The article is about the American Syrian Jewish community edict dating back to 1935, which prohibits not merely intermarriage, but marriage to a convert. Actually, I gather from folks that this was one of four articles in the NYT Magazine about rich enclaves. But Chafetz has a serious hard on for the intermarriage issue in particular and spends most of the article discussing it.
The Edict is -- as the article acknowledges, unique in the Jewish world and highly controversial. As a general matter, geirim true converts who accept the "yoke of heaven" and elect to become Jews, are considered to be fully Jewish. Traditionally, Jewish law discourages those who convert for reasons other than a true desire to accept Judaism as for its own sake. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that when the Jews were a powerful nation in the days of David and Solomon, conversions were not permitted for fear that they merely represented an effort to gain material wealth and prosperity (I should add there is no historical basis to believe this actually occurred, but it provides some basis in tradition for the Syrian decree). Even today, most Rabbis (and certainly all those who follow some variation of traditional Judaism) will actively inquire into the convert's motives and expectation, and require a lengthy period under which the convert lives in accordance with Jewish law so that the individual can determine whether this is really the lifestyle he or she wishes to adopt.
So there is certainly plenty of room to debate the nature of "the Edict" as it is called. My problem is with the obvious prejudices the author displays toward traditional Jewish communities generally and the Syrian community specifically. Chafetz doesn't even try to disguise his obvious antipathy for these throwbacks; it oozes out of him in endless snide remarks and broad put downs. Consider this gem:
Enter the rabbis with their Edict, in 1935. They wanted to build an iron wall of self-separation around the community. They couldn't do this the Hassidic way, dressing the men in costumes of ancient design, physically segregating women and making sure that children received nothing in the way of useful secular education. After all, the Syrian men couldn't be expected to make money if they looked like figures from 18th-century Poland.
And so the rabbis turned to the heart of the matter: matrimony. Most American Jewish communities in those days (and many today) viewed intermarriage as a taboo. Conversion, however, was a loophole. The Edict intended to close that loophole. It proclaimed, "No male or female member of our community has the right to intermarry with non-Jews; this law covers conversion, which we consider to be fictitious and valueless."
So first, lets throw in a gratuitous insult for those whacky Chassidim, then we'll make sure that the world knows that while these Syrian Jewish men profess religious concerns, they are certainly not going to let religion interfere with their making money. And conversion, which is traditionally a serious process, is but a mere "loophole" employed by everyone else (at least in the remainder of the article) for the sole purpose of permitting intermarriage.
Of course, part of this seems to be that Chafetz found his subjects reluctant to talk to him. Naturally, this was because they are nasty, clannish and greedy not because they find that reporters do not treat the community fairly.
One of the rules of the community forbids indulging in promiscuous chit-chat with outsiders. This is a practice the Syrians brought with them from the old country, where a nosy stranger might be a business rival or a representative of the tax collector. Reporters, an American inconvenience, are equally unpopular. The community is still stewing about an article published in The New York Times last year that revealed the astronomical cost of real estate in the enclave — one house sold in 2003 for $11 million, which may have made it the most expensive house in Brooklyn.
Because the reason Syrian Jews might have a tradition of not chatting with others has nothing to do with coming from a country where Jews were a tolerated minority who learned to keep their heads down and mind their own business, lest they incur the wrath of the Islamic majority and suffer a massacre or beating. No, it's because it might leak secrets to business rivals! Damn Syrian Jews....
So, of course, Chafetz has to undermine anything positive he finds. The Syrian community has fairly generous mutual aid and charity services. While on the surface this might look good, Chafetz is there to blow the lid off "the most generous cradle-to-grave mutual-welfare society this side of the Saudi royal family." (Because if it looks like something Saudi, it must be evil and religious fanatics.) So while simultaneously emphasizing the lavish nature of the community resources, Chafetz maintains this is merely a bribe to keep the faithful under the thumb of "the Edict."
True, Chafetz quotes one leader as saying:
"If there are poor people among us, we try to help," Jakie Kassin told me. "If a person falters in business, other men step in. I've even seen people in the same business, direct competitors, raise money to put the man back on his feet."Chafetz also admits, grudgingly and as insultingly as possible, that the Syrians took in 6,000 Jewish immigrants from Syria (the last remnants of the Syrian Jewish community) -- who came in a state of poverty and are being provided for entirely by the community. But don't be fooled, Chafetz tells us, this charity is reserved exclusively for "Sys", and does not (claims Chafetz) really extend into the broader Spharadic community. (Because, as Chafetz tells us, all Sys are filthy rich, because they love money.)
Chafetz does not seem to attach much importance to the fact that, in this supposedly backward and conformist community, 2/3 vote Democrat and 1/3 Republican (rather remarkable pluralism for those familiar with the tendency in close ethnic or religious communities). Instead, we are once again treated to the supposed link between "exclusive" Jewish communities and political violence by religious Jews in Israel (what there is of it).
In 1995, Rabbi Abraham Hecht of Shaare Zion synagogue made one of the community's first international political headlines. Hecht is a J-Dub, a Chabadnik preacher widely admired in the community for his polemical skills in English. During the days of the Oslo Peace Accords, Hecht displayed his eloquence by instructing an assembly that Israeli leaders who hand over territory in the Holy Land may, according to Jewish law, be killed. Five months later, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv by a Sephardic Israeli yeshiva student with a similar point of view. The Israeli government banned Hecht as a security threat, and he was suspended from his pulpit, but he still has supporters in the enclave. So does Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who, despite his softness on converts, has found financial backers for his theocratic Shas Party. Jakie Kassin claims, in fact, that the party's seed money was raised in his living room in Deal, N.J., in the early '80s.
The article concludes with a recitation of some financial scandals. Ah, those greedy Jews and their love of money! They even defraud each other. And isn't awful that they insist on being unified and forgiving and defend their own?
Liberals and progressives occasionally wonder from whence comes the belief in a biased liberal press out to destroy religious communities in this country. Read Chafetz's piece. It's not about being brave and reporting on things a clannish community would rather keep hidden. It's about degrading a community for its insistence on resisting integration via voluntary means, which Chafetz seems to regard as the ultimate sin and betrayal of proper American values. As long as the NYT continues to publish pieces like this, it can expect the sport of "liberal media bashing" to continue.
As a final addendum, I should note that Chafets is certainly successful in his task. A quick blog search for the article shows a number of feminist and Islamic oriented blogs enthusiastically recommending the piece which is summarized on Digg as: "The Syrian Jews of Gravesend, Brooklyn, rear their children to marry other Syrian Jews and make a fortune(the boys, anyway)."
Although I gotta love the way "Sunni Sisters" feels that the Syrian Jews got off way too lightly and that if it had profiled Moselms, they would have been treated much less sympathetically. http://www.sunnisisters.com/?p=2648