Thursday, September 07, 2006

Question & Answer With Neil Harris Of Modern Uberdox - Like Our Enemies

(Picture courtesy of the Sunday Mail)

A Simple Jew asks:

We view as shameful and despicable the actions of Hamas or Hezbollah terrorists who fire their weapons and then melt back into the civilian population and hide amongst women and children. Yet, there are times we too try to conceal traces our real identities - our Jewishness - so as not to stand out among those who are different from us. There are times when we want to be Jews and then there are times we just want to be plain human beings. In our desire for concealment - our desire to melt back into the civilian population - are we any different from our enemies?

Neil Harris of Modern Uberdox responds:

I find this question of identity and concealment a tough one. In fact, I’ve sort of gone in a backwards full circle. When I became religious (at the age of 16, almost 20 years ago) I was part of a "punk/alternative" sub-culture that valued individualism, rebellion, and self-expression through all the external trappings we could wear and spray in our hair. Not to "to stand out among those who are different from us" was the last thing on my youthful mind. Ironically, now I’m just as comfortable looking like everyone else on any given Shabbos. There is, in my opinion, a fine line between wanting to "melt into the civilian population" (fit into the secular world) and maintaining a strong identity as a Torah observant Jew.

"Yet, there are times we too try to conceal traces of our real identities - our Jewishness - so as not to stand out among those who are different from us." There is a trend among some Baalei Teshuva to change their name (based on the second chapter of the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuva). While, I have not done so, I have many friends who have. One’s Jewish name can help one keep their Jewish identity with society. Of course, the other side of the story is the trend among some Torah observant Jews to switch from their Jewish names to English versions while involved in secular society. Examples of this would be Akiva becomes Kevin, or Yaakov becomes Jake. There are plenty of reasons why some people do this, but the issue of what name to go by is really off the topic of your true question.

We are different, though. Even from an external point view we are different. For males, there’s the issue of tzitzis. You can either wear them in our out. Wearing a yarmulke is another issue. By wearing one it’s kind of a hint that you’re an observant Jew. Of course you could put on that trusty old baseball cap. This is a great way to hide your Jewishness. There has been many a time that I’ve been driving from the Midwest to NY and seen a fellow Jew at a rest-stop dressed "undercover" with a Yankees cap and his peyos just flying out of control. I usually give him that "hey, what’s up" nod of my head and say, "Shalom Aleychem". He, in turn, gives me that look that says, "man, how’d you figure me out?" Baseball caps are good for baseball and keeping the rain off your glasses.

For females, it might be easier to blend into society. Skirts are back in style, which is a good thing.

"…so as not to stand out among those who are different from us?" I think that in a college or work environment there are times when, as you wrote, we want to not bring attention to ourselves. We want to find common ground among those we spend time with. One of the best mediums for that common ground is pop culture.

"There are times when we want to be Jews and then there are times we just want to be plain human beings". It could be that when we discuss what we did over "the weekend" we want to relate to others as "plain human beings". Many find ways to do this by staying on top of music, literature, TV, or movies. Are these not things that "plain human beings" involve themselves with?

The problem (it’s really not a problem) as I see it is that the Torah observant individual isn’t a "plain human being". I can’t speak for everyone, but as a Baal Teshuva I believe that I when I chose to become observant, the role of being a "plan human being" sort of got overwritten after time with the role of being a Jew and living in the world as a Jew. This is an important nuance in how we live as Jews. Is going to a baseball game a form of just wanting to be a "plain human being"? What about letting your kids play in organized sports? What about eating two chocolate chip cookies when you really only should have one? With the example of organized sports, I think there’s a lot of merit in teaching teamwork and good sportsmanship to children. Letting your child realize that you can play a game like a mensch is a valuable lesson.

In our desire for concealment - our desire to melt back into the civilian population - are we any different from our enemies? This is the real question, isn’t it? Are we different than Hamas and Hezbollah? Well, they are terrorists, as you pointed out. In light of the events that have taken place recently in Israel, this example hits home. It hits hard. Maybe that’s the point. The goal of these terrorists is to destroy Jewish lives.

Knowing who you are should, in theory, be the easiest thing in the world to do. We’re with ourselves 24/7. To remind yourself that you’re a Jew, and a child of the King of Kings isn’t always so easy. I wrote in the beginning about a fine line between wanting to "melt into the civilian population" (fit into the secular world) and maintaining a strong identity as a Torah observant Jew. If one chooses to "melt back into the civilian population" in order to forget their own connection to Hashem, then I think we’re a lot more similar to our enemies that we’d like to admit.


At September 7, 2006 at 7:26:00 AM EDT, Blogger MC Aryeh said...

Is it even possible for a Jew to melt back into the surrounding civilizations? If it is not our own sense of differnce which sets us apart, it does not take much for the surrounding civilization to point our differences out to us.

In our parents's generation there was a concerted effort to not be too different and to make sure to give their children english names. With so many nationalities in one country nowadays, a Yitzchak does not stand out so much among a Tarvinder, Yun So, and Rahman.

I suppose we do kill our neshamas a bit when we try to conceal our Jewishness, but to compare that to terrorists who blend into the civilian populations after killing people...I don't know. I do hear it, though, the more I think about it.

I do often feel guilty when I wear a baseball cap over a kippah, but I also feel like there is no way to conceal my Jewishness really. We will always be separate.

It is an interesting topic to explore, and I think both the question and Neil's answer provide much to think about, especially at this time of year.

At September 7, 2006 at 8:56:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yankee caps also promote thoughts of avoda zara.

At September 7, 2006 at 11:39:00 AM EDT, Blogger Pragmatician said...

Very interesting Neil, it gave us a glimpse of you that isn't as clear on your own blog.

At September 7, 2006 at 2:14:00 PM EDT, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Ball caps are a sensitive topic to some. I'll be honest, when we drive cross-country I keep one in the car. I don't usually wear one, though except when it's raining. Velvet just doesn't try too quickly.
My son loves, not worships, his NYY caps. Most of the time, we don't let him wear it around town though. Chicagoian are not to kind to any who like the Yankees.

At September 7, 2006 at 2:15:00 PM EDT, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Am I foggy on my blog, or just selectively revealing about myself?

At September 10, 2006 at 6:40:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Zev Ashkanazy: I fully expected to get a lot of heat for my question. However, I knew that some people would be able understand that my comparison was symbolic and not literal.

If you peruse my archives you will notice a posting in which I take issue with an anti-Zionist for their collaboration with groups that kill Jews. You will also notice my posting "Can You Guess Who Wrote This?" in which I posted the words of Rabbi Meir Kahane.

I think it is quite obvious, that I am not a supporter of Palestinian terrorism, nor was I making a literal comparison.

I stand by my question. As the Degel Machaneh Eprhaim often ended his teachings, "v'hamskil yavin"

At September 11, 2006 at 10:17:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At September 11, 2006 at 10:18:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

You are entitled to your opinion. It was certainly not my intent to be insulting.

At September 15, 2006 at 11:55:00 PM EDT, Blogger Carmenisacat said...

What an incredible bunch of hogwash.

How do you feel about keeping thousands of people prisoner simply because they refuse to bow to Zionism prior to bowing to Allah?

Personally, you are all a disgrace to humanity. Unless of course you realize your religious leaders have been concealing many things from you, just like the Pope concealed things from the Poples.

Now however, the world is WITNESS to the incredibly vile nature of a state intended (as well as a religion which was supposed to meld into pure monotheism aka Islam) only for Jews.

I have a question for you:

What kind of creator would keep a religion only for one type of people?

You tell me and then I'll tell you, Islam is for all types of people, even the blacks like the Ethiopian Jews you treat like poop.

Now. Think clearly for a change.

The Shi'i are literally descended from the prophet Abraham. Ever wonder why you only trace your Hebrew roots via your mothers?

That is why. You are deniers of Allah's communications and deniers of the highest order of the priveledges to religious knowledge related to lineages.

Ever read genesis boys?

Now go read the 12 Sura in the Quran and contemplate what happened when the 11 brothers ditched their brother in the well.

He came back and saved them. Perhaps, it isn't too late for you guys and gals either.

Good luck with the future. I'm relatively sure it won't be better for you all now that the world sees your true colors.

I invite you all to Islam. In case you didn't realize it yet, your forefathers refused it and now we are seeing the debilitating effect that rejectionism has on world peace.

Congrats on a job well done.

At September 17, 2006 at 7:58:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Lilac: You honestly think I would start looking into Islam simply because you left a comment on a blog?

If I recall correctly, hadn't Mohammed massacred Jews living in the Arabian penisula when he was spreading his "peaceful" religion?

At September 17, 2006 at 1:18:00 PM EDT, Blogger Neil Harris said...

"What kind of creator would keep a religion only for one type of people?"

The Torah (old Testement) never states that God intened one religion for everyone. Jewish philosopher from Maimonides

to Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch

state time and time again that there are other relgions for those who are not Jewish, religions that lead one to monotheism, which is a good thing.

At May 16, 2007 at 5:46:00 PM EDT, Blogger Elijahu said...


My name is "Englishized" William, for Giddion and Deason for Ben David. In my youth I was happy to have a Gentile name. As age and with it wisdom came I wanted to return to my Jewish roots. There is a need to belong to our people who ever they may be,... if you are a Jew it is in your spirit even more so. I am a Messianic Jew and I wear a "kippa" or "yamulke" as a way of showing my "Jewish Heart" and to give our closet brothers hope in our times of trouble. It does not matter when I am discriminated against G-d has my back and my brothers see that this little Jew stands for G-d Israel and for them. I don't nor would I ever look down on them. I would die for them, I love every Jew! We forget sometimes but though we are twelve tribes we are still from the same family.

G-d bless us all, Shalom!

The Frisco Kid

At June 27, 2007 at 6:49:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

people, people please!!

1)the analogy to hamas was inappropriate and
2)may have caused meshuganas like jane and frisco to comment.
3)while it may be enlightening to read the twisted ignorance of ladyjane is it ok to maintain such stuff on a holy blog?
4)the question of to what extent jews conceal identity is a very very valuable and important question and the dialogue should continue.

At June 27, 2007 at 6:51:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

when i come to the a simple jew blog i am looking for light,hope, comfort and upliftment.

let the crazies go elsewhere to comment...meaning islamists and messy jews.


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