Sunday, April 25, 2010

Truth, History, and Community

Earlier this month there was an article in the NY Times Magazine about Roman Vishniac, famous Jewish photographer of the shtetl. Alana Newhouse basically concluded that while Vishniac's pictures had been genuine, many had been staged and his captions deliberately deceitful. Why? Because Vishniac's employers, the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, wanted him to represent the Jews of Europe as poor, traditional folk who desperately needed the help of their American cousins. So what he came back with were almost unanimously pictures-- or descriptions-- of poor Orthodox villagers.

Some bloggers suggested that maybe this wasn't that important. Others, such as John Rabe and myself, disagreed. My biggest point was that the Vishniac pictures were more than academic history, they were personal to a large number of American Jews, many of whom never got a chance to see the Old Country, and never will. Vishniac's popularity, to a degree, was because he was thought to be giving us a glimpse, a contact point, with that society. The revelation that Vishniac was fibbing-- cutting out the middle-class and anyone who wasn't visibly Orthodox, for instance, not only hurts the Jewish community personally, it also robs us of the richness of our past, and feeds into the "Fiddler on the Roof" version of Jewish history that continues to be a thorn in the side of the American Jewish community.

The Vishniac story is important because truth matters.

However, it turns out there is a silver lining in all of this. And it comes from the most surprising of sources. Rabbi Avi Shafran, hardly a huge supporter of pluralism, had this insightful comment:

But communities, in the end, are like elephants, their observers the proverbial blind men, one touching an ear and concluding that the beast is floppy and thin, the other feeling a leg and imagining the subject tree-like, a third encountering its trunk and pronouncing the pachyderm a python.
American Jewry is a good example. The air of one part of that population is permeated by academic achievement, economic success and social concerns. It constitutes a parallel universe, though, to that of the Orthodox community, which extols Torah study and observance, and breathes an atmosphere of religious tradition.
In fact, and sadly, the two worlds barely acknowledge one another. Many Jews who define themselves as non-Orthodox or unaffiliated tend to view those who consider their Jewishness paramount as relics, either amusing or threatening, depending on the day and circumstance.
And all too many Orthodox Jews, especially those of us in the more insular haredi world, can be oblivious to the large mass of our distant relatives beyond the physical and conceptual ghettos we inhabit. And when we do think of them, we often see them essentially as objects of “outreach.” A laudable goal, to be sure, born of the desire to share something precious, but qualitatively removed from the deeper recognition that they are worthy of our concern and love as fellow Jews even if they never choose to live like us.
... A photographer could easily produce a volume portraying one American Jewish world or the other. Only a book, however, that portrays both (and likely several others in-between) could rightfully lay claim to the ambitious title “The American Jewish Community.”
Even within each part of the American Jewish scene, a constricted focus can be misleading. Some non-Orthodox Jews profess atheism or agnosticism; but others ponder G-d and their purposes on earth more than do some Orthodox-by-rote. And so it would be a disservice to truth to present either sub-group as emblematic of the non-Orthodox whole.
As it would to imagine, inspired by some popular media, that the Orthodox world is rife with white-collar criminals and slumlords, or harbors a disproportionate number of child abusers. We Orthodox surely have our share of scoundrels, knaves and hypocrites. But examining the dirt under the elephant’s toenails conveys nothing at all of the animal’s majesty. As a whole, measured by the vast majority of its members, the Orthodox community is precisely what unprejudiced observers come to see: a world of broad and deep religious dedication, charity and kindness.
Assuming that a group stereotype is a group description is the essence of prejudice. As the Vishniac article reminds us, even the most compelling snapshots can mislead.

Of course, Shafran's remarks aren't perfect. He still winds up talking down to non-Orthos to elevate his own community (no social concerns in Orthodoxy? Where has he been?) It's also interesting that the Orthodox world is described with specific terms and concepts-- religious education, charity, kindness, Torah study, tradition, preciousness, etc. Non-Orthos, by contrast, focus on academic achievement, economic success, and, occasionally, "pondering God". Surely Rabbi Shafran knows that charity, kindness, and yes, even tradition, are huge parts of other Jewish denominations as well?

The irony of the whole Vishniac story, as Rabe pointed out, is that in the end it's about truth. Specifically, Jews' ability to accurately document the truth about themselves, and share it with others. Shafran is right to point out that no Jewish sector has a monopoly on stereotyping the other, or on being stereotyped. But the answer to this problem is for different kinds of Jews to spend more time with each other, to debunk stereotypes. To actively seek out the truth about who we all really are, rather than reacting to every group-insult or stereotype lobbed across an ideological mechitza.

Is this something Rabbi Shafran, Agudath Israel and Cross-Currents would support? I'd love to believe it. But honestly, I'm not holding my breath. And if that's the case, Shafran's good words, like Vishniac's pictures, ultimately just wind up becoming another kind of well-intentioned fiction.

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