Monday, July 23, 2007


“A Price Above Rubies” and closed communities

There was a piece in the New York Times Sunday magazine this week, by Noah Feldman, which reminded me of a very good movie that most people haven't heard of.

In the Times article, Mr Feldman talks about having gone to a Jewish school, a yeshiva, associated with a “modern Orthodox” community, and then, as an adult, marrying outside of the Jewish faith. His school has, in effect, shunned him, by not including reports of him and his family, while they report on the families of the other students:

Since then I have occasionally been in contact with the school’s alumni director, who has known me since I was a child. I say “in contact,” but that implies mutuality where none exists. What I really mean is that in the nine years since the reunion I have sent him several updates about my life, for inclusion in the “Mazal Tov” section of the newsletter. I sent him news of my marriage. When our son was born, I asked him to report that happy event. The most recent news was the birth of our daughter this winter. Nothing doing. None of my reports made it into print.

It would be more dramatic if I had been excommunicated like Baruch Spinoza, in a ceremony complete with black candles and a ban on all social contact, a rite whose solemnity reflected the seriousness of its consequences. But in the modern world, the formal communal ban is an anachronism. Many of my closest relationships are still with people who remain in the Orthodox fold. As best I know, no one, not even the rabbis at my old school who disapprove of my most important life decisions, would go so far as to refuse to shake my hand. What remains of the old technique of excommunication is simply nonrecognition in the school’s formal publications, where my classmates’ growing families and considerable accomplishments are joyfully celebrated.

Mr Feldman goes on to explain the difference between “modern Orthodox” and the more traditional ultra-Orthodox — we'd expect this behaviour, and more, from the latter. But from his modern Orthodox community, the whole thing is more subtle. The slights are just that: slights, minor things, each barely noticeable in itself, but all together adding up to something very similar. His old friends are still allowed to talk to him, but his story will not be told, his accomplishments will not be celebrated — he is no longer a part of his old community, for the sin of marrying a Korean-American woman.

It's a long article, and worth reading in full. The movie it reminds me of is A Price Above Rubies, a movie about an Orthodox Jewish community in New York City, starring Renée Zellweger — a movie that, despite its star, you probably haven't heard of. It's about a rabbinical student and his wife, and about how his wife drifts apart from the community and is eventually shunned — in this case completely, to the point of being kept apart from her child — for not staying withing the demands of the community.

The community in A Price Above Rubies is a more traditional Orthodox one than the one Mr Feldman belonged to, and their dogma is stricter, their culture more tightly closed. The effect, therefore, is more immediately obvious. And yet Noah Feldman gives us, in his essay, a real sense of the loss he feels for having been shut out of his community, even if in a smaller way. “Many of my closest relationships are still with people who remain in the Orthodox fold,” Mr Feldman tells us. But the community as a whole doesn't trumpet his joy, and share in it the way they do with members in good standing.

Read Noah Feldman's article. And put A Price Above Rubies on your video rental queue; it's an under-appreciated gem. (I love the scene where she's eating an egg roll in Chinatown, and her conscience, in the form of a vision of her brother, is telling her that she's going straight to hell (it's not kosher to start with, and has pork and shrimp in it besides), but in the moment she just says, “Oh, this is so good!”)


nina said...

I have too heard of it. I've even seen it. That is all.

Tzvee said...

you made me think... orthodoxy is a gated community... some people like to live in gated communities... why doesn't nf understand and accept that?

Anonymous said...

Let's not taint modern Orthodoxy with the accusation of racism on top of everything else. NF's sin was not in marrying a Korean-American; it was in marrying a non-Jew. And the husband in the film was a robotic, insensitive ignoramus, whereas NF's community has been warm and responsive. Again, maybe we've gotten past the "sitting shiva" response to intermarriage, but we're not giving out trophies for it yet.