Haredi Aversion to Media Exposure

As proprietor of HasidicNews.com and HasidicWilliamsburgTour.com, I have been contacted by a couple of media entities recently who have asked my help in getting Hasidim in front of a camera. In July 2011 it was a representative of Oprah’s Next Chapter seeking an up-close documentation of a Hasidic family; several months later it was the Zig Zag Productions company looking to produce a movie for National Geographic featuring Hasidic life through the lens of a dozen or so small businesses owned and managed by community members.

In both cases, however, my efforts were futile. In the Oprah case, I explained to her rep that it would be very difficult to secure the cooperation of any Hasidic family other than a Lubavitcher. I repeatedly noted that without significant compensation there is virtually no chance that anyone would agree, since the mere exposure to TV is NOT cause celebre; it is, in fact, a likely cause for approbation and would possibly constitute grounds for expulsion of kids from educational institutions. She had difficulty grasping this concept; it seemed that she suspected me of attempting to extort money for a task that should have been easily achievable gratuitously.

After a while and some consultation with a friend, I suggested Abe Karpen, the actor from “I love New York” who quit that movie project after intense pressure from the Williamsburg community where resided. Even after quitting, however, his name was already too tarnished for him to remain in town, prompting a move to Monsey, NY. I thought that perhaps Karpen would agree to the show since he had already tainted his reputation anyway regarding media collaboration; yet he was still staunchly Hasidic. But my suggestion evidently didn’t bear any fruit and when I inquired about it later I did not get any response. Ultimatley, it became apparent that Oprah chose to go the classical, tried-and-true Lubavitch route, and her appearances were featured on her OWN TV network in February this year under the title America’s Hidden Culture.

But the culture shown on her show isn’t quite hidden. Lubavitch is known to crave publicity and its members are very eager to communicate with strangers, Jew and gentile alike about their faith and practices. Lubavitch is in a league unto itself when it comes to the observation and analysis of Hasidism in America. They make an okay second-best choice for a show insistent upon exposing Hasidic family life to the world, but Lubavitch culture was never quite hidden to become exposed. There’s nothing surprising or revealing in her show that isn’t accessible to any private individual seeking to join a Lubavitch family for a dinner, let alone to a media entity.

That Oprah couldn’t get her hands on the real deal –dining with and interviewing a Satmar family from Williamsburg– is a testament to the highly effective iron curtain that stands between the non-Lubavitch Hasidic sector and the gentile world. Samar and its satellite communities have successfully fostered an environment where no one would contemplate breaching the unwritten rule of not exposing family life to the media.



But why he aversion to media exposure? — you ask.

There are several explanations to this:


  1. Lack of communication facility. The Satmar’s –unilke the Lubavichers– speak Yiddish as their primary language. A typical Satmar man is not capable of expressing himself well in English, let alone elucidating the complex religious rules under which he operates. A TV production company can more easily overlook this drawback since it has more editing leeway before it releases a final show. The Hasid, however, is afraid that the media will select unflattering segments to include in the show where they may have fumbled are expressed themselves inaccurately.
  2. Resistance to the subject matter. Satmar’s do not want to be asked why they do the things they do. In Traditional forms of Judaism, asking why we must do what God commands us to do is inappropriate. Since we can never truly fathom God’s will and instruction, asking questions can only lead to trouble if we resultantly forsake his commandments because we deem them irrelevant. In fact, this is also the reason Satmars are averse to general cultural interaction outside their community. They are trying to avoid any encounter of practices or ideas that will inevitably tempt them and challenge their traditions.
  3. There is, in fact, no answer. The Satmars truly don’t have an answer to many of the questions they would likely face. For example, the laws of “family purity” were eloquently explained to Oprah in the aforementioned show on both amorous and sociological grounds. This is because the ability to explain religious laws is an inherent component in the Lubavitch jurisprudence. Every “shaliah” (emissary) is trained to explain to non-observant Jews why it is beneficial to adopt a Torah life and this training permeates the Lubavitch culture at large. For Satmar, in contrast, it never occurs to the average adherent to ask themselves why why their women go to the mikveh once a month? They simply take it for granted and have no tolerance to anyone suggesting that life might be better off otherwise.
  4. Modesty. Satmars believe that they ought not flaunt their accomplishments to gentiles, lest it incite anti-semitism. The reasoning goes that if a gentile detects something to be envied in the Hasidic community, Hasidim are liable to suffer persecution as the gentile attempts to emulate it or snatch it from them. It’s the same idea that underlies women’s modesty
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