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The Blessings of Insularity?

What a pleasure it was to read Rabbi Jen Krause’s new book The Answer. Make no doubt about it this is not your regular self-help book. “The Answer” is more about realizing that ultimately life’s greatest challenge is coming to terms with the fact that sometimes we are so quick to find the answer that we forget what it is we are looking for and why it is we are looking so hard.
I agree with Rabbi Jen’s natural inclination towards embracing non-Jewish wisdom and culture. Her words remind me of a famous speech given by the late chancellor of JTS, Gerson Cohen, entitled the “Blessing of Assimilation” (the title says it all). Yet I think we all need to remember that contrary to popular opinion, people today can live healthy, wealthy, very enjoyable lives in cultural ghettos where they need not ever seriously come into contact with the rest of the world. Two weeks ago Zev Chefetz published a very interesting (albeit slightly biased) piece in the New York Times Magazine on the Syrian Jewish community and its ban against converts and intermarriage.


There is more than something disgusting and anti-Jewish about the Syrian Jewish community’s ban against converts (no other Jewish community promotes such a position). The amount of unnecessary and halakhically unacceptable pain this ban has brought on numerous Syrian families is unconscionable. Yet, in an era of apathy, ignorance, and mass acculturation, the Jewish retention rate and engagement on the part of the Syrian community is remarkable. How can’t one help and dare I say have even slight feelings of jealously for, the strong communal ties fostered by the success of the Syrian communities insularity?
Haftez describes a community where familial care and love trump educational accomplishment and enlightenment. Yet, this lack of intellectualism has in no way hindered the community’s economic growth. Rather, according to the New York Times, it is one of the wealthiest and most charitable communities in New York City.
Rabbi Jen might be right that many in the rabbinic tradition did promote an open posture to culture, science, philosophy, and most things “other” (I certainly put myself in that camp). But you know what? Who is to say they had all the answers?

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laura t mushkat

posted October 25, 2007 at 4:02 pm

There is a question that pops up when reading this article that is a bit disturbing-just how are these people getting wealthy? I never heard of anyone with no education being able to make it unless they are in the entertainment business, invent something, or inherit it.
There may be other ways but I can not think of them at the moment and the fact that it is a closed community of Arab background-despite being Jewish-bothers me more. The fact that they are of Syrian background with all the problems the West has with that country does not help.
If anyone knows the answer it would be illuminating.
As for the fact that they do not accept converts and are uneducated
may be a blessing because they probubly will not be acceptable of other Jews as well. This means they will eventually intermarry plus not convince others to be like them. A uneducated Jewish population does nothing for Jews as a whole. We certainly do not want to be like that. Hopefully their children’s children will eventually become educated. Once one learns to question and find answers one can look arround then and decide if they want to be like those who have little education.

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laura t mushkat

posted October 25, 2007 at 4:23 pm

Just read the article that this author referred to. There are some mistakes that the Virtual article contains.
The Syrian Jews ARE educated. The education they have gives them the knowledge on how to run their businesses successfully. They started out as peddlers and became successful merchants all over the world.
They are not an insulated community. They deal with people all people but do not accept converts. They sound like very sophisticated people that the author here seems to ignore.
The original article is very interesting and can be found on the internet easily.
Thank goodness because this author needs to get the facts staight.
I am glad I read the original artcle out of curiosity about these people after I answered above.
The author needs jounalism 101 I think.

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