Shtisel, the 2 season Israeli TV show on Netflix, is a hit. It was first released in Israel in 2013, and even then everyone in our circles of New York orthodox or ex-orthodox Jews was buzzing with the show. Now that it’s streaming on Netflix with English subtitles, the show has become a global phenomenon, and I am running across it in my own media sources (The New York Times, The New Yorker) and folks on my tour regularly report that they are into the show. There’s serious talk of a third season, although that rumor seems not-quite-fact-yet. The most unusual part is the convergence of audiences: people who never before heard of Hasidic Jews love the show as much as Hasidim in the most insular, New York communities, like Kiryas Joel. It’s appeal is universal.

It’s a masterpiece because it is accurate.

I have been looking for authentic, insightful representations of Hasidic life in secular media for a long, long, looooong time. I was maybe twenty years old when I first spoke to a reporter with the hopes that I could make them understand. It was Michael Powell from the Washington Post. He came to my house in the Hasidic village Kiryas Joel, met my Hasidic husband, my baby, my cooking of Hungarian pulichintas, and recorded us while I tried to explain what life was really like. And yet, when the article he was working on was published, I felt humiliated and flattened into a caricature. A friend who had also spoken to him emailed me frantically to say how embarrassed she was. We recognized nothing in the depiction of ourselves.

In the many years since that first experience, a lot has changed — namely, my leaving and spending the next decade trying frantically to get on my feet and nothing being like it was planned — but this has not: I’m always frustrated by how flattened ultra-orthodox Jews, and Hasidim in particular, are in popular media. This frustration is surely what drives me on this pseudo-masochistic project of returning to the heart of Hasidic Williamsburg near daily for my walking tours.

But much of what’s told to secular audiences on Hasidic life remains extremely skewed, misleading, tilted to the negative, from the eyes of someone with a lot of biases. It isn’t necessarily literally incorrect. I’m not troubled by technical errors in accounts of daily rituals or generalizations about different subgroups. I’m bothered by how inauthentic and unrealistic and cold and dead these stories feel.

There are books like Joseph Berger’s The Pious Ones which lay out for us all the details. The book is just a collection of laws and customs; so formally laid out, it totally misses the forest for the trees. Any reader would come away with a lot of details and very little clarity. There are also books like Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox, a bestseller that will soon be a TV show, that gives us a story designed to impress the twenty first century reader — they don’t give us the story in every attempt as it was. Many of the memoirs are very revisionist and reductive and that makes them feel incredibly insincere to me. I can more easily feel the American reader in Deborah Feldman’s book than I can feel the everyday Hasidic person.

Shtisel is different. It comes from the premise that there is a richness of life and drama worth exploring from within. It uses the best video storytelling techniques from prestige TV and employs them for stories that are almost kosher. What’s so mindblowing is that the stories are gripping even while the creators didn’t ever even do an on-screen kiss, nevermind talk about the real sexual dramas. They believed in the drama even without going over those lines. The creators shrewdly knew the tremendous creative potential within Hasidic life, where the stakes are always so very high, the tension so raw. In a world where you have one partner and marriages are arranged and there is so much of human desire that is kept tightly under control, the storytelling reward can go so much farther.

The show pays incredibly close attention to detail. Not in a superficial way. The correct clothing and expression is meant to please the critical know-it-all-audiences, or to show off, or to check some box. The details, like how Rachumi brings home a yellow star for a school performance about the holocaust or how Akiva gets into renting heaters in memory of his mother, make the narrative twists and turns and all the dramas believable. Plot twists that would feel outrageous and absurd otherwise make sense when the pieces leading up to them are assembled so carefully and thoughtfully.

Here’s an example of how Shtisel does it differently. Let’s take Bubbe Malke, who gets a television. Oy yoy yoy!

This is of course a Haredi no-no. Here are Hasidim on an airplane covering the movie-screen:

In fact, some people criticized Shtisel for the bubbe’s television and called the show inaccurate for scenes like these. But see; if you know Hareidi world intimately, you know that exceptions to every rule. There is mischief and there are complex behaviors that will stretch and skew what should or shouldn’t be. It’s not black and white, yes television or no television. It depends on the circumstances, excuses and motivations. We need to understand how she came to have a television and how it fits into the actual experience of being Hasidic, and then we’ll understand if it feels real. I am not a fan of authenticity police who check all storylines against their own experiences. It doesn’t have to have happened to you for it to be true. It has to be believable; to make sense as a motive for that person in their circumstances.

a comparison of depictions/ haredim & tv:

 

1. Oprah Winfrey and the Never TV story

Oprah Winfrey met a Lubavich Hasidic family and asked them “Have you never watched television?? Never…? Your entire life….?

To Oprah, the family insists that they never watched television. Never.

Now I don’t know other people’s experiences; but on the “authenticity” scale, here’s why I’m a little “eh” about their testimony. First of all, because everyone is keenly aware that they are on camera and will be on television (ironically) and must make a good impression. This is not a setup for confession of sins. People are performing. This is a setup for fudging. After all, mom and dad are there! You expect the kids to say anything except “no”? The other detail that I have to content with is: as a Hasidic child who also didn’t watch television (pretty much never) we knew full well what it was. It was in doctor’s offices, in the hospital, it was once on a charter bus. It’s not like Hareidi people grow up in an opaque sack and go around not seeing anything at all.

So while it is true that Hareidim don’t watch television, I wouldn’t really say this feels like the most honest depiction. A PR savvy meeting with Oprah Winfrey is what it is, from any culture.

 

2. The Marrying of Chani Kaufman and tv gluttony:

The book The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, which was longlisted for a Man Booker Prize, has a female middle-aged Rebbetzin obsessed with the television. When her too-pious husband wants the telly to go — the story happens in London — she retaliates so:

Over the next couple of weeks, the Rebbetzin retaliated by visiting the station café which had a small television perched on the shelf in one corner. She would drop in during the early afternoon before the children came home from school, nestling in with a steaming cup of tea, as far away from the window as possible. Whatever was on she watched; it was the act itself that mattered. She imbibed a daily menu of news, second rate soaps, the flogging of suspect antiques in various market towns, the dullest of them all, dart competitions.
This small rebellion gave her a sense of vindication…

Her clothes stank of bacon grease and chip fat but she persisted in her transgression, enjoying every minute. Until Mrs. Gottlieb, her busybody neighbor from across the street spotted her through the window and marched in to greet her…

The Rebbetzin remained seated, desperately trying to see past Mrs. Gottlieb’s voluminous sheitel. But Mrs. Gottlieb would not budge.

In this version, the lady Rebbetzin has no life whatsoever, no interests, no relationships or redeeming experiences inside her world. The only thing she desires is the tv. Unless the woman is seriously mentally ill, how does that make sense? Who even does the housework while she goes off for her daily ritual of immersion in the bacon grease? I’m trying to wrap my head around a religious woman rebelling by seating herself in a strange, cold, café where she gets judgmental glances, so she can be before the small tv and watch dart shows. What is she gaining? In which reasonable world would a person express their rebellion by doing something so miserable day in and day out, in a strange place, just out of spite? And why would this be her vindication? It’s absurd on its face and totally unbelievable.

When I read this, I don’t feel the perspective of a religious woman in rebellion. I feel the author’s biases shine through. I feel how outsiders see religious people. To outsiders, censorship and restrictions are always worse than whatever misery sitting in a bacon café all day might impose. This author fails to imagine that there is anything in Rebbetzin’s life outside of television, so when the TV is taken away, it follows that any sacrifice should be warranted to regain this orifice of modernhood. Let’s believe that the Rebbetzin would bring a lawn chair to Time Square and live there through New York winters so that she can be ever so close to the telly and those friggin bullseyes.

The story is so unrealistic because Haredi life is much more complex and faceted than the existence or disappearance of a telly. I don’t believe this television story because everything around it reeks of bacon, I mean, secular viewpoints.

 

3. Bubbe Shtisel and her guilty pleasure

In Shtisel, yes, the Bubbe gets a TV. You can see that scene here. We see it happen in a way that makes sense. Bubbe moves into the nursing home, and upon seeing that the other woman, Rebbetzin Ehrlich, has such a thing in her room, promptly has the staff install one in hers as well. She is a defiant little lady, but her actions are not absurd. A little bit of convenience because the option for a TV is available, a little bit of social permission, a little bit of permission for her age, and she has convinced herself that this action is benign. To her children and grandchildren, it isn’t. But she is the Bubbe and she is the elder, and they can’t be disrespectful and tell her what to do. She is not forced to pick between world’s. She simply does a little bit of rationalizing and smoothing things out to make this indulgence okay. At one point, she explains to her grandson that these Americans are not bad at all, because they don’t just have two children and a dog, but five children! She then seriously, and to us, hilariously, lists all the children of this Sitcom family as if they were her kin.

Of course the children and grandchildren express a lot of unease about this. And Tzvi Arye goes so far as to plot to distract her and unplug it. But it’s the small actions that make my skin crawl with recognition. When Shulem does not name the TV, but calls it “such a thing”, and we realize how undone he is by his mother’s transgression, that we believe this could happen. That we can feel this happening to us. That we almost understand the discomfort of the family members. It’s all in the little intimacies.

I have been looking for a special set of cards up and down Lee Avenue. The Hashomrim card collection series are in stores for Hasidic kids to buy, collect, organize, swap, give away, show off, get tired off, get shocked by. They are like baseball cards, pokemon cards or in similar Hasidic markets, collectors cards of Hasidic rabbis, factoids of the world or emergency vehicles. The kids get pretty into their card collections.

I first learned about these cards from this good old fashioned sign on Lee Avenue. The sign was up one day, gone the following day when I was back. Sign turnover is high in Williamsburg!

This poster tells the kids that if they help fundraise money, they might get some of the newer style scartch-off version of the collector’s cards. If you look closely, there are pictures of some of the cards. Cartoonish pictures that I wanted to see. I do have a tremendous fascination with the ways in which technology are improvised and partially rejected in the Hasidic community.

The problem was that I had a hard time finding shops that sold these cards. I went into a Judaica first, and this lovely old Hasid told me “you vant diz cards? but you have to trow away your cell phone den, no?”

I told him I didn’t really have to throw away my smartphone, and that I wanted the cards anyway. He said he doesn’t carry the cards. They are too extreme. “Too much”. He didn’t carry it and doesn’t plan to carry it. He could sell me cards with pictures of Hatzalah ambulances in various dramatic poses of lights-flashing and all that jazz.

I found the same problem with the other Judaicas and toy stores. The shop keepers said they didn’t like how radical it was, and they were surprised that I, a clearly not religious woman, was interested in something so extremist. Some stores told me they might get it at some point, but I’d go back again and again and they still didn’t have it. I think I checked six stores that generally sell this type of thing.

I finally found a little toy store where an Israeli lady told me she had it, but tried to explain to me that it was Yiddish and I wouldn’t understand. She asked “you speak Hebrew?” I said something that resembled a mumbling yes, and walked off with a stash of some twenty packs of cards. I don’t know that I can collect all – although the dork in me would want to! There are just too many duplicates. I need someone to trade with me!

Here are some of the cards:

“Maybe flowers for shabbes will save my shaky marriage”

 

“Talking to the Lamp”

 

“Ahh, the video clip looks so real, I almost feel like I’m getting wet!

 

“Daddy can I have this, daddy can I have this?”
“Why does dad allow us to buy everything?”

 

Rabbi: “And the namer of the newborn child shall be….?”
Distracted dad reading the news exclaims “Trump!”

 

 

I made a video. You have not seen a video this ammueture since 1997. I wanted to try video instead of writing, because I thought it might be more enjoyable. So I spent an hour ranting into my Samsung Galaxy camera and then cut out all the times I got up to pet the dog, etc.

The video is on the measles outbreak, and all major theological, philosophical, economical, medical and other tangentially related issues to the measles or to things tangentially related to the measles. I tried to address many questions about the measles outbreak in a Q&A format. It was a panel with just me.

Here is the text, which I ended up writing anyway.

 

ABOUT THE MEASLES OUTBREAK

Is it safe to tour the Hasidic community during the outbreak?

I am no doctor, so I’ll tell you what my doctor told me: “Make sure you’re immune and you’re good”. If you were vaccinated, you are probably okay, but you might want to get a blood test to check if you are immune. They call it “titers”, with a hard I, like tiger, tights, like aie yaiy yaiy (per dictionary.com) So get that – the tay-ters. I got mine and have evidence of immunity to measles, mumps and rubella and I feel good about that.

If you have a baby who isn’t vaccinated, then talk to the pediatrician. A couple of people with babies changed plans because of the measles, and I get it. I’ll totally work with you if that’s your situation.

So the outbreak is scary. What’s going on?

Looks like a recurrence in several countries around the world, from where it spreads. It reached the New York Hasidic community via Israel from Ukraine, where there were more cases than any other country. From February 2018 to March 2019 they had 72,408 cases; in 2016 the WHO reported only 42% of kids were vaccinated.

I read about Hasidic anti-vaxxers. Is Hasidism anti-vaccine?

No.

The Williamsburg Hasidic community is pro-vaccines. There are always individual opinions and dissenters, as anywhere. They are an asterisk. I will talk about them later. But they are the exceptions, not the rules. You can say Americans embrace individual freedoms, and you can say Hasidim embrace vaccines. In both instances it doesn’t hold true for every single dingle person, but it is a correct generalization.

But Hasidim are anti-science and anti-modernity?

Nah. You can’t generalize like that. Maybe we can say Hasidim are against Enlightenment values and philosophies. But they are very much a modern phenomenon, shaped in the womb of modernity.

When it comes to many medicines, Hasidim are very eager to embrace the latest technologies – even if these technologies were developed by understanding evolution. Read about Hasidim doing in vitro fertilization in this really fascinating article in the Washington Post. The Hasidic charity organizations for the sick, Bikur Cholim, were in the news because Hasidic volunteers pushed for extending life which seemed to clash with NYU’s counseling for, say, patients on a ventilator who are only alive because of machines. From Jewish Breaking News; “They say that the NYU health system’s approach to end-of-life care has changed and conflicts with the Orthodox Jewish approach to issues surrounding ending life support and administering palliative care — and the hospital doesn’t want observers witnessing decisions that to Orthodox eyes may fall short of extending life by any means available.” Or check out Dor Yeshorim, an organization that performs genetic testing before marriage and according to their website, “successfully eliminates the agonizing occurrence of fatal and debilitating genetic diseases in Jewish families worldwide through its premarital genetic screening program.” It is as if Hasidim have almost no religious comments on many life-saving sciences, because once it is life-saving, it is usually “kosher” by definition. Think of the expression pekuach nefesh docheh shabbes, which means that to save a soul, the shabbes can be desecrated.

 

But Hasidim are anti-science in other way; they reject life-saving changes to circumcision practices or education. Isn’t this vaccine issue the same?

Dear New York Times: not the same. Ugh, the Times loves lump one Hasidic issue in with another. An annoying op-ed by some suspiciously unknown and supposedly Hasidic person, Moshe Friedman (who is he/she really?), brings up these two frequently cited parallels:

1. Metzitzah b’peh (the part of ritual circumcision that exposes the newborn to potential transmission of herpes.)

“When Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration in 2012 introduced rules that required parental consent before an infant could have a form of ritual circumcision believed to be linked to the spread of herpes, some rabbis denounced those efforts as a blood libel or “the evil plans of the New York City health department.”
Some rabbis derided the health department’s scientific expertise, and one respected rabbi went as far as to question the health department’s statistics. “

2. Education (the Hasidic community’s minimal secular curriculum for boys)

“In more recent years, when the Department of Education pushed for an increase in secular studies in the city’s yeshivas, some of our leaders once again instigated their community to oppose these much-needed reforms.”

3. Vaccines: .

“We see this same approach now among some of our leaders toward vaccines. Some rabbis are contributing to the spread of disinformation, repeating unfounded claims about the health risks of the M.M.R. vaccine.”

So Friedman concludes:

“Whether out of shortsightedness or strategic malice, some of our religious leaders have directly fostered an atmosphere where thorough research is sneered at, the scientific method is doubted and the motivations of professionals are assumed to be nefarious and steeped in anti-religious animus.”

I don’t even know how to write a straight sentence without grinding my jaw down. Such sloppy simplifications. We can see from other examples that Hasidim clearly are not “doubting the scientific method” or assuming that the motivations of professionals are nefarious. Because surely that adds up with the Hasid who is going to top doctors for a transplant. “I’ll go to the top doctor. The top nefarious doctor!” Thought nobody.

By the way this author also incorrectly identified the leader of the largest sect in Williamsburg. He clearly has no expertise or insight. He seems to get all his information about Hasidim from the New York Times. Even if he is Hasidic, and of the sect in question, he does not add any information that an outsider wouldn’t have – so what’s the point?

But vaccines are not kosher…?

Again the New York Times: “some view vaccines as a violation of kosher restrictions and a danger to children’s health.”

And is a kosher phone edible? And are kosher cameras properly slaughtered? And are kosher pigs properly vaccinated? These are questions that should keep you up at night.

But then why aren’t they cooperating with the city?

They are. 21,284 doses of the MMR vaccine have been administered to people who are under 19 years old in Williamsburg and Borough Park since October, per the New York City Health website.

Seven yeshivas were closed, but they were also reopened.

Maybe not so well-organized. Maybe not willing to get into big wars with parents. But not not cooperating.

When the Hasidic community decides not to cooperate, like with the New York Sate education standards, there are mass protests in huge stadiums and outcries on the front page of their newspapers and the streetposts fill with posters warning people about the impending danger from the outside. They court politicians and the rabbi meets with the bigwigs and promises votes. It’s a ruckus. With the measles outbreak, there is nothing in the newspaper. Most of the anger is directed at anti-vaxxers, not people from the outside.

Then why is the outbreak so bad?

Let’s look at BAD in perspective. Let’s say there were 360 cases – an estimate. That’s out of a population of about 100,000. That’s .36% of the population. Measles will infect almost any unvaccinated person it comes in contact with. A rate of less than a half percent shows a huge, huge success rate on the part of the vaccine.

But there are many more outbreaks among Hasidim. Doesn’t that prove they have more anti-vaxxers?

More measles cases does not mean more anti-vaxxers.
Hasidim are a more vulnerable population than the rest of society for two main reasons:

1) They have a younger population, which means there are more babies. Let me put it to you in numbers. I’ll use the census data from Kiryas Joel, a Satmar village north of New York City, because we don’t have any census data for Williamsburg Hasidim — their data is mixed with that of other Williamsburg residents. Kiryas Joel is more insular but in all important ways like Williamsburg, and there the median age is 13! Thirteen! This means that half the population is thirteen or under. Compare that to the median age in New York as a whole: 38.2. So the simple math is that Hasidim have far more very young children. Herd immunity depends on a high percent of the population being immune. If 95% of a population is immune, the virus won’t spread. But what happens if 90% of the population are under age one? It’s more likely the measles will spread.

2) The extremely close proximity of Hasidic kids. Let me illustrate how close Hasidic kids come to each other. If a Hasidic kid is not vaccinated and is infected, he will be around an average of eight children in his family, he will go to school on a bus with twenty (six days a week), he will be in a classroom with thirty, at family celebrations with fifty, in the synagogue with hundreds. The opportunity to pass contagions is enormous.

But Kiryas Joel had much fewer incidents of the outbreak.

This is super interesting and it proves a number of things. That Kiryas Joel is more organized. They collaborated with the Hudson Valley health department for a pro-vaccinate publication months ago. It is also much more authoritarian. People who don’t follow conventions are often so marginalized, they have to enjoy suffering to stay there. Most would move to Monsey or Brooklyn.

It also tells you that the outbreak wasn’t a result of some conspiratorial friendship between DiBlasio and the Hasidim. Or that Hasidim don’t want to vaccinate. Because if any of this was true, Kiryas Joel would be at the forefront and the virus would go viral (ha ha, hilarious).

So tell me about the anti-vaxxers. Spill on these juicy nuts.

Anti-vaxxers in the Hasidic community are mostly women who consider themselves enlightened about health and refuse to just follow the masses in these conspiracies they see all around them. They see themselves as smarter and more informed than the rest and refuse to “put all these chemicals” into their perfectly healthy baby’s body. They are a tiny subset of unwieldy rebels within the community. They are the same women who have home births and go to this crackpot and that witchdoctor for all sorts of jewelry-swinging cures. You know the type. People who are very busy with themselves and their special vitamins and juicing and many mishigasen.

But this Hasidic woman told reporters that she doesn’t vaccinate because it’s her “religious freedom”?

Religious freedom is an American concept. Just because one woman cries religious freedom doesn’t mean this is actually a religious issue for her. If she says you should give her a hundred dollars for her religious freedom will you also take her at face value? She is borrowing from the American vocabulary and is using it to her advantage. She learns that if she doesn’t want to vaccinate, she needs to request an exemption for religious reasons. It’s not rocket science. This same woman wouldn’t claim religious freedom to the community.
Let me give you an example: If a Hasidic lady wants to wear, ehhh, say skirts to the floor instead of mid-calf, and to the floor is not really a-okay, she won’t argue with her finger-wagging neighbor that this her religious freedom. She will try to make arguments to its religious validity – like “this is modest”. Religious freedom doesn’t fly here. What freedom? This is the Hasidic community, Lol. Concerns for freedom don’t course through its veins.

But… what about religious exemptions for vaccines?

What about? Were religious exemptions written into law for the Hasidic community? I’m sure not. Let’s dig up why it’s there – I’m curious. Again, we need numbers and details. How many religious exemptions are there and how many medical exemptions? 

Because as per the principal of KJ UTA, a lot of people will be so secretive about health problems that they will claim religious exemption in order to hide the fact that they need a medical exemption. So I don’t even know — how many religious exemptions there are on the books, and how many net exemptions are actually voluntary.

In fact, take a look at this conversation on the religious women’s forum imamother, from 2016(!):

Woman OP: “For my own reasons, I’m an declining the varicella vaccine. I do NOT want my children to have it. I know in public schools, you can claim a religious exemption, and they will be fine with the lack of vaccination. What do you do for a frum school? It’s not like I can fake a religious reason when there isn’t one.Has anyone gotten an exemption for a vaccine from their school?”

Internet Person: “The school doesn’t really care, so if you want to use a religious reason you can (mitzva to take care of the body, and you feel that giving vaccines violates that mitzva.) “

See how it goes? What comes first the religious reason or the vaccine hesitancy? Obviously not the religious reason.

But these Hasidic women wouldn’t believe such nonsense if they got a regular education.

Ehh… How do we me measure this even? Count the number of fringe folks in Silicon Valley? Look – these Hasidic women are incredibly versed in their mishigas. They are not coming to it out of innocence.

Every society will have its conspiracy theorists, its individualists who believe they are the smartest thing to happen to mankind, its walking illustrations of the Dunning Kruger effect. I’ve come to see that some people are just beyond reason. They can’t see past the end of their noses, their logic fails to account for big picture or to keep risk in perspective, they believe they understand everything and everyone else is being led like blind sheep. They form identities based on their being misfits and outsiders and relish their uniqueness. There are such people. They are just human. No?

So what do we do about these anti-vaxxers?

Make their likeness into a piñata and hit it to shreds? Shame them until their lightbulbs go on. Yeah? No. We create laws to deal with the balance between their right to believe whatever and the risk that such rights might bring to others.

The Amish also had a large outbreak in 2014. Is this like — the same cause?

I’m not any more informed about the Amish than you!

I’d caution you against extrapolating conclusions about one insular community based on information about another. Just because there are similarities doesn’t mean that they’re the same in all ways. As they will say on my epitaph: nuance, baby.

Has the media accurately portrayed the outbreak?

No. The coverage made me really angry. A bad kind of anger, the isolating, unhappy kind. Not the one where we feel really good and smart and self-righteous after ranting. I’m exhausted of my anger.

It was a coverage bad for its omissions.

It was as if the reporters simply filed the CDC press release as their stories. No context, no additional information, just whatever the CDC had as its numbers. I can look at the CDC website myself. I need the media to frame the numbers. But since they didn’t, we only learned two things:

• The number of confirmed measles cases. (Now at 764 for the US in 2019)
• That “The majority of people who got measles were unvaccinated.”

Journalists have been hammering on the “unvaccinated” part. But here’s the rub: they are using unvaccinated interchangeably with anti-vaxxers. Just because folks are unvaccinated doesn’t mean they are an anti-vaxxer. Think of all the people unvaccinated in a pediatric oncology ward. Or all the infants in the maternity ward. All of them are at risk and are unvaccinated! The CDC told us that lots of people who got measles were unvaccinated – but the media went straight from there to blaming anti-vaxxers. An article a day in the Times about how anti-vaxxers are all to blame, because they are unvaccinated.

Again, Williamsburg will have a greater number of unvaccinated minors. There is no greater proof of this than by looking at what the CDC did: they ordered that we vaccinate Hasidic babies at 6 months instead of a year. If the regular vaccine schedule alone worked, and the only problem was anti-vaxxers, than all we’d do would be make the anti-vaxxers vaccinate.

In fact, I asked around about specific cases and this is what some people knew of: a newborn baby who got the measles and ran a high fever for a few days (terrifying!), a sickly two year old who wasn’t able to be vaccinated and caught it, a seven month old who had already had one MMR, an adult who didn’t think they could get it. Etc. Many unvaccinated, but not anti-vaccine.

What bothered me was that we never got figures or perspective, so everyone was left with the impression that Hasidim have as a group at a large rate passed on vaccines. But the media never gave us numbers. They never provided more information. This kind of omission created hate and misinformation. Zero sympathy from the public, all blame. I find this scary.

Why do you think the media has been covering this so poorly?

Because Hasidic anti-vaxxers … are you kidding me? A double-whammy of the permitted punching bag. Both anti-vaxxers and Hasidim are fodder for outrage culture. The stubborn single anti-vaxxer lady is red meat for the mob. The public loves to pick themselves up a little bit by collectively bashing those on the list of permitted hates. This must bring in lots of clicks for the newspaper.

Who is to call out the media for malpractice? Unlike, say, Jewish issues related to Israel, Hasidim don’t do PR campaigns to push back against the reporting. If the media doesn’t self-correct, what’s to improve this?
My ranting, that’s what. Of course.

So the coverage made things look bad. Why is it really a problem?

I think reporting should be fair and complete. On principal. Even if for no other reason that we don’t try to wing it with coverage if we can get away with it.
Don’t you want your news to be accurate?
Also – you are really kind of proving to Hasidim that they are right: the media is just out to hurt them.
Also – this is creating hate. A lot of unfair hate against Jews. Really.
Also – and most importantly – healthy coverage when inaccurate fails the public. By hyper-focusing on anti-vaxxers, the media missed an important part:

Some people need to be revaccinated. 200 cases of measles were of people who were vaccinated. This is the kind of information that the public health journalism is supposed to uncover and disseminate. They didn’t, because the media was too busy salting and delivering red meat. Here is a video created by a Jewish community in which one individual came down with the measles:

Update: CNN ran a story that illustrates how a humane story can look like. Watch here.

The measles virus continues to spread, and now the Mayor of New York City has ordered all Williamsburg kids to vaccinate or face a fine. I am set up to get Google Alerts for news about the Hasidic community, and I am getting floods of links to stories about the anti-vaxxers in the community. I am still trying to jive how the stories in the news, in which the measles epidemic seems to be fueled by anti-vaxxers, matches my on-the-ground experience of the Hasidic community.

Here is what I have come to understand. A community needs 95% vaccinated population in order for the community to have herd immunity and not to be vulnerable to the outbreak. In any community, you will have a population that is unable to vaccinate, either those too young or allergic or with compromised immune systems. But these unvaccinated people will be fine so long as there is herd immunity, which, for a very contagious disease like measles that can be spread by just coughing, needs to be very high. This leaves room for only about 5% to opt out before the her immunity is breached MMR. In a community where almost every home has a baby and many are too young for the vaccine, the 5% is much more easily reached. Herd immunity is so delicate.

It looks like the measles outbreak took off when the community dropped below herd immunity rates. It was the perfect recipe for disaster when a lot of scary information about vaccines made its way around the womenfolk, and people either hesitated or delayed vaccinations. On top of that, schools didn’t insist or stay on top of its students immunization status, and doctors and community leaders didn’t aggressively counter these scary ideas. I know my son would never be enrolled in Public School without being either up to date on his shots or an exemption, but Hasidic schools can be much more lax, especially when people already forgot how bad outbreaks can be.

While the community clearly dropped below immunity, we have to ask by what ratio. Notice that according to a pro-vaccine KJ publication titled “Tzim Gezint”, the main Satmar school has only 2% vaccine exemptions. In Williamsburg, where people consider themselves a bit more worldly and are more likely to deviate from community norms, there are probably more exemptions. According to CBS2, about 100 families in Williamsburg are against vaccines. Sure, the city estimated that 1,800 children in the Hasidic Williamsburg neighborhood hadn’t been vaccinated as of December 2018 – when we just started to hear about the measles outbreak. But there has been a huge uptick in vaccinations since.

In the news, the anti-vaxxers take center stage. Their continued absurd stance is painted as the key to the problem. For instance watch these two women, whose way of thinking and modeling for the Dunning Kruger effect makes me want to tear my hair out.

 

 

But do these women reflect mainstream views? Are they anomalies? Considering they showed up to the Brooklyn Library for the announcement by the mayor and were willing to be on camera, I’d say probably not. I am wondering if these folks are going to be the Naturei Karte of the measles issue. The Naturei Karte is a radical fringe anti-zionist group which loves media attention, and even though the people who subscribe to it are a minority, they are so vocal, they are lodged in the popular imagination as the example of a standard Hasidic Jew.

What’s important to realize that once herd immunity has been compromised, the virus can spread even if the population is now up to date. It spreads to the unvaccinated population. This from the Times: “Dr. Yakov Kiffel, a pediatrician in Monsey in Rockland County, said that he has both vaccinated children and treated about a half-dozen patients with measles since the fall. He said the majority of the sick were under 6 months old — the age at which a child can be given the first dose of the M.M.R. vaccine — and members of families that said they vaccinate.”

In other words, the cat is out of the bag. Now, even if the mayor gets everyone to comply, herd immunity is destroyed, and the 5% or so who shouldn’t be vaccinated are very, very vulnerable. Think a cancer patient. Think someone very ill. Think all those tiny babies coming down with measles. They are all now susceptible even if everyone complies after-the-fact. I think the community and health officials should learn, really learn, that if you don’t vaccinate before a problem comes to town, you can’t simply quickly run to get your shots and solve the problem. Contrary to what that lady proudly believes about the problems of vaccines, preventive measures like herd immunity do a lot of good. The old adage… an ounce of prevention is worth — a thousand dollar fine and terrible medical risks and babies with red splotchy rashes and a terrible health scare for everyone else.

Yesterday, while at the Hasidic medical center with my son, I picked up a magazine with a black cover and the title “Tzim Gezint“. It was free for patients to take, so I took it — of course! This was the formal, official, Hasidic publication on vaccines, and I’ve wanted to understand the measles outbreak ever since it has been all over the news. I wrote earlier this week that I’d check back in a year or two with more facts about what caused the measles epidemic. So guess what – it was kvitzes haderech; the Hasidic concept of magical speedy travel. I think I get it now.

This black mag was published by the Hudson Valley Health Coalition, a collaboration between Kiryas Joel health practitioners and the Orange County Department of Health. Kiryas Joel is in the New York suburbs, a bit far from the comparatively modern Borough Park, but also, it’s my home town. It’s where I lived the first twenty five years of my life. In fact, here’s a tangential piece of nostalgia:

Dr. Alan Werzberger, a pediatrician who is one of the primary voices in the publication, was my pediatrician all through my childhood. He started to practice the year I was born. My memories of him are mostly of the long, endless wait times in his waiting room. It could take five hours to see him. I never felt like I knew him at all, the doctor who rushed in and out. But when my son Seth was born, after I had a stillborn a year earlier, he showed up in my hospital room in Columbia and gave Seth his first check-up. I remember how surprised

I was when Dr. Werzberger walked in. I had been writing on the laptop, and he said “A woman from Kiryas Joel with a laptop. I’ve never seen that before.” And I acted so guilty, he mumbled something to the effect that he didn’t mean anything by it.

Anyway. There – Grandpa Simpson and I and long side-stories…

The book had some really interested insights into the issue with vaccines. It was an educational component of the Hasidic community’s efforts, and not surprisingly, the official stance is very pro-vaccine. But I also got to understand a little bit about how the secular anti-vaccine trends is affecting this demographic.

Here are my Cliff’s Notes:

1. First, the numbers: The heads of both major schools in Kiryas Joel wrote about what they see with regards to vaccines in schools. UTA reports that 2% of the students have religious exemptions, While V’Yoel Moshe says the school has 1,000 families and not one letter of exemption on file, with 95-98% compliance.

2. Religious exemptions doesn’t mean people are not vaccinating for religious reasons. Kornbluh from the UTA says that “A lot of parents are worried about confidentially They don’t want the community to be aware of their child’s illness, so they’ll bring a religious exemption instead of medical.” In other words, people are concerned about their reputation, about their children’s marriage prospects, and are getting religious exemptions to cover whatever booboo the child has that might prevent them, medically, from getting vaccinated.

3. Still, reluctance to vaccinate *is* a problem. This is where the anti-vaccine issue comes in. From reading the reports of doctors and administrators, I’ve seen that they are dealing with a new wave of parents who are afraid of vaccines. No, it’s not a whole community of fanatics rejecting modern science, but it seems to be a real trend. Kornbluh from UTA says that “two or three years ago, we had less than 1% [exemptions from vaccines]. I blame the rise on misinformation; it’s been a terrible influence. For example, a popular hotline listened to by many women, has been the source of a lot of negative and unsubstantiated claims about vaccines.”

4. A recent influx of anti-vaccine scaremongering: Dr. Werzberger says that “twenty-five years ago, there was no such thing as not giving vaccines on time! Except if someone had a cold.” Another doctor said that people are becoming more hands on. They are more invested, they question authority. They don’t just do as the doctor says. They’d come to the doctor and say “I’ve done my research” even if the research is from shabby sources.

5. Refusing vaccines on the basis of “health”, not religion. Per Dr. Werzberger, “Even in an insular culture, like Kiryas Yoel, the secular way of thinking will influence the community… Mothers think that vaccines negatively affect the immune system.” The irony here is terrific. Because of the small-town, insular ways of the Hasidic community, it is easier for babba maysos to spread. Yet of all the babba maysos to spread, it’s the ones from the secular nuts.

6. Why the Hasidic community is more susceptible to fears of vaccines: the takeaway is that a few things come together to make vaccine-refusal catch on. First, vaccines have been so successful, people forget how terrible the illness it curtails is, while they hear all about its side effects. Almost as if the crisis is over, no need for precautions anymore. Hasidim are not doctors or nurses, so misinformation is ripe for the spreading. The small-town feel means this yenta tells this friend and that person and it’s all confirmed: the cat was a spirit carrying news about the cancer the neighbor’s sister had because of vaccines. There is also that a few fringe people were peddling stories that scared people, and the community didn’t organize to respond to them and squelch people’s fears. You see this with other issues too — the proactive education isn’t there vis a vis health until things get really rough. My hunch is that this is why the lead problem affects the Hasidic community too; because the information about the dangers of lead paint and such doesn’t reach people. It’s clear from this publication that there is finally an effort to take mother’s fears seriously and explain to them what the issues are. There is also the aspect that, according to the administrator of V’Yoel Moshe school “Anti-vaccine movements catch up with these very, very overwhelmed mothers and provide an excuse not to vaccinate.” The V’Yoel Moshe school claims they had success by coordinating vaccines with the doctors office. In other words, when you have a lot on your plate it can be the path of least resistance.

7. It’s obviously not all anti-vaccines. Even though this magazine is primarily geared towards educating and encouraging those fearful of vaccines, it touches on some other issues that might make the Hasidic community vulnerable to an outbreak. This school principal writes that “we are so bonded together, so many kids in one classroom, so many bochurim sitting across from each other in Bais Medrash, we must be more vigilant than anyone else. He also writes that “since we are a frum mosad (a religious school), we must let all children in.” I won’t go into the hypocrisy of this rule being cut off for those who don’t comply with religious requirements… The point is that the children who are not vaccinated are not homeschooled, they are around to pass contagions around. The doctors offices also (most of them) will accept patients even if they refuse to vaccinate. So between those who can’t vaccinate and those who won’t and those too young, the risks are surely higher in the Hasidic community.

I like the publication. I like it a lot. Instead of screaming “anti-vaxxers!” and pointing fingers and making it as if anyone who has ever questioned vaccines is the enemy of vaccines, it takes Hasidic mothers seriously. It believes that education and community coordination can solve the problem. Which — I think it will. The question is if the community will learn for next time to be proactive, before the quacks and witch doctors return to town and again set up voodoo shop and sell their snake all to every woman’s deepest anxieties.