Opinion What It’s Really Like to Be ultra-Orthodox in America – and Illiterate in English
I stood aghast at the epic travesty: My own adult brother – an American citizen born to American citizens, raised inside its borders, a dad raising children of his own – could barely read a sentence in the language of his land
A voter casting a ballot in Kiryas Joel, New York, November 2, 2010. Mark Lennihan / AP
The issue of education among America’s
ultra-Orthodox Jews, particularly the Hasidic community, has received a great deal of press ink over the last few months, and for good reason.
The overwhelming majority of Hasidic children in the U.S., especially boys, do not receive a basic, rudimentary education.
This is a fact that is repeatedly
obfuscated by apologists and self-appointed spokespeople for the community, some of whom recently took to Twitter to refute all claims made – often pseudonymously – by parents whose children are in this system.
They have pilloried “Yaffed,” a group of yeshiva graduates and parents of yeshiva students who seek to
rectify this injustice by lobbying lawmakers to investigate yeshivas and institute the state-mandated educational standards – and lobbed ad-hominem attacks at its founder, Naftuli Moster.
Most recently, Rabbi Avi Shafran wrote an op-ed in Haaretz (“
U.S. Orthodox Jewish Kids Who Don’t Study English and Math Don’t Need Your Pity“) to make a grandiose statement: Hasidic children do not need the pity of outsiders seeking to implement change. “For many observant Jews, secular education has no intrinsic value; professions and jobs are simply ways to make a living and support one’s family,” Shafran wrote. And “consider just allowing such people their priorities…”
Shafran, a man who purportedly values a comprehensive secular education and made sure his children received one, too, nevertheless disingenuously wishes to keep a portion of his brethren undereducated at best, and illiterate at worst.
In late March of this year, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, I visited my family in
Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic enclave nestled in the hills of New York’s Hudson Valley.
The streets were teeming with costumed children – clowns and cops, fancy ladies and doctors – and music blasted from loudspeakers. On that day, every year, the village turns into a festive, boisterous, almost-anything-goes circus; it’s a boozed-up Halloween of sorts.
Inside my parents’ home, crispy homemade challah was passed around on platters, then dipped into gelatin fish sauce and stuffed cabbage, followed by a bountiful spread of fish, kugels, elongated deli sandwiches, every kind of sweet and savory puffed-pastry turnover one could concoct, and enough wine and hamantaschen for days. The men danced around the table with a buoyant fervor, and the women gave the obligatory oohs and aahs for the children’s costumes.
An ultra-Orthodox man and children in Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York in 2012. (Illustrative photo) Nir Kafri
My son dressed as an average Joe: oversized t-shirt over a stuffed beer belly, cap that read “Proud ‘Merican.” One of my brothers attempted to read the five words on the t-shirt: “KEEP CALM AND DRINK BEER.” He started, bent in closer, fumbled. His wife came to his aid.
Everyone chuckled, as if watching a grown man with five kids stumble over words that a four-year-old should know is hilarious.
I stood there, aghast. I was witness to a travesty of epic proportions: here was an adult – a citizen of these United States, a boy born to American citizens, a kid raised inside its borders, a dad raising children of his own – who could not easily read a sentence in the language of his land.
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