This sign is real. It greets folks as they enter Kiryas Joel, a village contained within the town where I now live. In case it isn’t clear, the sign says:
“Welcome to Kiryas Joel, A Traditional Community of Modesty and Values
“In keeping with our traditions and religious customs, we kindly ask that you dress and behave in a modest way while visiting our community. This includes: wearing long skirts or pants; covered necklines; sleeves past the elbow; use appropriate language; maintain gender separation in all public areas.
“Thank you for respecting our values and please enjoy your visit!”
How did I find myself in Kiryas Joel, a community where 89% of people speak Yiddish in the home and 46% indicate they speak English not well or not at all? A community where everyone is a member of the Satmar movement of Haredi Judaism? A community that would look at myself or my wife on most days and see us as being immodest or lacking values or disrespecting their traditions and religious customs?
The baby, of course. See, one of the interesting thing about the residents of Kiryas Joel is that, per their religious teachings, they have very large families. They actually have the youngest median age (13.2) of any American population center with more than 5,000 residents. So the little pharmacy in the community has an amazing collection of baby supplies, including the hard-to-find item that Zazzy needed.
Before I go on, let’s pull back a bit…
Kiryas Joel has tense relations with the surrounding communities. Many of these stem from legitimate concerns, such as the impact of the high-density housing preferred by its residents on the local sewage treatment facilities or the community’s attempts to form a special school district in violation of the 1st Amendment (a case that eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court). The large families and general prohibition on women working makes the community home to the highest rate of poverty in America (62%), with many collecting entitlement benefits that strain the local tax rolls The community is very insular and many interactions with nonmembers in the main parts of town are curt, sometimes bordering on rude, though everyone’s mileage varies; I’ve had some downright pleasant interactions with our neighbors in black.
But there is more to it than that. Speak to other local residents and concerns about public utilities and school funding quickly shift to whispers about “those people”. They are often referred to by their faith with a biting tone… <em>The Hasidim</em> did this… <em>The Hasidim</em> do that… <em>A Hasidim</em> rear ended me. They are not seen as individuals, but as members of some rather insidious collective. I find this all very uncomfortable.
Anyway, after my little sojourn to the community’s shopping center, I found myself unsettled on a number of levels. That sign really stuck with me, so much so that I pulled over and got out of the car to take a picture, “earning” a fist pump from a passing mailman.
I don’t like the way the residents of my community talk about the members of their community. While I share some of then concerns about the practical impacts of their way of life, I generally believe that their rights to practice their faith trumps my desire for lower taxes (which is really the only practical effect on folks like me). And while I might decry some of the tenets of their faith as anti-women or misogynistic, that doesn’t really make them much different than most of the world’s religious people. So, hey… live and let live, right?
But that sign… that sign really sticks in my craw. The sign indicates that they are “kindly asking” that visitors adhere to the stated guidelines, but I get the impression that someone who did not do so, especially women, would quickly find themselves treated in rather unsavory ways. It is one thing to give visitors a heads up about the cultural norms of the community… had I had the time to read it fully on my way in, I probably would have handled my interaction with the female storekeeper slightly better; I attempted to hand her my credit card, much to her chagrin, an action that might have violated their call for gender separation, something I knew about but which was not at the front of my mind when making my purchase. But the sign seemed to be more than that. It wasn’t indicating to visitors how the locals handled themselves; it was a call for visitors to conform to a set of norms that many would find offensive.
So here I sit, viewing a community that on the one hand deals with bigotry, anti-semitism, and marginalization and on the other attempts to impose their religious views on non-members.
This whole religious pluralism and tolerance thing is harder than I thought, I guess…