Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - "Heimishe" Racism

(Picture courtesy of

What is it about all of humanity being betzelem Elokim (in the image of G-d) that people don't understand?

I'm an American kid, so I can tell you that moving to Boro Park as a teenager was quite a culture shock. So many things were new and different, most for the better, but the mentality, the norms, the values and thought process was so foreign, that even now – many years later – I haven't really adjusted to it. Instead, over time, I learned to appreciate some things, make peace with other things, and I shake my head about the rest. However, now, raising a family, these issues tend to reach closer to home.

One of the cultural shockers is overt racism. Distain for people and belief systems that oppose Yiddishkeit I can understand, but the old-fashioned, peasant-like, uncivilized and coarse commonly accepted hatred and speech regarding other races can be more than just disgusting. Obviously, not everyone is this way, but it is prevalent enough that it is tolerated by even those that do not share the view. I've heard the ugliest terms and opinions about other races in all kinds of places, and 99% of the time nobody objects. I've had debates and arguments – some quite heated – on a number of occasions, but they just don't get it. I generally walk away in disgust.

But the real problem is that my children go to Yeshiva and live in this culture in a way that I never did and never will. How do I make sure that the negatives won't come along with the (many) positives? I have had the sit-down meeting with each of my older children when they have uttered a disgustingly racist word or idea – heard in school from classmates or even teachers or faculty members; they didn't even realize there was anything wrong with it. I sit down with them and we discuss it. We discuss the right and wrong of it; we discuss the concept of tolerance, we discuss what goes into choosing words when we speak. We discuss how to deal with people that we like or respect that may do things that are wrong. We discuss the way the Torah addresses these issues (for those interested let me recommend Rabbi Sears's Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition.) I never hear anything like it again, and I'm sure I'll eventually have the same meetings with my younger children.

But I know that it's probably going to be somewhat of a losing battle – because, more than a word it's the attitude. The matter is further complicated by the reality that it's simply not as easy to develop racial tolerance or respect when living in neighborhoods where the non-Jewish neighbors tend to be hostile and vulgar. When children are verbally accosted, regularly exposed to the most uncivilized behavior, not to mention stolen bikes and the like, it can be quite a task to convince them that their classmates (or possibly authority figures) are getting it wrong. Unfortunately, we often come in contact with the lowest classes of society which gives off the impression that they represent all non-Jews, etc. The attitudes are clearly influences by the day to day realities that Jews regularly deal with here – and racist attitudes become the norm.

I must clarify that "heimishe" racism isn't about violence; I've never heard someone express a desire to take up any action, even if they themselves were materially damaged in some way. And other than the occasional individual caught in the commission a crime (in which case, Hashem yerachem), it's not common to hear anyone express a desire that any violent action be taken up – nevertheless, the hatred is there. So, while I know I can't change the guy that told me he wouldn't call them "" if they didn't act like it," and I can't change the guy that told me he wishes, "they were wiped of the face of the Earth" – I have wasted enough time debating these morons – and I realize that the 20 year old Klausenberger camp counselor that teaches the bunk a song with the line about slapping the goy in the face (which obviously gets an easy laugh from the kids) isn't going to change into a better person, I can continue to speak with my children and complain to administrators, and maybe sometimes it'll make a difference. I can't change the overall attitudes; I know, but in my area of influence, I can still try.


At May 16, 2007 at 8:55:00 AM EDT, Blogger Alice said...

It sounds like you are doing many things right. (I'm raising my first child who is only 21 months, so you are ahead of me in terms of experience.) It can feel overwhelming to worry about what he's exposed to. Like most people I feel better when I focus on the fact that I CAN control how I behave and he will copy his parents most of all.

It seems like it all comes down to self control. Evil speech is nefarious because it's so contagous, so the trick is figuring out ways of thinking about the ugly (and the beautiful) that allow us to remain above the fray. Of course that's the project of a lifetime. Wish me luck!

At May 16, 2007 at 10:33:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good luck to us all!

At May 16, 2007 at 10:47:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CE: You've written a beautiful, sensitive post, and I hope ASJ's readers take it seriously and meditate on it. You've made some important points.

The insularity of many Chassidic communities is meant to isolate and shield their members from the influences of the outside world. Although it allows unfettered expression of Yiddishkeit, that same isolation can lead to ugly racism and an "us vs. them" mentality, as you've shown.

My experience, growing up in a New England community where Jews and blacks were distinct minorities, was quite the opposite. I was taught that these two groups had both suffered slavery and discrimination and that they ought to support one another, in a spirit of brotherhood and common interest, in the fight for equal rights.

My husband and I chose to settle in Baltimore in a racially mixed, lower-middle-class suburban neighborhood (at the time, 30 years ago, it was perhaps 50% black, 30% Chassidic/Orthodox, and 20% "other"; since the Jews in our neighborhood sent their children to private schools, my kids were usually the only whites, and only Jews, in their public school classes). My children quickly learned that "people are people" everywhere, and there is good and bad in any group. Yes, some of their classmates were vulgar and coarse, but others were sensitive, intelligent, and refined. My children knew blacks as individuals, not stereotypes, and, like their parents, race played no part in the choice of their friends. (Actually, that last statement is not exactly true: they thought that most of their classmates at Hebrew school were shallow and spoiled, although they made friends there, too.) And, by the way, my children turned out great (if I do say so myself): as adults, they are refined in their tastes and compassionate in their relationships with all members of humanity. My daughter remains devoted to Judaism; my son is less consistent in his practice, but again, my children are individuals.

My point here is that there is great benefit in living in a mixed community rather than a homogeneous, isolated one. Getting to know individuals of other races and religions promotes an understanding of what makes us human, not just what makes us different. Although you may choose to live in an all-Jewish neighborhood, it won't "corrupt" you to get to know your neighbors.

At May 16, 2007 at 10:58:00 AM EDT, Blogger DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

This has really been an issue for me too. One thing I think about often is the Rebbeinu Yona that quotes the Gemara at the beginning of Pesachim regarding using a lashon naki. It says that the Torah went out of it's way to add extra letters to the expression "habeheima asher einena tehora" to Noach when referring to the non-kosher animals. Rebbeinu Yona says there that the reason why Hashem said that longer lashon naki in the Torah is because He was referring to animals which were, at the time, food. Bnei Noach obviously do not have the isurim of kashrus, so they ate these non kosher animals. And the Torah didn't want, in any way at all, to speak dispairingingly about animals meant for human consumption. It's simply and totally not bakavodik to speak that way. He takes it to the next level and says that if the Torah is teaching us that we shouldn't even use slightly dispairaging word choice when referring to food, how much the more so we must never using dispairaging words about other human beings. Non-Jews of other races are certainly and obviously on a higher level than food, in olam hazeh, and therefore they deserve at least the same respect. Based on that, it is totally wrong to speak derogatory words about brios.

Whether or not many of them act in ways which debase and disrespect their own humanity, it is immaterial. We are bnei Avraham, Yitzchak, and ought to respect their humanity irrespective of their behavior.

I am one of the people who usually says nothing when some of the less aggregious forms of racism manifest themselves in people around me. Why? I guess it's a matter of knowing how to pick your battles. It's about priorities. It's bad but I think there are other things that are more important in the hierarchy.

Hope these thoughts are useful. Thanks for the post on this important topic Chabakuk Elisha. I'll have to remember to talk to my kids about it too because my oldest is also starting to get to an age where she might start picking up bad habits in this arena.

-Dixie Yid

At May 16, 2007 at 11:02:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

See here

At May 16, 2007 at 12:16:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CE: What do you think about racism towards baaley tshuvo?

At May 16, 2007 at 12:37:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Yid,
I havent been really exposed to it, so I can't comment on it. However, I would say that it falls under the category of undeniable sinas chinum wherever it exists...

At May 16, 2007 at 12:39:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have never heard either of my parents say a racist word about anybody. We raised our kids (now in their 20's) in the same spirit, and I have not heard any of that from them either. During much of their childhood, and now, we have lived in racially mixed urban or suburban neighborhoods.

However, I have heard racially derogatory words or worse said by some Jews I've known or even respected. This still comes as a shock whenever it happens. To be charitable, I sometimes think to myself that the speaker might have grown up in the inner city and had some personal racial run-ins. But the reality is that such coarse speech is often found out in the suburbs, too.

I am amused whenever I see in print some claim that "shvartze", "goy", etc., are not derogatory terms. While maybe that's so in the abstract, the words' actual usage in our world on our streets is always derogatory. Other words in use, such as "shkotzim", are even further over the line. It's an odd mentality that delights in this kind of group slur.

To value ourselves properly as Jews, a mamleches kohanim in the service of HaShem, we don't have to devalue everybody else.

At May 16, 2007 at 2:06:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Have you noticed that by and large, the more "American" members of the Orthodox community are less racist than those of the more "European" sector?

It seems to me that this is so. The national, religious, and racial divides in European society had a big impact on us -- and the American stress on tolerance has also affected our attitudes. We are not just "Orthodox Jews" -- but also Europeans, Americans, Moroccans, Syrians, etc.; and Torah values are more malleable than we sometimes realize.

Plus here in America we are able to get to know people of other races far better than we did in Europe or the Middle East, including converts to Judaism from other races. This has led to a greater degree of tolerance and even brotherhood, not the opposite.

Our family knows at least a dozen black and oriental gerim, many of whom have shared Shabbos meals with us, and these gerim seem to have many friends in the Orthodox world and to have blended harmoniously into frum society.

There are a number of African-American and oriental gerim in the Chassidic world, too.

When I visit Uman on Rosh Hashanah, I also see Jews of all backgrounds, including Ethiopian, oriental, and Indian Jews, and feel that we are all the same and we all make up one Klal Yisrael!

At May 16, 2007 at 2:10:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chabakuk Elisha, coming from your home town, I knew your grandfather, a"h, and I doubt that he ever used a racial epithet in his life. So you are carrying on a family tradition!

At May 16, 2007 at 6:15:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

a mile down the road: I don't think there is a direct relation. For example some Americans have problems with Russians (cold war syndrome I assume), and etc. European chasidim on the other hand new something about ahavas habriyos and etc.

And I think talking about racism - not words are primarily important here (many people are only busy with words), but deeds. (I.e. someone can be very refied in words, but full of "rascism" in reality, like in a story with of one of my friends who tried to send his daughters in one of the "top" schools, where they showed to them (in a "refined" fasion) what they think about baaley tshuvo in general).

At May 16, 2007 at 9:10:00 PM EDT, Blogger der ewige Jude said...

I certainly don't want to be an apologist for those who direct unfounded hatred at the Jewish people, but look at your own words:

Distain for people and belief systems that oppose Yiddishkeit I can understand, but the old-fashioned, peasant-like, uncivilized and coarse commonly accepted hatred and speech regarding other races can be more than just disgusting.

If you have a culture that accepts and promotes "distain" as the proper attitude to take towards those who do not understand or follow, or may even dislike, your particular belief system, then that in itself is going to promote racisim and those feeling will be picked up by the "other" and returned in greater measure.

At May 16, 2007 at 10:20:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Any holy middah or character trait can produce a negative offshoot -- at least as long as we live in a world where klippos also must exist.

It is actually a mitzvah to speak disparagingly of avodah zara. I suspect that's was CE was referring to.

To be sure, this gets tricky. "Belief systems" are not morally or spiritually "pareve," and all religions and credos must take a stand against what they take to be false or evil.

Yet at the same time we must be on guard not to utterly negate the Other, just because we stand opposed today. People change, and tomorrow it may be another story!

At May 17, 2007 at 7:31:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was in Yeshiva I thought that Jews were smarter than goyim. I doubt this was overtly taught but it was certainly implicitly taught. Then I joined the work force and met some brilliant goyim. That burst my bubble. Don't Chazal say, Chachma bagoyim taamin.

At May 17, 2007 at 8:24:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Smashed Hat is talking above about beliefs, but this discussion was about racial or ethnic identity.

At May 17, 2007 at 9:01:00 AM EDT, Blogger Yaacov David Shulman said...

Rav Kook (translated by Yaacov Dovid Shulman):

Great is my love for all created beings, for all creation. Heaven forbid that I should put into my heart even a small splinter of hostility, of hatred toward others. I feel within my entire being my great love for all creatures—in particular for human beings and in more elevated measure for the children of Israel, and a number of degrees of holiness [higher] for those who fear Hashem, who keep the Torah and mitzvah—and that much more for those wise in learning.

I do not desire the denigration of the honor of any human being. I want everyone to rise, everyone to gain honor, be elevated and glorified. I must recognize my inner will, the point of the desire of my soul, so that I may know how to direct my path, ever upward.

Chadarav, p. 175

At May 17, 2007 at 12:29:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

personally...I would move. All the rights in the world can not excuse a wrong such as hatrid and bigotry. And children are so easily influenced.

At May 17, 2007 at 3:27:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Minor point

Since youve recently moved to BP, you should know there was a time when the neighborhood was not so frum, when there were more "centrist O" than ultra O, when the biggest shul in the area was Conservative, and there was a small but vibrant "Progressive" presence.

At May 17, 2007 at 11:39:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I was responding to Ewige Jud's quote from Chabukuk Elisha which EW found fault with.

I was not trying to shift the discussion. Just trying to explain that disdain is not always bad. And that virtually all things have a positive side and a negative side.

For example "azus" -- "holy stubborness." In Breslov, this gets a lot of emphasis. But Reb Noson also adds that if a person uses azus in a self-serving manner and not l'shem Shomayim -- it turns into the worst sort of egotism. And as the Mishnah states: "Az Panim le-Gehinnom!"

At May 18, 2007 at 11:10:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

disdain is a very active word. It implies teaching of disdain, acting with disdain.
Stubberness is refusal to let yourself, or your family succomb to commonality, to assimilation.
There is a big difference.
There is no excuse for hate or teaching children to take 'hitting a goy' or using the n** word for granted. Similar to letting your children watch movies and tv and calling it ok, 'they won't pick up anything.' It is wrong, wrong, wrong.

At May 20, 2007 at 2:29:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


We are halachically mandated to regard avodah zara with disdain. We are supposed to refer to the objects of idolatry in a disrespectful manner, too.

And yet we are supposed to treat other human beings respectfully. The Meiri mentions that we should even wish non-Jews who are idolaters a "happy holiday," despite our disagreement with their religious beliefs -- because this is simple human decency.

That's all I'm trying to say about the pros and cons of disdain!

At June 14, 2007 at 12:20:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the book "Orot," Orot Yisrael chapter 5, article 10 (page 156), Rabbi Kook wrote: "The difference between the Jewish soul, in all its independence, inner desires, longings, character and standing, and the soul of all the Gentiles, on all of their levels, is greater and deeper than the difference between the soul of a man and the soul of an animal, for the difference in the latter case is one of quantity, while the difference in the first case is one of essential quality."

Now that we are talking about racism/xenophobia, how could somebody
like Rav Kook get away with saying this?
Does anyone know if anybody provided a
responsa or commented?

Thank you!

At March 22, 2008 at 4:57:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wasn't there a debate in the talmud: r' akiva said the biggest thing was love your fellow as yourself, but another rav said it was the "these are the generations of adam...(genesis 5:1)... and that rav won because "these are the generations of adam" applies to everybody...not just to "your fellow".

At September 6, 2008 at 9:25:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To expand on Anon's last point:
R' akiva said the biggest thing was love your fellow as yourself, but another rav (Ben Azzai) said it was the "these are the generations of adam...(genesis 5:1)... and that rav won because "these are the generations of adam" applies to everybody...not just to "your fellow".

This is in the Sifre (rather than Talmud) and other places too and yes, absolutely hits the nail on the head.

The point about Ben-Azzai's fundamental principle of Torah is found by continuing on reading Genesis 5:1

5:1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made He him;

5:2 male and female created He them

So the principle underlies the Jewish idea of the intrinsic Godliness of every human being male or female of whatever religion or race....which is of course where this post began.


At February 20, 2013 at 5:50:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think many may be acting overly sensitive about this subject. First of all, in response to what another commenter said, goy is not a derogatory word any more than yid is. In other words, it's not at all.
Secondly, we have to consider what Goyim say about us behind closed doors. Spreading articles like this allow people to think that we're the real, bigoted villains and that events like the Crown Heights Riots were justified. I would have to disagree with the notion that these are innocent people who don't have any disdain for Yiddishkeit who are being discriminated against. I would say most of them do hate, or at least fear our discipline.
Finally, this idea that you consider to be racism helps to prevent intermarriage and assimilation without a doubt. I would venture to say it is a major stabilizing factor in the Orthodox community.


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