For a long time I have been trying to figure out if I am one of those ominous “Ultra Orthodox.” I definitely look the part. I’ve got the beard, black hat, the tzizit daggling. On Shabbat my style of dress is without question “ultra.” I’ve got the long black coat, a throw-over from the aristocrat dress of Europe that over time has become Chassidic garb. But I’m not exactly geographically “ultra.” I don’t live in Jerusalem, Boro Park or Stamford Hill. I’m out in the suburbs of Orange County, California, where on Shabbat morning, walkers and bikers smile and wave at me as I walk to the synagogue.
My friends in Israel who dress as I do go to the army, albeit many after their yeshiva studies. They have real jobs and pay taxes. Both they and I do not believe that secular nationalism that was the ideological foundation of Zionism should be the bedrock of our identity. Rather, it should be based in the timeless teachings of the Torah that reach back to the dawn of Jewish history at Mt. Sinai. At their core those teachings include the deep spiritual connection of Jews to their historical homeland, Israel.
It is strange that the only religious group in the world that is labeled “ultra” consists of Jews who follow the ancient traditions of Judaism. Liberals who support J Street are not “ultra left”: they are “pro peace.” Backers of the New Israel Fund are called “progressive,” even though some of their money goes to groups with an agenda inimical to Israel. Supporters of Yair Lapid’s party in Israel, which is waging a culture war against religious Jews, are not called “ultra anti –religious.” It’s only us guys in the black hats and the beards and the girls with sheitels (wigs) who have this distinguishing label.
The strange irony is when you ask a newspaper editor why traditionally observant Jews are labeled “ultra,” you hear the excuse, “We need to differentiate between the regular Orthodox and others.” Who are these “others?” What makes you a member of that group? Do you need a beard, or is a black hat a requirement? Why not just observant, or Orthodox or religious? When you push a bit more and ask what qualifies you for this descriptive term, the answers become vague, but it’s clear “it’s those guys who look different.”
At the core the term “ultra” is pure bigotry and prejudice. It’s saying, “You guys are beyond the pale, you dress different, you act different, we are mainstream, you guys are extreme.” Simply put, it’s a subjective put-down of Jews who follow the traditions of Judaism as it’s been done for millennia. It’s about Jews, who while they value modernity, do not want their morals and ethics to be determined by the latest Hollywood fad. Rather, they see Judaism as the central pivot of their lives.
The time has come for the Jewish community and the world of journalism to dispense with this pejorative and bigoted term. It’s going to take a bit of soul-searching and looking into the mirror. What usually motivates one’s speaking in a derogatory fashion about another? For some, it’s their own insecurity. Deep down, people are saying “they are ultra,” because they are somewhat unsure about their own Judaism. Instead of respecting those who try their best to live up to the Judaism, as it’s been practiced for millennia, it’s a lot easier to say, “we are the mainstream; those guys are just a bit too extreme.”
If there is such a need to differentiate, then use the Hebrew term “Haredi,” or label us guys and girls in the black hats and sheitels, “traditional Orthodox.” It’s far more offensive to label Jews who follow Jewish tradition “ultra” than it is to call a football team the “Redskins.”
Orange County Jewish Life does not engage in this practice. – Ed.