Friday, September 3, 2010

A Kiryas situation

I'm sure you've already seen this one:

KIRYAS JOEL, N.Y. (CBS 2) – You may never see a more unusual “Welcome” sign in Orange County.

A sign in Kiryas Joel, the Hasidic Jewish enclave, is evoking mixed reaction.

Monroe resident Jessica Pantalemon stopped to cash a check in Kiryas Joel wearing a bright pink tank top and white shorts. She said she noticed scowling faces. [...]

The tradition in the village of Satmar Hasidic Jews is modesty. Even on the hottest of days, most residents cover up from head to toe. But visitors don’t necessarily follow that tradition, and now the main synagogue is asking them to comply.

Congregation Yetev Lev posted signs at the village’s entrance – in both English and Spanish – asking outsiders to cover their legs and arms, use appropriate language and maintain gender separation in public.

“It’s a way of respect,” said one resident.

In fact, most residents say it’s simply a polite reminder to respect the local culture, and many visitors take the signs in that spirit. [...]

But the sign struck a sour note with some.

“They’re telling us that we can’t come into their community unless we dress a certain way,” said Adia Parker, an Orange County resident.

To be honest, what I found most interesting about this story was not the story itself, but the comments at the link above (disclaimer: I haven't read all 729 of them. Further disclaimer: I've read pretty darned close to all 729 of them...). The comments seem to divide along these four lines:

1. There is no problem with the sign, which is merely a polite request to all visitors to cover themselves and maintain gender separation as the residents do. Too many Americans dress like slobs anyway, and a little modesty and respect for the local culture is not a bad thing for visitors to display. There is nothing particularly threatening or un-American about the town's choice to post its rules and standards, which don't have the force of law anyway and are thus not coercive or dangerous at all.

2. There is a huge problem with the sign, which, though worded as a polite request, displays a Taliban-like sense of oppressiveness toward those who do not follow the townsfolk's religion. Imagine if the exact same sign were posted in a Muslim, fundamentalist Christian, or Mormon town--would people shrug and talk about respecting the local culture? The sign may not have the force of law now, but the people of Kiryas Joel would probably prefer it if it did, and that shows why it is un-American and dangerous to respect such a request. Essentially, the sign tells anyone who is not a member of the Satmar Hasidic community that they are really, really not welcome unless they're willing to cover themselves in shapeless garments and walk in gender-separate groups, the women, eyes downcast, ten paces behind the men--and why should anyone who isn't a resident of the town have to do any such thing?

3. The sign falls somewhere between the problematic and the non-problematic. The sign is on private property, and is governed by the laws of free speech. The predominantly Satmar Hasidic town has the right to express what their values are, and even to request that visitors respect these values. On the other hand, visitors have the right to dress within the ordinary legal standards (e.g., obeying the actual laws of the area regarding decent covering) and to ignore the request to dress in a manner pleasing to the Satmar Hasidim. If they suffer any illegal discrimination for not being dressed or behaving as the sign suggests while visiting Kiryas Joel, however, then they should complain to the proper agency.

4. Monroe resident Jessica Pantalemon (pictured in the article) has a very nice caboose.

Okay, so nobody actually used the word "caboose," but you get the point; I include that fourth category of comments because a) there actually were many, many of those comments, and b) because one of the side-effects of doing one's banking in a tank top and very short shorts in the Internet age is that one's picture might end up on the Internet, and totally strange men might make rather creepy personal comments about the shape of one's posterior. It's something that the young, athletically fit women of one's acquaintance should be warned about (since we older, less fit women are more likely to end up being laughed at on that "people of Wal-mart" site than we are to have strangers making creepy comments about us in the highly unlikely event that we were to venture outside of our homes wearing anything even half as abbreviated as Ms. Pantalemon's chosen banking outfit).

But as for the other three summaries of the main points commenters were making (over and over again)...I don't know. I really don't. Part of my dilemma is that I got curious about the Satmar Hasidic communities, and right away in Googling about them ran into some blogs or forum posts written by women who have left those communities and who now allege abusive behavior, dysfunctional family experiences, and many other types of problems they experienced during their life inside the community--which is the same sort of thing you can find from ex-FLDS women, ex-members of fundamentalist Christian communities, and even from Muslim women who have left extremist groups. Do I know, for a fact, that women who have left Satmar Hasidic groups really were abused or mistreated? No, of course I don't. But hearing such stories makes it harder to see the sign in a totally benign light.

What do you think? Have any of you visited Kiryas Joel? Would you visit it, if you had to dress as the sign suggests and walk apart from your husband or wife?


MacBeth Derham said...

We have driven through, my husband and I, in the same car. I think I was driving...I usually am, and he was sitting next to me. We didn't get out, but we were surely not gender-separated.

I have no problem with the sign, the dress code, or the people who politely request that their standards be respected. I think the comments about the scantily dressed lady prove that people can become so distracted by the way a person bares (nearly) all that they miss the point of discussion.

Funny, but in our own neighborhood, she does not look out of place, but in K-J she looks like a prostitute.

I think I saw one woman in the video wearing my favorite woolen cardigan, which I have carefully stored for winter use only. Gasping at the layers of clothes (and the wigs!) in this heat! But then, there is a woman up the street who wears a full burka year-round.

Anonymous said...

Without looking at the article, nor having every observed this type of community, I can only assume that it is unAmerican to have a community where only one form of religion is practiced, if the land is owned by others of different faiths. But, then I think of the 'dry' and 'wet' villages of the bush in Alaska, and realize there is a force of law in different localities.

JMB said...

Yes, I live about 30 minutes away from Monroe, NY. I don't know how to say this without sounding like an anti-semite, but this group has ruined the town of Monroe, NY, which at one point, had a large population of NYPD and FDNY and their families. What they do is buy up all the property, with cash, and everybody who is not of their sect will leave. They've sued the NY state over the school system and I believe they lost- but this has been going on for years. Nobody can say anything against them because they will be branded as an anti-semite. There is a lot of child abuse and sexual abuse in the community. It's sickening.

L. said...

If I were going as a guest to someone's house, or place of worship, etc., I would conform to local standards as a sign of respect for my hosts.

But if I were going to a public place to conduct my own business, I would not conform -- I would dress according to my own (relatively modest) standards, and would simply ignore any negative reactions.

If residents purposely made me feel uncomfortable, I would certainly take my business elsewhere, as is my right -- and theirs.

Nicole said...

I would probably simply stay away. I would not have a problem changing my dress to respect a local culture within the bounds of reason (e.g. appropriate for the weather), and going only by the dress guidelines on the sign, I could probably manage doing what they ask in this case. But then, with this sign they so clearly say that if you do not dress for our community you are not welcome, and I generally have a problem going to places where I'm not wanted. And I most certainly would not maintain gender segregation.

Alice said...

I probably wouldn't go there unless I had business there. I don't really have problems with the modesty guidelines because they are only a little more stringent than the guidelines for things like jury duty. The gender segregation would be a bit more problematic for me for lots of reasons.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Put me down for #3. I don't really mind that they let people know what their standards are, and politely request people to conform. After that, its up to me whether I do or not. They actually had a deal worked out with NY state about the school district -- boundaries carved out to exactly match their area -- but the U.S. Supreme Court, correctly I think, ruled that unconstitutional.

I worry about any religious sect becoming the dominant political power of any jurisdiction. Even in Israel, there is tension between "secular Jews" and strict orders like the Satmars, and there are several shades in between. It is difficult for people whose faith calls for unusual and pervasive standards, so I don't even mind they want to live in close proximity to each other. After all, they have to live in walking distance of the synagogue. But they can't have their own legal domain. That's no different than a Muslim community saying they should be allowed some version of Shariah, just for them -- whatever Shariah may mean to them, since there are dozens of interpretations.

Anonymous said...

I'm with JMB. Unless you live in/near them, you just cannot believe how crazy they are.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, I'm still within a hour of there and what they did in parts of Brooklyn is what they're doing in Monroe. (My mother was in real estate; the cash/push-out-the-local-community are true and very, very nasty when you hear inside stories of what went on...)

There were always stores in heavily ultra-Orthodox areas that wouldn't serve me because I was a shiksa, but we knew enough not to go into those stores. You just lived separately because that's what they insisted upon.

And there always has been scandal/fighting in Kiryas Joel, both with the surrounding community and among themselves. They often try to out-Hasid each other, in dress, practice, etc. And, at least in Brooklyn, they hold a tremendous amount of political clout. They get all kinds of federal/city perks simply because they fight for them; sometimes they get them legally and sometimes they don't, but no one goes after them or you'll end up the biggest anti-semite in the pages of the NYTimes.


Lauretta said...

I would guess that it would depend on a few things. If they are totally independent and receive absolutely no public money for anything, then they might be able to do what they want and expect everyone else to follow suit. But our Catholic hospitals and schools are mandated, since they receive public money, to do things they don't want to do, which means they can't make up their own rules, so why should a town be able to make up their own rules?

As far as the potential abuse, I don't think it is implausible. I heard some interesting comments from a midwife about a group of, can't remember if they were Amish, Hutterite, or what, that led me to believe things were not good in their group. Many times groups segregate themselves off for a reason and it can often be a sign of problems.

Anonymous said...

I just read about Kiryas Joel in Wikipedia, and according to the article, this village is private property -- as your post correctly states.

So now people living in America cannot post signs on private property without them becoming part of a public debate? Why is that?

What if this same situation occurred on a Native American reservation? The reservation tribes posess sovereignty; therefore they can make whatever rules they want and post whatever signs they want. Visitors to the reservation must abide by the rules of the tribe.

The same goes for Kiryas Joel, I would imagine.

Moreover, what about Amish communities? Those are private communities also. They are built on private land. They have sovereignty and are exempt from things like sending their kids to public school, or fighting in U.S. wars.

Do people not understand these types of communities? Is ignorance the cause of this debate?

We need to stop getting into other people's business so much. Unless the people of Kiryas Joel are breaking laws in OUR communities, we need to leave them alone.

Anonymous said...

On another topic, as a Wanderer-type, you might be interested in this:

Acerbica said...

If the area is private property, they are certainly welcome to encourage visitors to behave/dress in a manner that is respectful to their way of life. If I went through the trouble of building an "Awesome Community of Intellectual Catholics", I would certainly discourage skanky outfits, PDA, non-heteronormative behavior, etc.

I think the issue is that people are confusing courtesy and law. By the bounds of courtesy, you should dress modestly and behave modestly in public. You might have to up the ante a tad in an extremely modest community/country. By law, you need to cover your private parts. Most of us agree that courtesy demands more than the law.

And Muslims wanting to practice Shariah law is different, since Shariah law is violent, misogynistic, xenophobic, and, in the US, in direct contradiction to our laws and constitution. You can allow some religious groups to practice their own brand of weirdness, while prohibting others. The issue isn't the weirdness, but how that weirdness intersects with human rights.

Acerbica said...

*I use the word "weirdness" with all due respect. :)

Anonymous said...

According to Wikipedia, Acerbica, Shariah law is what a Muslim uses to practice their faith, and thus can defined as how a faithful Muslim practices their religion, therefore, to categorize all Shariah law as violent, misogynistic, xenophobic, etc. is highly incorrect. It would not be unlike saying that an "Awesome Community of Intellectual Catholics" practices include persecution of non-Catholics and those acceptable during the Inquisition, purchasing indulgences and Popedom, and baptising and administering the Eucharist to the dead.

LarryD said...

Erin - this is off-topic - but I tagged you in a meme. Come on over and check it out!

MightyMighty said...

Hey Anonymous,

Just because Shariah is what they use to practice their religion doesn't change it from what it is. Islam is not so much a religion as a political ideology. In order to really be a religion, you have to meet several criteria, including a basic respect for human rights (definitely not in the Q'uran) and being voluntary (again, see their own religious document, infidels are supposed to be murdered, as are apostates (those who leave the faith), and those who break their laws).

The Catholic Church has NEVER been guilty of the abuses that are systemic to Islam.

And for that whole Inquisition thing, that was 90% Spanish government, using the cloth to legitimize what was largely a political purge. Hence the delegate sent by the Vatican to stop the bloodshed being imprisoned, as well as several canonized saints. No doubt it was wrong and horrible, but not only was it never condoned by the Church, it's also not systemic to our faith. Violence IS systemic to a "faith" that requires members to fight a war of Jihad.

In fact,as far as the Church is concerned, free will is everything. In the first three centuries A.D., there was much writing about the concept of free will and its relation to religious choice. Saint Paul says that, “As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned" (Titus 3:10-11). In short, he is arguing that one should leave those who disagree with the Church alone. The influential ecclesiastical writer Tertullian argued in 160 C.E. that, "It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions….It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion-- to which free-will and not force should lead us." (Ad. Scapulam, chap. 2).

Not all religions are equally good. The Catholic Church is the best, as it is the one true church founded by Christ himself. Other churches do contain some truth, but the Catholic Church is a Truth machine.

Anonymous said...

It's a curious situation because Catholics cannot always claim an unsullied path, yet our line of leadership is a mandate to Peter. And, our allegiance in some way is to the historical context of the same leader of those of Hasidic Jewish faith, yet, we try to differentiate our God from that of the Muslim world and claim no association with them as an enemy.

The issues as most human problems is mostly a matter of human interpretation. No religious group wants to annihilate another group and that tactic is not allowed in the US. Jihad can mean anything to a non-muslim as personal responsiblity to family obligations as a matter of intellectual and physical survival to the inner struggle one retains and works to enter Heaven on Judgment Day.

Jews have always endured pogroms even to the extent of genocide, to retain customs of their faith. But, an enclave of believers in the US is still the subject of US governmental force of law and sexual predation to those underage (and others) is a legal matter and a matter of justice. Whether members of the religious group are Amish, Quakers, Sisters of the Precious Blood, Reformed Latter Day Saints, or even Orthodox Eastern Rite, neither can they bypass the law by claiming that the US government is 'anti-Amish', 'anti-Quaker', 'anti-etc.' or even, 'anti-Semite', without due redress.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

Mighty, you are a little confused. There are political ideologies which base themselves upon an interpretation of Shariah. These ideologies are violent, misogynistic, and would kill me, among many others, if they got the chance, so I'm happy to see their active adherents killed whenever they can be taken in arms.

These political ideologies are not Islam, and Islam per se is not a political ideology.

I could say similar things about the Roman Catholic Church, historically speaking. There have been times and places where said church sought and exerted political control, and killed those who questioned this exercise of power. There are still people who espouse the notion that said church should, when and if it can, convert everyone in the United States, or the world, and impose canon law by police powers exercised through secular law. But most Roman Catholics don't adhere to that political ideology, and I'm not even sure the last several Popes aspire to it.

I did link to this post at Gary Fouse's post about Shariah. He responded "Oh God." Someone else advised "Just ignore the signs, most Jews do." I wove this into the obvious "Just ignore the signs some Muslims post, most Muslims do."