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Photo by James Whitmore/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Searching for the real jews

Essay | 17 minute read
A writer tracks down a pair of Haredi Jews whose image has been used to represent the 'generic' orthodox community

If you walk past me in the street, if you find a picture of me online, what do you see?

Some days you might see a middle-age man whose look tends towards hipsterdom, but without the commitment: my expansive beard leans towards Shoreditch, the rest of me is more mundane. Some days you might find hints of metalhead: my long black hair, thinning at the front, my all-black attire and combat trousers make me right at home at a Sunn 0))) gig. Other times, I am simply non-descript and 46-years-old, unremarkable in chainstore wear and a sagging belly.

Do you see the Jew though?

If I wear my black trilby (a gift from my wife for my last birthday), if my beard looks particularly luxuriant, if I wear a dark suit jacket, perhaps you will look twice and think ‘is he one of…them?’ Yes, one of those Jews, the ones who dress in black and grow beards, the ones who live in Stamford Hill and Jerusalem. Hassidic aren’t they called?

No, I am not one of them, and hat-less and beard-less you’d never even make the mistake. To locate the Jew in me you have to know Jews and plenty of them. You have to have J-dar, my term for that ineffable sense that allows those of us who grew up in Jewish communities to identify each other – some of the time at least. Most non-Jews lack the antenna, so Jews like me – who dress in a confusion of styles – can ‘pass’ undetected.

This passing is a problem though. It feeds into antisemitic fantasies about hidden Jewish conspiracies. Jews are derided by antisemites when they stick out, hated when they don’t. Even if you have no animosity towards Jews, the twin tendencies of Jews to be utterly recognisable and completely invisible is bewildering.

This is a problem for the media, or at least it has become a problem in the UK print media in the last few years. We are a long way from the imposing black type-filled newspaper. These days, when you publish a story – any kind of story – you have to feed the online beast with a photo to accompany the text. In an age in which experienced sub-editors and picture editors are often being replaced by hard-pressed and insecurely-employed juniors, there is a constant pressure to find that photo fast and get it, and the story, online fast.

If the story concerns Jews, that inevitably means turning to the most obviously ‘Jewish-looking’ picture you can find. The least ambiguous, the most identifiable, the most Jewey Jews that the picture library offers, in other words.…them.

Two of them are walking down the road. We see them walking away from us, unhurried, one of them with his hands clasped behind his back. Their black hats and long black coats dominate the picture, casting the rest of the blurred-out seen in a shadowy pall. We don’t know who they are, but you can see the outline of a beard, possibly greying, on the apparently older man on the left. The one on the right seems younger, beardless, with sidelocks hanging down the side of his face. His gate seems gawkier, less relaxed than the older man. Are they father and son? Teacher and pupil? Or simply two friends out for a stroll?

Who are they?

They are them. They are also I. They are Jew. They are generic.

Jewish men in the Stamford Hill area of London (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

They are Haredi Jews. This term, which loosely translates as ‘fearful ones’, isn’t perfect, but it is better than alternatives such as ‘Hassidic’ (which only applies to some of them) or ‘ultra-orthodox’ (which is vaguely insulting).

Haredi Jews are Jews like me. Unlike me though, they choose (or were chosen by their ancestors) to relate in a very different way to the modern world. As European Jews in the nineteenth century were gradually freed from legal restrictions and became free to live their lives as citizens, so it became clear that some Jews were taking advantage of this freedom to cease practicing Judaism altogether or were adapting Jewish practice to better suit modern life. Other Judaisms emerged as a reaction, seeking to limit Jews’ interactions with the non-Jewish world and to respond to modernity with greater religious stringency.

Much has happened since the nineteenth century. Haredi Judaism was decimated in the Holocaust. The survivors have employed several strategies that have proved remarkably successful: high birthrates (families of 10 or more children are common), ever-greater attention to observance and restructuring their communities so that a high proportion of adult men could spend their lives in full-time study.

From a few thousand in 1945, there are now over a million Haredi Jews worldwide – a population that is continuing to grow (in the UK at over 4 percent a year). They live in tight-knit and often highly insular communities across the world in locations such as Israel, Brooklyn and other enclaves in America, Stamford Hill, Salford and Gateshead in Britain, Antwerp in Belgium and others.

While often isolated from the mainstream of modern life, images of Haredi Jews are ubiquitous, in Britain at least. They appear again and again, illustrating on and offline stories about Jews in Britain. Sometimes they accompany stories that concern the Haredi community, sometimes they accompany stories about ‘all’ Jews, and occasionally they accompany stories that have absolutely no connection to Haredi Jews at all. When I uploaded my favourite photo onto Google’s reverse image search I reached 50 instances of its use before I stopped counting. It can be found everywhere from mass circulation papers like The Guardian to fringe sites like World Peace Assembly.

In the last few years I’ve been ‘collecting’ examples of the use of this photo, and others like it. It’s an amusing hobby, one that my online friends like to join in with, eagerly sending me new examples when they find them. Yet I also feel something troubling when I see the mystery men strolling down the street once again. And what drives me to point out uses of the photo is more than just a desire to tease overworked and unimaginative sub-editors. This is also about my own ambivalence at being represented by these photos.

Really, I’m in awe of the Haredim. They have managed to grow and to flourish in a secularising world. In building communities dedicated to supporting the largest number of men in full-time study as possible, they have eschewed the material comforts of modernity. Their charitable infrastructure is vast and all-encompassing. And, at the end of the day, even though many of them might not be happy that Jews like me live as we do, they are my people. Peoplehood still means something to me. My destiny is tied up with theirs.

My awe at the achievements of Haredi Judaism cannot be separated from my discomfort at many of their ways: The sexes are strictly separated and couples have arranged marriages, usually at 18-21 years old; children (particularly boys) are often allowed only minimum secular education and are rarely allowed to attend university; in Israel, Haredi Jews cause resentment by largely avoiding military service and having special subsidies for their institutions; leaving the community is extremely difficult and those who do often have limited contact with their families; some of their leaders have discouraged Haredim from reporting sexual abuse and other crimes to outside authorities; Haredim are also discouraged from using the internet and informing themselves via the media; some Haredi ideologies are disparaging about other Jews and non-Jews.

When Haredi pictures are used to illustrate stories about Jews like me, I cannot help but feel frustration that they are treated as the ‘real’ Jews. And yet, at the same time, the bonds of peoplehood that connect me to the Haredim also engender another kind of frustration: at the intrusion of their privacy, at the objectification, at the exoticism. And that photo, that evokes a mysterious, secretive and – above all – dark ‘other’, seems to be an invitation to antisemitic fantasies of Jewish, hermetic subversion.

Such photos also erase the diversity of the Haredi world. They may look identical in their black garb, but subtle differences in dress connote a multiplicity of Haredi identities. Haredim are Hassidic and Mitnagdic (those who, historically, opposed Hassidism; today often known as ‘Litvaks’, due to their traditional heartland of Lithuania); Haredim are Zionists, anti-Zionists and non-Zionists; Haredim are Lubavitcher, Bratslaver, Skverer, Satmar, Gerer, Belzer, Bobover  and many others: the names of sects named after their place of origin or (more rarely) their rabbinic leader.

Then there is the gender issue. Haredi women do exist and are as diverse as the men. They too have their own distinctions in how they dress and how they live. But there’s a dilemma here. The feminine ideal is one of tzniut, or modesty, that leads them to shun public exposure (some Haredi newspapers will not print pictures of women). Not printing pictures of Haredi women in the press both respects the desire for modesty and colludes in their erasure.

When people become symbols, when they are turned into generic placeholders, they lose their humanity – the good bits and the bad bits. How do we turn such symbols – such as the Haredi men in the photo – back into people? By encountering them as people.

So I decided to track down the men in the photo and to meet them. By encountering them,  I hoped to turn them back into specific Jews, not ‘Jews’ and to locate them more precisely within the multifarious Haredi subculture.

(Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

And I succeeded – sort of. And it was easy – kind of.

The first step was to find out more about the photo. It is credited to a photographer called Rob Stothard and can be found on the Getty Images picture library. Rob’s website was easy to find and, after a brief introductory email from me, I found myself speaking to him.

Rob surprised me. Not only was he aware of the photo’s ubiquity, it made him uncomfortable too. As an experienced photojournalist he has no wish for the images that he produces to be decontextualised. And he is very aware of the issues surrounding photography of marginal groups. Yet, he also has to make a living, and producing content for picture libraries such as Getty Images is part of that.

When put in context, Rob’s photo makes more sense. He was commissioned in early January 2015 by Getty Images to produce some images for a news item that appeared in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, when UK police announced that they were stepping up patrols of Jewish areas and the Haredi community’s own security service, the Shomrim, also announced an increase in vigilance. It’s certainly unobjectionable to use photos of Haredi men, taken in Haredi neighbourhoods, to illustrate stories that directly pertain to the subjects of the photos.

Still, that’s not the end of the matter. It doesn’t justify the endless reuse of the photos out of context (although Rob is not responsible for that). And it doesn’t explain why thatphoto is so popular. Rob showed me that the Getty Images site features a host of other photos taken during the same session. The images that have been reused the most seem to focus on older men with beards, taken from behind, although there are exceptions. Haredi faces do not seem to be popular in the media, particularly smiling ones. And Rob avoided taking photos of women, although he points out that there were few of them on the streets anyway.

Men though, are fair game. While Rob was open about his photography; he didn’t use a long lens and, as he says, ‘I’m not hiding a bush or anything’. But he didn’t ask for their consent either. If he had done, it is likely it would have been refused, because whatever the subjects might feel about being photographed for use in the media, the time on which they were taken would have made consenting absolutely impossible. Because the photos were all taken on the same day – Saturday 17 January 2015. A Saturday. That means Shabbat, the Sabbath.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Shabbat in Judaism, and not just in Haredi Judaism. As Ahad Ha’am said, ‘More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews’. Shabbat is not just a day of prayer, it is the centre of traditional Jewish existence. An island in time, with strict restrictions on work that extend today to prohibitions on the use of electricity and motorised transport. It is a day of rest (albeit with lots of stuff to do) and of family. It is fiercely defended in the Haredi community, to the point that in Israel, to enter a Haredi neighbourhood and take pictures could well result in physical violence. The fact that Rob was able to do so in the UK is a mark of the quietism that marks Diaspora Haredi life.

Indeed, the older man in thatphoto actually greeted Rob pleasantly as he walked past him. The man’s tolerance of Rob’s unknowing transgression of his Shabbat, is of a piece with his leisurely, hands-loosely-grasped-behind-back gait. The photographer remembers the couple well, and where he was standing when he took the photo. From his description I worked out that the photo was taken in the heart of Stamford Hill, on the A10/Cazenove Road, just before the turnoff for Lynmouth Road.

But could Rob remember any identifying features that would help me track down the men in the photo? He didn’t need to; he pointed out that there were other photos in the Getty Images collection taken of the pair taken from the front. These other photos confirmed what I had suspected. The man with the beard is much older, in his 50s probably, and the other man is younger, probably in his mid-teens. The relaxed gait is reflected in their faces. The older man looks content, amiable, full of the peace of Shabbat.

And that is probably why those other photos have not, as far as I can tell ever been used. They don’t signify mystery, insularity and worse, they signify friendliness, openness and likeability.

Once I had a photo of the men’s faces, things moved fast. Through personal contacts, I reached out to a number of Haredi public figures and people who know the Haredi community well. While I didn’t want to imply that all Haredim know each other, it is a small and tight-knit community and I was optimistic.

His name is S___ G___.

It was Vicki Belovski, community news editor of Hamodia, a weekly newspaper that serves the Haredi community, who broke the news to me that she had identified the older man in the photo. Vicki is not herself Haredi, in fact she is married to a prominent ‘modern orthodox’ rabbi. She knew of me through tracking my ‘collection’ of inappropriate use of Haredi stock photos and was pleased to help. She asked around the office and within a few minutes of receiving my email, she had the name.

She also had his phone number and the street where he lives, found in a directory that serves the Haredi community. And she had a tantalising mystery too. He prays in the same synagogue as a colleague of Vicki’s. The synagogue is affiliated to the Gerer sect, part of the Hassidic stream of the community. Yet he does not appear to dress like a Gerer would, at least on that Shabbat: there are distinct dress codes for the Sabbath and a Gerer is more likely to wear a high fur hat, rather than the more generic round felt hat that S__ wears.

Haredim are strongly discouraged by their leaders from using the internet but I couldn’t resist a quick search to see if he’d leaked online. To my surprise I found a couple of youtube videos of S___. He is singing Hassidic songs, accompanied by guitar, in informal gatherings. Again, he looks relaxed, quietly blissful, in keeping with the Hassidic emphasis on joy and its musical expression.

From what I saw, I liked him. Now that I knew a tiny bit about him, I wanted to meet him even more. This is where things got difficult…

Both Vicki and her colleague spoke to S___ and explained that I’d like to meet him. It wasn’t easy suggesting a form of words for them to use, to explain who I was and what I wanted. I thought it essential  to assure him that, if he wished, I would keep him anonymous. That ended up backfiring as, not unreasonably, he questioned why I would want him to be anonymous if the point of my article was to explain who he was. At the same time, he didn’t want to be named either. Vicki told me that people in the Haredi community often told him they’d seen his photo. Perhaps he simply didn’t want any more publicity.

There was more to his reluctance to meet me than simple modesty. He asked Vicki whether I was a ‘heimishe Yid’ – an almost untranslatable Yiddish term that, in the context, means whether I was a traditional Jew – and whether I was ‘shomer Shabbes’, whether I kept the Sabbath. Vicki didn’t know me well enough to answer but, had she done so, I would have failed those tests. I am religiously observant to a degree, but as a Reform Jew, which is a long way away from what S___ would consider ‘heimishe’.

That isn’t to say that he wouldn’t necessarily talk to someone who doesn’t follow his brand of Judaism. It’s just that my request to meet him came, from his perspective, from someone who is not part of his world, despite my being Jewish. That doesn’t make me automatically untrustworthy, but it does make me an outsider.

So I can’t tell you who S___ is, but I can tell you what I’d like him to be.

I’d like him to be an exemplar of the best that Haredi Judaism, and Hassidic Judaism more specifically, has to offer. I’d like him to be worthy of his unchosen status as symbol of both his own community and of Jews like me.

I’d like him to be content with the way he lives, that the choice that was (presumably) made for him to live this way early in his life is continually re-affirmed and embraced in his middle and old ages. I’d like the material circumstances under which he lives – whether straitened or more comfortable – to suit his needs and aspirations. I’d like him to be uninterested in the often-ferocious sectarian disputes within the Haredi world and to temper respect for the authorities in his community with a sense of humour. I’d like him to view the rest of the world, and the rest of the Jewish world, with at the very least benign disinterest rather than active suspicion and hostility.

If his marriage was arranged (which is likely if he was born into the community) I’d like it to be an affectionate one. I’d like his wife to be genuinely content with her position in the community and, if she is not, to have the courage to either be subtly subversive or maybe, eventually, to have the courage to leave.

I’d like his children (including the young man in the photo, if he is indeed S___’s son) to welcome the limited range of options that exist for them within their community and, if not, to have the strength to forge their own path, within or outside Haredi Judaism. I’d like their schools to not be one of the unrecognised ones with limited secular lessons and unsafe buildings. I’d like them to never be exposed to abuse within the community and the intense pressure to keep quiet about it that so often follows. I’d like them not to be gay, or transgender and have to deal with the painful choice between hiding one’s desires or leaving everything they know behind.

If S___ has to be a symbol, let him be a benign symbol. And yet…

Part of me wants him to be inappropriate. To be a transgressive force amongst the Haredim, a trouble-maker who wants the community to open up. Someone who refuses the binary choice between Haredi and non-Haredi, Jews and not Jew. Part of me wants the photo to be ironic and ill-chosen; to represent someone who is the antithesis of the insular stereotype.

Who are you S___? Whoever you are, your public exposure has bound the both of us together. Do either of us have the courage to accept that burden? Whatever I might want you to be, you are who you are. What do you want me to be, and can you accept what I am not?

Keith Kahn-Harris’s latest book, Denial: The Unspeakable Truth, is published by Notting Hill Editions in September