Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Invincible Innocence: The Haredi World as Wharton's New York

I recently reread Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. It struck me that the book is an excellent metaphor for the Haredi world as a whole. While the work actually speaks of the elite crust of society in New York during the 1870s, it seems that much is the same in the Haredi enclaves that exist today.

Those families that boast yichus (pedigree), wealth and have Rebbes in their lines can be equated with the upper echelon of society.

Those families where the parents work or the children are 'working boys' rather than those who choose to spend their days in Kollel are considered lower class.

And those who are in-between (not blessed with an excellent pedigree or wealth but striving to be accepted by that upper class) are the middle class.

As to the women, they are as sheltered as ever they were in 1870.

The Age of Innocence stars Newland Archer, a wealthy young man who is engaged to the pretty maiden May who is related to the unusual Countess Olenska, a woman who dared to flee from her colorful husband. Archer is dissatisfied with his world and his life and feels a vague, directionless ache and desire to search for an alternative. The Countess unknowingly provides that alternative since she does not conform to society's mores until she is taken in by Newland's noble talk of living for society's mandates and values, preaching such virtues as selflessness, honor and nobility. In this case, the selflessness takes the form of not breaking the engagement with May even though he is hopelessly in love with the Countess and she with him. The Countess, in turn, does not divorce her husband due to the scandal it would cause and the shame that would be cast upon her family, to whom Archer will soon be related. Their high-minded consideration of others ends in tragedy; the two of them are made to part by a civilized dinner that ushers the Countess away.

There are several scenes in the work where Archer's perception accords entirely with the state in which Haredi women commonly find themselves. Here's one such excerpt:
    Archer had reverted to all his old inherited ideas about marriage. It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May's only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of her wifely adoration.
Archer believes that women ought to be allowed the same opportunities as men, yet he faces a peculiar situation: his own wife would not accord with him as she does not feel herself to be constrained in the least. The well-brought-up Bais Yaakov attendee would agree; she does not perceive herself as lacking freedom.

The innocence which Archer hopes his wife May will not possess is exactly that innocence which is so carefully cultivated by insular communities:
    "Poor Ellen--she was always a wayward child. I wonder what her fate will be?"

    "What we've all contrived to make it," he felt like answering. "If you'd all of you rather she should be Beaufort's mistress than some decent fellow's wife you've certainly gone the right way about it."

    He wondered what Mrs. Welland would have said if he had uttered the words instead of merely thinking them. He could picture the sudden decomposure of her firm placid features, to which a lifelong mastery over trifles had given an air of factitious authority. Traces still lingered on them of a fresh beauty like her daughter's; and he asked himself if May's face was doomed to thicken into the same middle-aged image of invincible innocence.

    Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!
And yet it is precisely that form of invincible innocence which the Haredi community strives to cultivate, mistrustful of the outside world and of anything secular, condemning imagination as a tool of Satan.

The stigma of divorce and the shame the entire family faces is also paralleled in the Haredi world, where children whose parents are divorced are considered to come from 'a broken home' and their shidduchim are therefore affected negatively.

There is much more within the book that accords with that world but it is not polite to note it. What I enjoyed was realizing once more that literature never ages.


RT said...

.Some of the fascinating quotes that I still can recall from this book are:“The individual…is nearly always sacrificed to what is supposed to be the collective interest: people cling to any convention that keeps the family together—protects the children, if there are any’ he rambled on, pouring out all the stock phrases that rose to his lips in his intense desire to cover the ubly reality which her silence seemed to have laid bare” and:“…if we don’t all stand together, there’ll be no such thing as Society left”. This novel's power is usually attributed to its presentation of such concerns as women's changing roles, the importance of family in a "civilized society", and the universal conflict between passion and duty. H'mm, Archers and Mays of this world are certainly not my cup of tea!
Well done, my dear! I enjoyed your analysis.

Anonymous said...

Yet stable community has a value as well. (BTW see today's NYT business section - very hard to "have it all") The dynamic balance between viewing oneself as an individual vs. community member is part of R'YBS's tshuva thought - as always a dynamic balance.
Joel Rich

Jewish Atheist said...

The well-brought-up Bais Yaakov attendee would agree; she does not perceive herself as lacking freedom.

It's not just women who went to BY. Even most Modern Orthodox women seem perfectly content to live in a society that tells them they can be neither rabbis nor chazans. Not to mention the gay women (and men.)

Shades of Gray said...

"And yet it is precisely that form of invincible innocence which the Haredi community strives to cultivate, mistrustful of the outside world and of anything secular, condemning imagination as a tool of Satan."

Though I've attended all Hardei yeshivos and currently live in that world, I'm not an apologist by any means, and am open to looking at the problems.

However, I would add some shades of gray; to take a small example, Mishpacha and similar magazines bring in a bit of the outside world, albiet filtered(a relative of mine, a baal teshuvah with a PhD, like to examine the frum kids magazines before his kids; apparently he thinks it's better than "Highlights Magazine" !).

Here is an interesting article by Naomi Seidman, a Jewish Studies professor in California. Though I have absolutely no ambitions of attending Berkley like her, I related to the places she discusses(heart of Boro Park), and it has two timely themes of a search for individuality, as well as a contrast between the 19th Century Haskalah and today's kids searching, successfully or otherwise, for meaning and individuality.


Anonymous said...

I love Edith Wharton and have read every one of her books that is currently in print (and a few that aren't), and I have to disagree with your analogy of old Fifth Avenue=chareidi society.

For one, most of the women in her novels were very superficial and shallow and and never indulged in any self-introspection. And the ones who did (like Lily Barton from The House of Mirth, one of my personal favorites) could never actually bring themselves to *do* anything to change themselves, even if they felt they couldn't change their outward situation. And any frum person I've gotten to know a bit deeper than just surface level, does have a spiritual awareness and a desire for self improvement.

Some parts of frum society are very rigid, but there are people who move to other communities that are more broad minded, or do things differently. I think people are becoming more open-minded, albeit slowly.

Shades of Gray said...

"And any frum person I've gotten to know a bit deeper than just surface level, does have a spiritual awareness and a desire for self improvement."

I agree with this.

CJ Srullowitz said...

Not sure which NY you live in, but outside of the Chassidic world (and maybe there too) yichus doesn't hold that much currency. How well someone learns does and should impact there status.

As for working...lower class? Maybe in Bnei Brak. Not in NYC where, lulei demistafina, the schools are all supported by working men and women. Even in Lakewood, more people are working than learning these days.

sisterbear said...

Why are hollywood ideals of feminist freedom better than old fashioned Torah ones?
Honestly, are emacipated wives more content?

noam the preacher said...

Most charedim have yichus, some more some less.
The difference is in the flaunt.

Shades of Gray said...

I am a bit confused about this blog; this is the third formatting style change in the past hour; like the world, it seems to be evolving quickly :)

Anonymous said...

Like the new look.

Shades of Gray said...

There's a new theme as well.

sisterbear said...

HEY love the look!!