"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of theAscent Quarterly


"I come from a non-observant background, and during my time in Israel have found myself confused by the different varieties of "orthodox" I see on the streets. There are the ones that wear knit skullcaps, with words and designs on them, and dress normally. There are those that only wear black suits and thirties-style gangster fedoras, and have small earlocks. And, of course, those who wear fur hats, tights, and long coats, with really long earlocks. There are even some that look exactly like the hippies I used to see at Grateful Dead concerts, just with headcoverings and those fringes dangling from their shirts. What is this variation in appearance? Does this denote different levels of observance?"

Judaically Challenged Ned


Interestingly, Ned, in your question you delineated four distinct Jewish appearances (hope you don't get too much flak for "male only"!). During Sukkot, we have a mitzvah known as The Four Kinds. It involves assembling an etrog, a lulav, three hadassim and two aravot (for the uninitiated, that's a citron fruit, a date-palm frond, myrtle stalks and willow branches). They are obviously quite different visually. Yet the mitzvah is to join them and shake them as one. Their individual significances can each be analyzed at great length, but we can wait till closer to Sukkot for that. Yet, what is clearly most important is how they combine together for one big mitzvah.

The same applies to the "Four Kinds" of your question. Before we discuss the differences, let's look at what's the same, which is much more essential and, if you scratch beneath the surface, much more predominant. All of these people believe in a Creator who cares, and that there is a purpose to all of existence, including our individual lives and the Jewish people collectively. Furthermore, they all believe that the Torah is an accurate manifestation of the Divine will and wisdom, and therefore there is such a thing as absolute truth and objective good and bad. Perhaps most importantly, they all accept every single one of the 613 do's and don'ts in the Torah, and have integrated them as guiding principles in their lives and daily actions. (Therefore, the Four Sons of the Passover Seder would not be an appropriate analogy here.)

It is true that a highly visible difference between them is the size, shape, texture and color of their headcoverings and other matters of appearance. But is it really appropriate to make that a main focus?

As for differences in observance, it is impossible to generalize based on your four categories, because each one actually contains many many different sub-groups. But again, the differences are mostly minor, and mainly have to do with technical aspects and subtle nuances in custom, rather than any division in the basic understanding of mitzvah observance.

I suppose I can't avoid the sociological labeling any longer. The knitted skullcap crowd covers a large range, anywhere from the minimally orthodox to the Torah scholars of the many "Rav Kook" religious-zionist yeshivas here in Israel. The "gangster" hats and dark suits are worn by those associated with what's called the Lithuanian Yeshivas, and also by Chabad Chassidim. The long coats and earlocks belong mainly to Chassidic groups of Polish and Hungarian origin. As for the "ex-Deadheads," which some of them may actually be, perhaps their position is that if those guys are keeping their Warsaw-style apparel, why shouldn't we wear our cool threads from San Francisco!

So, hey, Ned, don't worry about it too much. It's not really so crucial. You don't really want all Jews to look the same anyway, do you?

Let's not forget, there are real people behind what many perceive as outlandish garb. You can even talk to them. You might find it interesting to ask someone from each group the same question about Judaism from your perspective as a "challenged" member of the tribe and compare their answers.

Better yet, snare a Shabbat invitation from each community. If you like the idea but find it difficult, just let us know. We have lots of good connections everywhere in the world.

Yrachmiel Tilles

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