Author Archives: Raysh Weiss

Raysh Weiss

About Raysh Weiss

Raysh Weiss is a freelance filmmaker and musician based in Minneapolis. She is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches film and cultural studies.

Haredim (Charedim)

Haredim are perhaps the most visibly identifiable subset of Jews today. They are easy to spot–haredi men in black suits and wide-brimmed black hats, haredi women in long skirts, thick stockings, and headcoverings–but much harder to understand.

Indeed, the history, beliefs, and practices of these devout Jews remain a mystery to many who live outside their cloistered communities. The word “haredi” is a catchall term, either an adjective or a noun, which covers a broad array of theologically, politically, and socially conservative Orthodox Jews, sometimes referred to as “ultra-Orthodox.” What unites haredim is their absolute reverence for Torah, including both the Written and Oral Law, as the central and determining factor in all aspects of life. Consequently, respect and status are often accorded in proportion to the greatness of one’s Torah scholarship, and leadership is linked to learnedness.
Haredi Man
In order to prevent outside influence and contamination of values and practices, haredim strive to limit their contact with the outside world, avoiding, as much as possible, both non-haredi Jews and non-Jews. Interaction with outsiders is generally confined to basic economic contact and unavoidable public interactions, such as going to the post office. However, certain groups of haredim, notably, but not exclusively, members of Chabad Lubavitch, do make contact with non-haredi Jews for the purpose of kiruv–encouraging others to adopt more stringent religious observance.

The First Haredim

The haredi phenomenon is relatively recent, though its precise origins can be difficult to trace.

In the 19th century, with the spread of industrialization and urbanization, the barriers that once kept Jews out of European society were loosened. The consequent emergence of a new, more worldly kind of Jew prompted a defensive backlash which led to the birth of an extremely conservative, anti-secular, isolationist expression of Judaism. Major haredi leaders of this era included prominent Eastern European rabbinic figures such as Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821) and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, also known as the Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933).

Himmel Signaln

Last summer, while I was in New York researching and studying Yiddish, I decided to check out the cultural offerings of Hasidic Williamsburg. The highlight of this jaunt into the living world of Yiddish was a trip to a bookstore on Lee Street, the neighborhood’s main artery.

Not surprisingly, there was an impressive, if daunting, array of leather-bound holy books lining the walls of this crowded little store. But the store also carried material for children, including a Yiddish version of Monopoly. Even more unusual was the selection of refrigerator magnets, including ones featuring the stern face of a rabbi with a mystical inscription which, if used properly, promised to repel mice and rats.

The Real Highlight

Perhaps my most exciting discovery was a simple, hard bound book entitled Himmel Signaln (Sky Signs), a Hasidic response to the events of September 11, 2001. Hasidic Take on 9/11

The book’s cover illustration is a low-resolution, poorly Photoshopped depiction of the World Trade Center devastation on 9/11, or, as the book would have it, the devastation of “21 Elul.” Indeed, the subtitle of the book reads: The Survivors and Martyrs of the 21 Elul (“September 11”) Tragedy. September 11 is set off by quotation marks, making it clear which reckoning of time is legitimate. The writer and publisher of the book is a rather mysterious entity designated as “Yud Yud Samech” (in Hebrew characters). 

Interpreting Divine Providence

Opening this book, one enters into something of an alternate reality. Before even reaching the table of contents, the reader is confronted by an advertisement for authentic “Rabbi Meir Baal Ha’Nes Pushkes” (tzedakah boxes). And yes, they accept Visa and MasterCard.

Immediately following the ad page, there is a genuinely touching two-page acknowledgement of valued, righteous community members that perished in the attacks. Two victims are mentioned by name, with brief biographical sketches included.

Making 9/11 A Mayseh

While Himmel Signaln contains a history of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the bulk of the text consists of personal accounts of various people who were miraculously saved from the 9/11 attacks. Each survivor story reads like a mayseh (a fantastic tale usually imparting some moral or educational function). The stories often begin, “Mr. So-and-So, a ba’al torah and mitzvos [a phrase that suggests the person is a religiously observant Jew] from New Jersey…” and then proceeds to explain the miracle of his survival on 9/11.