February 16, 2021 (Mis)representing the Hasidic community positively
There’s been a lot of buzz in my orbit about a recently released series of YouTube videos on the Hasidic community.
Peter Santenello—a YouTuber who claims to make “videos about a world the media fails to capture”—was approached by some Hasidim and asked to come to the community and show the truth, and he obliged. His videos include a walk around Boro Park and a few other segments, including a shabbes meal. His series also reminded me a little of the Oprah Winfrey “Inside View” that a lot of my tourists mention to me.
I think most Hasidim are very satisfied with the video, although I am not entirely sure. But for Hasidim who watch the video, there is one central question that determines the value of it: Does it make us look good? If it does, then it is kosher, even if it depicts the reality in a way that folks within the community themselves don’t really think about things. If I’d need to describe it in one word, I’d say fluffy.
For instance, this family hosting a shabbes meal in Pomona, New York, is a decidedly, very, definitely modern family. The women are from the Chabad sect, which is a completely different story, and the men I would say are “Hasidic chill;” red sweaters; super coolo-coolo, aspiring to be Americanized, but still fairly culturally narrow. I often hear these people insist that Hasidim are open and with-it as they themselves prove, even while fully aware that they are absolutely not the norm.
The problem with this narrative is that it doesn’t say what everyone knows: that these fancy-shmancy modern out-of-towners are different. And I wouldn’t say they’re lying. I don’t think they even think truth is relevant. Or that there is even a truth; a nibble of something important that might be found and communicated. It doesn’t even occur to most Hasidim that accuracy has any role in this. All the community member sees, when he describes himself to the stranger, is the battle of narratives. As I said in my Podcast #6, all it amounts to is battle of the haters versus the defenders.
I am very interested in figuring out how to parse out the essence of a culture and translate it to another one. The process is not as simple as it sounds at face value. It involves listening critically to the testimony and experiences of the sources. By this I mean that the insightful student of cultures will not only ask questions, but will be able to ask pointed questions respectfully. That is, to ask the obvious question: Why are you so modern looking while everyone else I saw on the streets looks much more conservative? If the researcher is too intimidated to ask these questions, or if the researcher can’t ask with honest curiosity, then all the work that follows is flawed.
And once we get the answers, we need to tweeze apart the parts of answers that are informative to that which are agenda, narrative, pandering, ignorance, miscommunication. This is not in any way patronizing to the people we talk to. We all do this in life, all the time, and the better our bullshit radar, the more clear-eyed we can be. But the process of listening creates two hard tasks: It requires the insight and wisdom to know how to suss out the essence, and it requires communicating effectively to the interviewee that their testimony is valuable but that they don’t get the final word on it. In other words, I think it’s important to be forthright and admit that the way the teller frames the story won’t be how the researcher reads it. I suppose this is where trust enters the scene, because if the people trust you as an interpreter then the situation is not exploitative. You can ask questions and receive answers without misleading the respondent into believing that you will now propagate your narrative. If both agree that the researcher will contextualize into a larger story, then the whole exchange is more honest.
So once we have the primary resources and the analysis of it, the task remains to figure out how to articulate all this to another cultural language. For an illustration, let me recall my experience with the sidewalk etiquette of Williamsburg. For the first few years that I did tours, I did not think there was a sidewalk etiquette and no one asked me, “Madame tour guide, what is the sidewalk etiquette?” But oftentimes I would have a large group and a man would come toward us, and the group would split like Moses and the Nile to make room for him. I would wave everyone over to me but they heard “make room for the man, folks!” What I was really saying, without realizing it, was “Let’s not split in two groups because men are not allowed to walk in the middle of a group with women.” It took me some eons until I realized I needed to articulate something that my body knew like habit. And once I realized this was an important essence that needed to be communicated, I turned to trying out various ways of getting this across in 60 seconds. The best I could come up with, which I think registered, was to describe the sidewalk etiquette like traffic laws; people follow the rules without realizing they do; they turn on blinkers or avoid going in between women without even being cognizant of it. So this allowed me to herd about my little ducklings without imbuing undue significance to the matter.
I have had some failures and some satisfactions in articulating one culture to another. But I find it nearly impossible to find the words to explain to Hasidim what an insider view might look like, what the frame of mind of the curious outsider is, and why accurate depictions are valuable. I don’t even know exactly why it’s so hard for often bright people to appreciate sociology as a discipline that laymen would deeply enjoy. Maybe I don’t give people enough credit; maybe I’m the one who doesn’t get it. Maybe—I wish I knew.
Part of what might be playing out here—and I am only thinking out loud—is that the little outside bits Hasidim get create a very distorted impression. Watching these pop-culture things makes people internalize a belief in a kind of singular uniqueness—the belief that there are no other cultures or times of history that very similar dynamics played out. Maybe this also has to do with internalized messaging about “the chosen people’s” complete distinction from all other nations. Reading pre-war writing on the same dilemmas that are playing out now (modernity versus conservatism) or reading about other cultures, might do much to open people up to seeing it. I may be completely off here.
One thing very obvious from Santenello’s series is that there is a very big inferiority complex among Hasidim. They are used to being confused when someone mentions little cultural touchpoints like Marge Simpson or the peace-and-love culture of the 60s; they are used to being exoticized and to people assuming they are stupid and backward. But when they try to make up for it by eagerly selling a narrative that is clearly a lot of spin and lies by omission, it comes through. I think the sophisticated secular viewer sees the clamoring and doesn’t respect it. But there are not many of these sophisticated consumers. This part, on the public’s low standards and that people simply serve to the public’s appetites, they might not know, but we on the outside do. I understand it, but only with a tortured sigh.