LYNDHURST, New Jersey — It’s a stressful time to be visibly Jewish in certain pockets in America.
On December 10, two shooters murdered three people inside a kosher grocery store in Jersey City before themselves being killed in a gunfight with police. Days later, Grafton Thomas stormed into a rabbi’s home in Rockland County, New York, during a Hanukkah celebration and stabbed five people with a machete. And, as of late, there have been near weekly reports of verbal and physical assaults on ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York City’s Brooklyn borough and elsewhere.
Over coffee at the kosher Patis Bakery, located about 10 miles from the scene of the supermarket attack, Yeshiva University professor and New Jersey resident Moshe Krakowski tells The Times of Israel that Jewish communities in the Tri-state area are “terrified.”
“My 13-year-old daughter can’t sleep at night,” Krakowski says. “She’s terrified about an attack. She sees it on the news, and she hears about it.”
Behind him sit trays of pastel macarons, strawberry glazed croissants, and other confections. It’s a carousel of colors at odds with the somber matter at hand: the surge of violent anti-Semitic attacks against those whom the associate professor describes, using the Hebrew term for ultra-Orthodox, as “American haredi.”
Krakowski grew up in Chicago and attended Orthodox Jewish school before graduating from the University of Chicago with a degree in philosophy. He went on to earn a PhD in learning sciences from Northwestern University.
Now he commutes from his home in Passaic, New Jersey, to the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights where he directs Yeshiva University’s Azrieli master’s program in Jewish education and administration.
Fluent in Yiddish and English, Krakowski, who is Orthodox, has spent more than 15 years researching various ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic communities.
“I’m sort of half in and half out myself. I went to American haredi schools as a kid, I speak Yiddish. My kids go to yeshivish [non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox] schools,” says the 41-year-old Krakowski.
This gives Krakowski a unique perspective on how these communities are portrayed and how those perceptions feed anti-Semitism.
“There are so many antiquated notions about American haredi. So much of the coverage… plays into cultural perceptions that feeds anti-Semitic violence,” he says.
The following conversation was edited for clarity.
Times of Israel: How is the anti-Semitism directed at the American ultra-Orthodox community the same, and how is it different, from what other American Jews are experiencing?
Krakowski: Number one, just being visibly Orthodox. If you’re a Modern Orthodox woman people might not know at all. If you’re a Modern Orthodox man you might not wear your yarmulke at work, or you might wear a baseball cap, and nobody would know. But if you’re wearing a shtreimel [rounded fur hat] and a long frock, you’re visible everywhere you go. That puts you at risk.
Number two, Hasidic communities are treated like they’re the Other. When other communities move into a neighborhood, people don’t say “they’re invading.” People don’t use that language in newscasts. Here they do.
Number three, lots of communities vote in lockstep, they vote their interests. That’s not just an American haredi thing. Yet, when they do it, it’s seen as some special political power. That has overtones of anti-Semitic tropes of Jews pulling strings to control their neighbors.
Going back to the question of language. Some of those words, such as “invasion,” are being used against immigrants from, say, South and Central America.
Absolutely. There is a legitimate discussion to be had about immigration and immigration laws, but that’s not what you’re hearing [about immigrants from South and Central America]. You’re hearing “they’re threatening our way of life; they’re changing the character of our community.”
It’s exactly the same sort of thing regarding the American haredi communities — people have very xenophobic attitudes.
So do you think there can be legitimate criticism and discussion of particular policies and practices without crossing into the realm of anti-Semitism?
I think saying “then it crosses over” is a mistake. Theoretically, it’s possible for people to be motivated by real issues, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening here.
It’s like with criticism of Israel. A good rule of thumb is if you’re calling out Israel for something you’re not concerned about in any other context, then your problem isn’t the issue. Your problem is with Israel and the Jews. Likewise, if you weren’t concerned about churches or housing before, but then you quickly enact certain laws because the Jews are coming in, it’s clear those issues were never your concern. Your concern is you think the Jews are going to destroy your way of life.
Do you think the perceptions of less religious Jewish communities impact the situation?
I think part of the reason this has become normalized is unfortunately some Jews speak negatively about the American haredi. They might say “these people are embarrassing,” or “these people are not behaving the right way,” or “wake up and join the 21st century.” At the same time, they will say “I share ethnicity with them, I’m Jewish too, so I can’t be anti-Semitic.” This gives a pass to everyone. It helps normalize tropes that have been used against Jews for literally centuries.
I think part of the reason this has become normalized is unfortunately some Jews speak negatively about the American haredi
How does press coverage play a role?
They don’t report on the Hasidic community the way they do other communities. Look at last year’s measles coverage. And if you’re a low consumer of news your impression of Hasidim would be they are all slumlords and sexual abusers. That’s crazy. It’s a regular community like everybody else, but it’s portrayed as a community of rich slumlords living off the state and taking tons of money from public funds. Somehow people believe the contradiction.
These are modern communities that are very proud to be American. That never comes out in the coverage.
What other factors might contribute to portrayals of Hasidic communities that fuel anti-Semitism?
There are are a lot of people who grow up in Hasidic communities who leave. There are aspects of Hasidic life that aren’t for everybody. They are wonderful communities, but they’re also very rigid in ways that can be difficult for some people.
Some go on to write books, and now there’s a whole subgenre of books: the “tell-all life of the ex-Hasid.” Because the community is inaccessible to outsiders, these stories are the only ones people have access to. These stories frame a narrative about the community that gives legitimacy to the tropes and generalizes the community.
What’s been the reaction about the mainstream media coverage regarding the most recent attacks?
People wondered why nobody cared
I think people were really grateful that finally somebody is listening — particularly in Brooklyn this [violence] has been going on for two or three years. Nobody outside the Jewish press was covering it. It would be like a two-second news item and then over. Nobody was concerned about it, it wasn’t going on national news. People wondered why nobody cared.
After the Hanukah attack in Monsey, non-Haredi Jews came to show solidarity.
That was wonderful.
Yet there doesn’t seem to be many Hasidim speaking out against anti-Semitic acts against, say, a Conservative or Reform synagogue.
You can imagine if you’re of a more liberal denomination that’s extremely hurtful. “I would come to your thing, why can’t you come to my thing? Why can’t you stand up for my thing?”
Sometimes the Haredi interpretation of Jewish law prevents people from doing things they might really want to do. Just like someone might want to go to a simcha [special occasion], but his rabbi says you can’t go to the [non-Orthodox] ceremony, only the dinner. People might feel tremendous solidarity and empathy for their fellow Jews, but their interpretation of the law is that participating in a rally, or joining together in any public way is forbidden because it can be perceived as giving legitimacy to a branch of Judaism that is — in their view — heretical.
For example, after [the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in] Pittsburgh, and again on the first anniversary, there were articles and commemorations in all of the Haredi magazines and papers that I saw, even though they didn’t participate in any of the public events. It’s not because they didn’t feel solidarity, but because of their understanding of the law. I can’t say for sure, but I imagine if there was an attack in a context that wasn’t a religious institution — a Jewish store or something — even though the victims might be Conservative, Reform, or unaffiliated, they would have shown up in support.
I would add that this is not my perspective on the law, and that when it comes to something like an anti-Semitic attack it is incumbent on all Jews to stand together — but then again, I am not part of that community, and I can’t dictate the religious beliefs of other people.
So how do you change that picture?
It’s hard. I know there are a lot of good faith people trying to bridge the gap, but again some people in the communities are afraid to let people inside.
Also, these communities are a little bit insular, and most outsiders don’t speak Yiddish, and many [in the communities] don’t speak English well. So there aren’t too many people who can say this is what life is like in these communities. One reason I’ve written some op-eds is because these communities are not being portrayed accurately. They have good and bad things just like other places.
Do these communities feel the anti-Semitism coming from the right and the left?
Yes. There is a perfect storm right now of many factors. There seems to be something in our society that is allowing these ideas to intensify.
Trump is a complicated thing because on the one hand a lot of Orthodox Jews really like him for their perception of his support for Israel, but at the same time he gives press passes to virulent anti-Semites. He’s winking at anti-Semitism.
On the left Louis Farrakhan has gained pronounced influence. He was gone for years but recently his profile has grown. And if you don’t know better, if you don’t know anyone Jewish, you just sort of accept what he says.
It’s a scary time. On the one hand, Jews have never had it better. On other hand, they are under daily attack. It’s a paradox, but it’s true.