Us vs. Them

Us vs. Them

“Parasites! Extremists! Black! Primitive!”

A few years ago, a guest speaker came to talk at my daughters’ National Religious elementary school about stereotypes. He started his talk by asking the girls what characteristics they associate with Charedim…and the words above were, of course, their immediate responses.

My daughter, Hadas, like all of my kids, attended a Charedi nursery school and kindergarten so she spent a few wonderful years of her life in the company of Charedi friends and a loving and phenomenally dedicated Charedi ganenet. She also knows that I have a lot of Charedi friends, whom I love and respect a great deal.

I cannot tell you how proud I was of Hadas when she told me that when the speaker asked this question, she called out, “Love of the Torah! Commitment to Mitzvot! Tsniut! Gemach Lending Societies!”

But even though the classmates’ responses were disturbing, I also know that my community does not have a monopoly on negative stereotypes about our fellow Orthodox Jews.

Every time I have a baby, I spend a few days at a Beit Hachlama, a Charedi Recovery House for women to recuperate post-partum. Before that 1st time at a Beit Hachlama, I called to ask what I should bring along with me. The receptionist answered: “Nothing really, Geveret, just bring along your housecoat and slippers.”

I did not own a housecoat, so I went to a Charedi gemach to pick one up.

The funny thing is that in my housecoat and beret, I look totally Charedi.

In my regular, non-beit hachlama life, I spend a lot of time talking with Charedi mothers around Nachlaot. But I’m always clearly…different.

So when I am at the Beit Hachlama, it is the only time when I can speak with Charedi women as one of the crowd. And while I enjoy 99% percent of these conversations, I also find it jarring and sad to hear the disdain with which certain Charedim talk about “Mizrochnikim” like me when I’m not around (or, at least, when they don’t know “one of them” is around)…

And this is part of why I love Purim.

Admittedly, having a lot of Charedi neighbors and friends makes getting ready for Purim more complicated. I have to make my normal home-made mishlochei manot and also separately package something store-bought Bedatz for the Charedim. This year, between shopping around Geula for the special Bedatz chocolates and teas and candies, and packaging them up pretty, my Charedi MMs added an additional 6 hours to my already time-consuming Purim preparations.

But my Charedi neighbors also provide me with what is possibly my favorite pre-Purim moment….

Every year, for as long as I can remember, the daughters of my Yerushalmi neighbors have been stopping by the week before Purim to borrow denim skirts for their costumes. A tour guide, a waitress, a candy-seller. But, year after year, they dress up — like us.

Years ago, I found a golden Yerushalmi robe for my husband to wear on Purim. He wears it with a bowl-shaped hat and long peyos hanging down to his shoulders. This Purim, when he walked into the small Meah Shearim shul where he davens on Shabbat mornings, the Chassidim nodded respectfully and greeted the “newcomer” in Yiddish. Until they realized that it was just “Yehosheea.” Instead of wearing his regular blue knit kippah and short jacket, he had dressed up like them. His Chassidic buddies were in hysterics.

And walking down Yaffo Street on Purim, I saw Chassidim. But I wasn’t sure. Were they really Chassidim? Or just people dressed up as Chassidim? And I saw soldiers. But were they really soldiers, or just people dressed up as soldiers? And hippies and punks and rabbis. But were they really? Or were they just people dressed up as all those things?

Which made me think about how much I judge people and assume things about them based on what they look like.

Years ago, I received an Email from a frum woman who lives in an exotic location. When I asked her if she worked in Kiruv, she sent back a response that spent several years taped to my computer: “I work in Jewish outreach,” she wrote. “but I don’t call it ‘kiruv,’ since who am I to know who is closer to Hashem, and who is farther away? Maybe the people that I work with are actually the ones who are closer, and not me?”

Purim. The day, once a year, when we put on costumes so that we can see through the ones that we wear all year round.

photo credit: Christina Saint Marche via photopin cc


  1. This is a wonderful post. Thankyou

  2. This reminds me of the video of the blue bloods tv show recording in borough park with actors dressed like the locals and they cant get over the fact that they look just like them but are “mamesh goyim!” To judge someone just by how they dress is so dangerous to me, it reminded me of the reaction of my chassidish coworkers after the Leiby Kletzky tragedy, they could not understand how a Jew could do such a horrible thing, because we all know the story “put on a kippah and someone will help you”. Unfortunately, it seems the chassidish community hasn’t learned not to judge a book by its cover, I still cringe everytime I drive in Monsey and see people trying to hitchhike.

  3. Ruth Shterna

    This is a beautiful article. Instead of focusing on the differences, you and your daughter chose to focus on the positive. It’s absolutely lovely.

  4. Love this
    Grew up modern orthodox with all the negative talk about charedim
    Not sure why we all judge each other but we do
    I wish we could all stop it

  5. “but I don’t call it ‘kiruv,’ since who am I to know who is closer to Hashem, and who is farther away? Maybe the people that I work with are actually the ones who are closer, and not me?”

    That’s what I am also telling always. It’s nice to hear it somewhere else.

    And judging… – it’s one of the main destroyers in life.

    Thank you for this lovely and inspiring article!

  6. You’ve outdone yourself, Chana Jenny!
    Request permission to reprint in the N’shei Chabad Newsletter
    everyone needs to read this

    • wow, that would be fantastic:) thanks Rishe!

    • I agree. Interesting that when I dress up as a biblical figure my daughter says that the ‘real me’ is now showing. What I find scary is when nice kids go way out to dress punk and look very convincing. Does that mean their inner self is waiting to come out? Or are they just using Purim as an avenue of self expression that otherwise is buried? Hope you had a happy Purim.

  7. Bracha Goetz

    Awesome, B’H!!

  8. Debbie Shapiro

    I can only ditto Bracha Goetz — this was really awesome, and so very true. Thank you.

  9. My sister told me that we all dress up as our innermost desires…. Hmm….

    Do they REALLY want to be us?
    Do we REALLY want to be them?!
    Does my husband REALLY want to be a seventies rock star??!!

    Maybe what we all really want is to be at peace with one another, to get to know and appreciate the other side, even when “society” doesn’t allow it…..Hashems desire within all of us for peace, and mashiach!

  10. Gorgeous! I straddle the fence, living in a chareidi community, working in a dati leumi school and wishing all the time that the gap between the two would shorten each day. Thank you for this.

  11. love the article thanks channa jenny. I think the lady who worked in outreach made a very true statement. I always try to keep that in mind when meeting any jew.
    I also think, though, that when people dress, what they are doing is making a statement about who they are. And that statement sure does mean something. Even if it doesn’t mean we can see the whole picture. When someone dresses “mizrochnik” that’s because they want to be “mizrochnik”; be associated with that group of people. Same for chareidi, chassidish, punk, surfer, hippy, whatever it is. Sometimes people fake an identity – it happens what can you do. \
    For the most part, though, people mean what they dress.
    I do see the “mizrochnikim” I’ve met and live in my commmunity have a passion for israel and ahavas yisroel – to me that fits the bill (and I’m chareidi)
    There will always be bad people in any community and any garb. I think the problem starts with stereotypes from places like politics and media, where everyone is always out to get the other.
    I also think that while the split in Israel is too harsh for my liking, there is an important aspect to creating distinction in some instances. For example, although I love my secular family and fellow jews and do not judge anyone for a minute, I want it to be clear to me and my family, that no, that is not our way of life, and its also not ok. We need to do the will of hkb”h.

  12. You know, until now I didn’t even know how you identify yourself, as you do such a good job as disregarding labels as much as possible – a very rare but much needed quality in this beautiful country. Thank you.

  13. Since becoming a BT, I’ve dodged being labeled as ‘one thing’. It’s made my life more complicated in some regards; sometimes I want to get into a box and fit there neatly but I just can’t seem to do it. I live in shades of gray.

    For Purim, I dressed up as ‘nahafochu’ and wore all my clothes inside out. Funny, all the labels on my clothes were protruding. Orthodox, mizrachnik, chassidish, BT, modern, ancient, liberal, conservative, western, inside out, outside in. Whatever you want to see.

    Thank you for another beautifully written heartsong, Chana Jenny.

  14. best post all year Jenny! And so well timed, with the horrible divisiveness caused by Israeli politics these days. We all talk about how we shouldn’t judge and Ahavas Yisrael, but then the politics come out and the hatred just flows.

  15. Sharon Saunders

    I don’t know if we dress up as our inner selves on Purim, but I do know that our inner selves have many aspects. It is nice that Purim gives us the freedom to try one out for a day. And even nicer to see how it feels to be “the other.”

  16. i had fun this purim

    i went to daughter zeesy in west bloomfield, michigan, where she is the young rebbetzin

    and i dressed up as zeesy!

    i wore her wig and shoes and tights

    i wore her kind of clothes (had to buy due to size difference)

    and i put a pic of her on front saying “hello my name is zeesy silberberg”

    i had a blast – not sure why

    i think dressing up as zee gave me her youthful energy and bounce

    hey zee thanks it was fun let’s do it again soon


  17. So wonderful and introspective!

    thanks so much!

  18. Thank you for writing this beautiful article. One of my teachers stated that there’s no such thing as groups really…that when it comes down to it we’re all really individuals in these groups. IyH it will be clear bimheira b’yameinu when Hashem is universally known as echod. Love you writings, glad I found your site, thank you! Kol tov

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