, one of the American man’s students did a presentation on the different varieties of North Face jackets, and described which one shows that someone is wealthy, or that someone is a jock, or whatever else can be read from a piece of outerwear. That there are nuances within seemingly complete conformity (everyone is wearing North Face!) is something that fascinates me in Williamsburg as well.

Sometimes, when I’m reading articles about say, a Chinese Boy Band or plastic surgery in Korea, I’m struck by how familiar the culture feels. Like Hasidim, East Asian culture is very innovative, very hungry to modernize, yet simultaneously very old fashioned, obsessed with how we look to others and quick to place the communal over the individual.

The following are quotes from essays that illustrate how things can be culturally similar even in vastly different historical contexts.

From the New Yorker, The Stifled Desires Behind Acrush, the Chinese Boy Band Made Up of Five Girls

But how many Chinese youth—even with their vast exposure to the world through their computers and phones—can afford to embrace iconoclasm? In China, to be anything but heterosexual is to be the exception. Homosexuality was only removed from the Ministry of Health’s list of mental illnesses in 2001; same-sex marriage is not officially recognized. To stay single into your thirties as a Chinese woman is to be the exception; if you choose to do so, you will enter the ugly category of so-called leftover women.״

“She drew my attention to the culturally enforced chasm between the sexes. ‘To adolescent girls in China, boys can be unknowable and intimidating,’ she said. Traditional Confucian fathers can be authoritarian and remote. As a result of the one-child policy, few girls grow up with a brother, a member of the opposite sex with whom they might have formed a natural bond. Moreover, dating in middle and high school is largely forbidden in China, so young women have little real-life experience with men until college, when they must hustle to find a good match before they turn into leftover women.”

“In China, the market inevitably supersedes abstract social quandaries. Trends are to be exploited, not explored for meaning. ”

From the New Yorker, “Why is South Korea the World’s Plastic Surgery Capital?”

In search of a clearer understanding of why South Koreans are such lookists, I stopped by the book-cluttered office of Eunkook Suh, a psychology professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. ‘One factor is that, in contrast to Western cultures, the external aspects of self (your social status, clothes, gestures, and appearance) versus the inner aspects (thoughts and feelings) matter more here,’ he explained.״

“In Korea, we don’t care what you think about yourself. Other people’s evaluations of you matter more.”

“This is not a country that gives up. Surely one of the most bullied nations on earth, Korea, some historians believe, has been invaded more than four hundred times through the years, without once being the aggressor, if you don’t count the Vietnam War. After the Korean War, the country’s G.D.P. per capita ($64) was less than that of Somalia, and its citizens lived under an oppressive regime. Today, South Korea has the fourteenth-highest G.D.P. in the world.”

“‘It’s not that you’re trying to stand out and look good. It’s that you’re trying not to look bad.’ He continued, ‘This is a very competitive society. In the old days, if your neighbor bought a new TV or new car you would need to buy a new TV or car. Now we all have these basic things, so the competition has moved up to comparing one’s looks, health, and spiritual things as well.’”

From the New York Times, Japan’s Working Mother’s: Record Responsibilities, Little Help From Dads

It is a legacy of the country’s exacting domestic expectations and rigid gender roles for who performs them.”

There is cooking, cleaning and laundry, often at a scale that far exceeds what most Westerners do. Cooking a typical Japanese dinner often involves preparing multiple small dishes. Packed lunches can be works of art.”

Just over half of Japanese mothers go back to work after the birth of their first child. But they often have part-time jobs while their husbands continue to work brutal hours, contributing to a phenomenon known as ‘karoshi,’ or ‘death from overwork.’

From NPR, For Japanese Parents, Gorgeous Bento Boxes are Packed with High Stakes

“There’s considerable pressure to produce these cute food creations. In a sense, they have a lot of time on their hands and they are just putting their effort and time into creating and competing over who makes the best character bento box,” Estevez-Abe says.

Japanese women are highly educated, boasting bigger numbers of college grads than men. But nearly 70 percent of them quit working after having a baby. That’s compared to one third of moms in the U.S. Moms cite a combination of Japan’s long work hours, lack of daycare, and cultural pressures as reasons they’re staying home.

“‘Japan still remains to be a very conservative society. And it’s interesting, the conservative side in Japan really emphasizes the importance of meals and lunch boxes cooked by their mothers,’ Estevez-Abe says.

From Tree Hugger, Why do Japenese mothers spend so much time on their kids’ lunch boxes?

Mothers can sign up for weekly classes where they learn new ways of cutting nori and carving vegetables into piglets and roses. Many follow blogs with detailed instructions for creating ‘A Day at the Farm,’ ‘Sleeping Fox & Rabbit Rice Balls,’ and ‘Christmas bentos that bring good cheer to lunch.’ There are bento-themed iPhone apps. Depending on how good one gets, there are even national kyaraben-making competitions, the most famous of which is the Sanrio.”


The details in all of these scenarios are very different from the Jewish groups of New York that come here by way of Hungarian regions and follow in the way of an eighteenth century mystic.

Hasidic women are not highly educated, but they are more educated than the men and yet work much less, largely because of the cultural pressure to run the home. Hasidic women don’t make bento boxes, but boy has the cooking industry exploded, and yes, mostly thanks to peer pressure! People might not get plastic surgery (who knows, though!) but they sure do everything “not to look bad.” The work ethic, the gender roles, the heteronormativity, the increased affluence, the living for others. It’s a lot of brothers from other mothers.

  • Eli
    Posted at 10:53h, 21 January Reply

    People are complexed and cultures are peculiar. However, the parallels between cultures are very interesting. Ruth Benedict in her book “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” described American culture as a “guilt culture” and Japanese culture as a “shame culture”. It seems like current-day Hasidic culture is a hybrid. On one hand, the idea of living for the purpose of gaining points in the after-life is strongly emphasized. While on the other hand, many if not most of the cultural norms are enforced by the threat of being shamed and ostracized.

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 11:06h, 21 January Reply

      This is such an interesting distinction. I hear about the guilt from a lot of people, but it was never the part that affected me. I think individual temperaments dictate how much a person is affected by guilt or shame, and in the Hasidic community both exist. I’m sure there are people who have thick skin and don’t give a rat’s tuches about other people (think the anti-vaxxers who were so shamed, but still kept at their thing) and I bet for them it’s something else. But is it specifically guilt? It could be fear — which, actually, is also listed on your linked wiki.

      There’s a goodie bag with all sorts of terrifying things for he who detracts, real and imagined, imposed from others or from self.

      (There are also positive elements to a “shame” culture, because the flip side of a strong collectivist society is a powerful safety net.)

      • Eli
        Posted at 11:21h, 22 January Reply

        1. Indeed, individual temperaments most likely dictate on a personal level. However, the study of cultural anthropology is about the macro level, to explain the emotional tools used to maintain social order with respect to adherence to laws, social norms, and etiquette. Btw, besides shidichim what else plays a huge role in driving the need for a “good name” and preferential “social status”?
        2. It took me a minute to zoom in on the curvy “rat’s tuches” situation. LOL. It is so funny and flirty to play with interchangeable words in different languages.
        3. Seeing the anti-vaxxers (mostly women) speaking up in public was quite refreshing. Never mind whether we agree with their position on the matter. It was courageous and literally chutzpahdig (according to Hasidic standards). Hopefully, other women will emulate and speak up more often.
        4. I believe “fear cultures” are defined as a fear of physical harm for non-obedient constituents. Perhaps not so prevalent in Hasidic societies.
        5. Correct, the powerful safety net (golden handcuffs) is so cozy and comfy, so long you can tolerate the price.

        • Frieda Vizel
          Posted at 11:32h, 22 January Reply

          In my view, many Hasidim have a terrible fear of being smighted. I think the fear thing exists, and I think we can’t tell what really happens on a macro level without surveying a sample. Why do you say that the fear aspect is not prevalent?

  • Eli
    Posted at 16:05h, 22 January Reply

    Rebitzan Frieda, I respectfully disagree. However, debating is one of the essential parts of learning. We can argue all night, so long as you can commit to drei with the fingers correctly. Perhaps we can search for a better venue.

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