Traditional Orthodox Jews

views updated

Traditional Orthodox Jews

ALTERNATE NAMES: Ultra-Orthodox; Hasidic; fundamentalist
LOCATION: Worldwide, particularly Israel, North America, Europe, and Canada
POPULATION: 1.6 to 1.8 million
LANGUAGE: Language of the country in which they live; Hebrew; Yiddish; Aramaic (men)
RELIGION: Orthodox Judaism


Recent decades have seen a worldwide resurgence in Traditional-Orthodox Judaism, variously referred to as "ultra-Orthodox," "Hasidic," or "fundamentalist." Readily recognizable by their Old-World appearance—full-bearded men in black coats and hats; women in long skirts, their heads covered by kerchiefs or wigs—members of this group differ from most modern-day Jews in their rigorous religious observance, in their conservative political views, and, above all, in their refusal to assimilate into mainstream Western culture. Their rejection of the secular world distinguishes them from the large body of Orthodox Jews—referred to here as "Modern-Orthodox"—whose religious beliefs and practices are very similar, but who participate more fully in the cultures of the countries in which they live, dressing in modern Western-style clothing and enjoying many of the same pastimes as their neighbors of other faiths and backgrounds.

Traditional-Orthodox Jews are generally drawn from two segments of the Jewish population: the Hasidic world and the yeshivas (Jewish institutions of higher learning). The most visible—and most numerous—are the Hasidim, composed of various sects belonging to a movement that began in 18th-century Poland. It took its inspiration from the legendary Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov (literally, "Master of the Good Name"). Hasidism brought new joy and emotional fervor to religious devotion, in sharp contrast to the sober, dry, and often elitist focus on scholarly study that dominated the religious life of Eastern European Jews of the time. Each Hasidic community was led by its own rabbi, or tzaddik (holy man), a revered figure whose blessing and advice were sought for virtually all undertakings by members of the community, and whose reputation was spread through tales of his wisdom and holiness. The spiritual leadership of each community was handed down from generation to generation, creating rabbinical dynasties which anchored the numerous Hasidic sects that eventually emerged.

While Hasidism was condemned as heretical and extreme by its opponents (called Mitnaggedim), both groups ultimately joined in opposing the greater danger from outside—the growing secularization of Jewry that began with the 18th-century development known as the Haskalah, or Enlightenment, that accompanied the growing acceptance of Jews into the mainstream of Western society. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the growth of Reform and Conservative Judaism, which advocated the adaptation of Jewish tradition to modern life and its reinterpretation in light of contemporary historical scholarship. By the 1950s, only about 10% of Jews in the United States considered themselves Orthodox. A modern secular lifestyle was the norm for the vast majority of Jews worldwide, even in countries such as Israel and Great Britain, where the formal religious leadership remained Orthodox.

The past three decades have seen a revival of Orthodox Judaism of both the more modern, secular kind and the stricter traditional variety. Those remnants of Eastern Europe's Hasidic community that survived the Nazi Holocaust of World War II have served as the catalyst for the growth of Hasidic communities worldwide. Ironically, Hasidism, which started out as a fringe movement condemned by the religious establishment of its day and virulently attacked by its opponents, is today associated with religious conservatism and learned study. Although the strong historical enmity between the Hasidim and the Mitnaggedim is now a thing of the past—and the sharp dividing lines between them have even blurred somewhat—they still form two distinct groups within the Traditional-Orthodox community. The non-Hasidic groups are distinguishable by their focus on scholarly study and their allegiance to the head of a yeshiva (institution of higher learning) rather than to a Hasidic spiritual leader or rebbe.


The total number of Traditional-Orthodox Jews worldwide is estimated at between 1.6 and 1.8 million, out of a total Jewish population of about 13.3 million. Over half live in Israel, mostly in Jerusalem and B'nai Barak, and most of the remainder—between 550,000 and 650,000—live in North America. In Europe, London, Manchester, and Antwerp have relatively large Traditional-Orthodox communities.

Brooklyn, New York, has North America's largest concentration of Hasidim, located mainly in the neighborhoods of Boro Park, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights. There are also well-established Hasidic communities elsewhere in New York City and in Rockland County, New York, as well as in such diverse cities as Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Miami, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Denver. The largest concentrations of Hasidim in Canada live in Montreal and Toronto.

Hasidic sects take their names from the Eastern European towns in which they originated. Major groups include the Satmar, Lubavitcher, Bobover, Belzer, Vishnitzer, Gerer, Klausenberger, Skverer, and Bratslaver Hasidim. The Satmar are the largest group, followed by the Bobovers and Lubavitchers. The Lubavitchers are known particularly for their spiritual out-reach to nonobservant members of the Jewish community through a worldwide network of Habad houses and emissaries called shlichim.


Traditional-Orthodox Jews are multilingual. In addition to the languages of the countries in which they live, they all speak and are literate in Hebrew, the language of the Jewish holy books. A substantial portion (usually more than half) of their formal education is conducted in this language, which they begin to learn at an early age. In addition, the young men also learn to read Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, an authoritative compilation of religious commentary.

While a knowledge of Hebrew is also shared by Modern-Orthodox Jews, the Traditional-Orthodox community is distinguished from other groups by the importance it gives to yet another language—Yiddish, the lingua franca that evolved among European Jews after their expulsion from Germany during the Middle Ages. It combines German syntax with vocabulary from Hebrew, Aramaic, Germanic, Slavic languages, and other languages and it is written in Hebrew characters. Some Traditional-Orthodox children study Yiddish in school, while others pick it up from their parents, and the extent of its use varies among different groups. Other aspects of linguistic practice vary also. For example, members of some Hasidic groups use Hebrew in everyday conversation, while others avoid it, considering it too holy for everyday use.


Storytelling combining down-to-earth folk wisdom and sophisticated wit is among the most important Hasidic traditions. A wealth of tales and anecdotes handed down over the generations expresses the Hasidim's faith in God and love of humanity. The Hasidic belief in the efficacy of simple, heartfelt religious devotion is expressed in a typical tale about an un-educated wagon driver. Stopping by the roadside, he calls out the entire Hebrew alphabet letter by letter so that God can help him express his devotion, as he does not know the prayers, only the letters from which to fashion them. Tales based on the wisdom of Hasidic sages have always been an especially important part of the folktale tradition. A favorite pastime, these stories provide spiritual inspiration and moral instruction as well as entertainment. They are especially popular at the melave malkeh , a gathering held on Saturday night to mark the end of the Sabbath. A famous collection of these tales is The Legends of the Baal Shem Tov .


Founded about 2000 bc by the patriarch Abraham, Judaism is a monotheistic religion based on the belief in one God who is the creator and ruler of the universe. His word is revealed in the books of the Bible known to Christians as the Old Testament, and especially the portion—known as the Torah—that was given to the Jewish people through the prophet Moses on Mt. Sinai (about 1300 bc). Traditional-Orthodox Jews belong to one of the three major groups within the Jewish faith, Orthodox Jewry. This group views the Torah as historically revealed to Moses and therefore absolutely binding on believers (the Conservative and Reform groups allow for varying degrees of adaptation to the changing conditions of the modern world). Orthodox Jews also place special emphasis on the Talmud, a compendium of rabbinical commentaries compiled between the 5th and 7th centuries ad, and the legal tradition, called the halakah, that is based on it.


Traditional-Orthodox Jews observe all of the holy days of the Jewish calendar. While their observances are essentially similar to those of the Modern-Orthodox, they may be more elaborate at times. For example, at Passover, when all observant Jews eat unleavened bread, or matzo, some Traditional-Orthodox Jews observe additional prohibitions, such as refraining from wetting the matzohs. They may also refuse to eat any processed food at this time, even that which would be considered kosher by less rigorous standards.


For a Traditional-Orthodox Jew, one's birth date on the Hebrew lunar calendar holds a significance equal to or greater than that of the secular Western date. The major rites of passage observed by Traditional-Orthodox Jews are, by and large, those practiced by the larger community of observant Jews. The first in the life cycle is the bris, or circumcision ceremony, for a baby boy when he is eight days old, which formally marked him a part of the Jewish community and affirms his relationship with God. The next rite of passage (also for boys) is one that, in the modern West, has been retained primarily by Traditional-Orthodox Jews: the upsheren, or first haircut. A boy's hair is allowed to grow until he is three years old, when he undergoes the ritual haircut which is a ceremonial sign that he is ready to begin the study of the Torah. The next major milestone is the coming-of-age ceremony: the bar mitzvah for boys (at age 13) and bat mitzvah for girls (at age 12). (The Hebrew meaning of "bar/bat mitzvah" is "son/daughter of the commandment.") At the age of 13, a boy is traditionally deemed qualified to be counted as part of a minyan (the quorum of ten men needed for public prayer) and can begin wearing tefillin (phylacteries), small square leather boxes containing slips inscribed with scriptural passages and worn on the forehead and left arm by Orthodox men during weekday-morning prayers. In addition, the child of 12 or 13 is considered ready to participate fully in the ritual fast days of the Jewish calendar.

Traditional-Orthodox weddings are joyous, festive occasions. Among the best-known features of a traditional Jewish wedding are the ketubah, or marriage contract; the hoopah, or canopy, under which the ceremony is performed; the tradition of having the bride circle the groom seven times just before the ceremony; and the breaking of a glass at the end of it. At weddings, as at all public events, men and women are seated separately, both at the ceremony and at the reception.

A Jewish funeral takes place as soon after death as possible. The Kaddish , or memorial prayer, is recited at the funeral, and should also be recited every day by a relative, or a designated substitute, for the first year following death. The mourners observe a formal week-long period of mourning called shivah , when they stay home, refrain from ordinary activities, and receive calls from friends, relative, and acquaintances. The gravestone is dedicated in a formal unveiling ceremony held between one month and one year following the person's death.


Many facets of public (and private) behavior among Traditional-Orthodox Jews are governed by strict conventions regarding modesty, or tsniut. Strict separation of the sexes in public places begins at nursery-school age. Many Traditional-Orthodox Jews will not attend even those forms of secular entertainment to which they have no religious objection—such as an orchestra concert—because that would require them to be part of a mixed male and female audience.

A man and woman who are not related to each other are not supposed to be alone together in a room, and even the public behavior of married couples is restricted by a variety of rules, such as a prohibition against either verbal or physical displays of affection in the presence of others. Among some Hasidic sects, husbands and wives are not even supposed to walk together in the street, at least not until they reach middle age.


Traditional-Orthodox Jews have often lived crowded together in aging city neighborhoods because of the importance of proximity to their rabbi and synagogue, which is crucial since they are not allowed to drive on the Sabbath or other Jewish holy days. The presence of a religious school in the neighborhood is also a priority. Given these constraints on location, available housing in desirable areas can be overpriced because of the tight market for it. Increasingly, though, Traditional-Orthodox communities are finding suburbanization an acceptable solution to the problem of overcrowded and deteriorating urban housing, as long as the group that relocates is large enough to maintain its cohesion by providing for the continuation of its religious and cultural institutions.

Many Traditional-Orthodox Jews in the New York City area own or rent summer cottages in upstate New York, where they spend part or all of the summer, with the men commuting to the city or spending weekends with the rest of the family. Members of specific Hasidic sects often cluster together in small "colonies" of cottages or bungalows so that they can spend the summer near their friends and neighbors and have the minyan, or quorum of 10 men, that is required for prayer services.

Although they reject many aspects of contemporary Western culture, Traditional-Orthodox Jews enthusiastically embrace modern medicine. Their rabbis routinely advise followers about health problems and monitor their treatment by physicians, and their newspapers devote a relatively large amount of space to health-related stories. Money is often raised within the community to help pay the medical expenses of particular members who require expensive surgery or other forms of treatment. There is also a strong interest in alternative, holistic treatments among certain members of the community, and age-old folk remedies are still practiced as well. Traditional-Orthodox Jews use all forms of transportation available to the general public but will not drive or use other forms of transportation on the Sabbath or on holy days.


Arranged marriages are the norm among Traditional-Orthodox Jews. Today, however, the participants in a match, or shiddach—unlike their Old-World Eastern European counterparts—have the final say in whether or not they choose to marry each other. Although the two people usually spend some time getting to know one another before becoming engaged, this period seldom lasts more than a few weeks. There is no casual dating among people who are not seriously contemplating getting married in the immediate future.

Hasidic weddings are lively, joyous occasions. At both the ceremony and the reception, male and female guests are separated, as men and women are at all public events. Even the bride and groom sit separately at the reception, and both dance only with members of their own sex until the end of the evening, when the bride dances briefly with her male relatives, holding on to one end of a handkerchief or other cloth because she is not allowed to touch any man other than her husband, with whom she dances last.

After marriage, Traditional-Orthodox Jews adhere strictly to the taharat hamishpacha, a code of sexual purity that governs a couple's sexual practices, as well as other aspects of their behavior toward each other. As part of this code, a woman is required to frequent a special ritual bath called a mikvah at the end of her menstrual period before she can resume sexual relations with her husband. Traditional-Orthodox Jews take the biblical injunction, "Be fruitful and multiply," seriously. Female birth control is frowned upon unless a potential pregnancy poses medical or psychological hazards, and male use of condoms is forbidden entirely. Families generally have at least five children, and it is not uncommon to have eight, ten, or even more.

The women receive a less exacting religious education than their male counterparts, allowing them to devote a proportionately greater amount of their time in school to secular subjects. Thus they are often better educated than the men in secular fields. Although their large families and the rigorous requirements of their observant lifestyle are more than enough to occupy them at home, some Traditional-Orthodox women hold jobs to help meet household expenses that are increased by the cost of private school tuition.


The most visible way in which Traditional-Orthodox Jews differ from Modern-Orthodox and other Jews is in their clothing, which remains similar to that of their ancestors in Eastern Europe. The men wear a black suit and white shirt and sometimes also a black coat. Both Modern- and Traditional-Orthodox men wear a flat, round skullcap called a yarmulke at all times once they reach the age of 13, removing it only when swimming or showering. However, Traditional-Orthodox men also wear various types of hats over their yarmulkes when they pray or go out-of-doors. Probably the most distinctive is the streimel, a round, flat-topped fur hat worn by many Hasidic men. Made from up to 26 sable pelts, a streimel can cost over $5,000. Other Hasidim wear the spodik, a fur hat that is taller and narrower, while other Traditional-Orthodox Jews, including the Lubavitcher Hasidim, wear ordinary hats. The men also have full beards because the halakah prohibits shaving. Depending on their affiliation, they may wear the hair in front of their ears in earlocks called peyot, curly strands that are left to grow long, or, in some cases, tucked behind the ears.

Unlike the men, Traditional-Orthodox women are not restricted to any one style of clothing. They do, however, dress conservatively in keeping with strict religious laws governing female modesty, wearing either dresses or skirts that are long enough to cover their knees when they are standing, sitting, or walking. (In some communities, a stricter length requirement, such as 10 centimeters below the knee, is specified.) They do not wear slacks, jeans, or shorts, and their clothing must have high necklines and long sleeves. Once they are married, they cover their hair with either a kerchief or wig, for only their husband is permitted to see it.


The diet of Traditional-Orthodox Jews is distinguished by the strictness with which they observe the laws of Kashrut, kashruth, or kosher, which are derived from Biblical injunctions against eating foods considered to be impure. It is common for Modern-Orthodox and even Conservative Jews to "keep a kosher home." In general, this means separating meat from dairy products in their diet—which includes keeping separate sets of milchig (milk) and fleischig (meat) dishes and cooking utensils—and eating only meat that has been ritually slaughtered by a qualified Jewish slaughterer, or s hochet . In addition to these measures, however, Traditional-Orthodox Jews refrain from eating any processed or manufactured food that does not carry a rabbinical hechsher (certification) and honor only the hechshers of certain rabbis.


Like all Jews, the Traditional-Orthodox place a high value on education. However, they are unique in their concentrated focus on religious studies and in the part that these studies play in daily life. All members of the community—not just scholars or students—regularly spend time studying Jewish religious texts, perpetuating the time-honored tradition of their Eastern European forebears, for whom religious study was the most highly honored of activities. The children attend private religious schools (segregated by sex), which combine the study of religion and the Hebrew language with such secular subjects as English and mathematics. Girls, for whom the religious requirements are less stringent, receive a greater degree of secular education than boys, whose secular studies may or may not meet the minimum required for state certification in some cases, depending upon the school they attend.

The young men attend Jewish colleges called yeshivas, where they pursue advanced religious studies in an atmosphere far different from that of the ordinary academic setting of Western universities. Much of the study is conducted in crowded, noisy public study halls by pairs of students reading and debating together over passages in religious texts. The extracurricular activities of ordinary campus life—team sports, theater productions, mixers—are unknown in the yeshiva. Sports are frowned upon and casual dating is forbidden. There is an additional institution, the kollel, for even more advanced study; it is generally attended by married students.


The cultural heritage of Traditional-Orthodox Jews is basically the religious tradition that they have in common with other members of the Jewish faith. However, the Hasidic background shared by many has produced a rich tradition of folk-tales and music, especially the lyrical, wordless melodies called niggunim that create a feeling of spiritual uplift and closeness to God. Traditional-Orthodox Jews also avail themselves of more modern cultural resources to replace the secular culture that they have renounced. These include contemporary literature for both children and adults by Orthodox Jewish writers. Sets of storybooks for girls are especially popular, notably the Bais Yakov series, and many adults enjoy the self-help books of authors such as Miriam Adaham and Rabbi Manis Friedman.


Like Modern-Orthodox Jews, the Traditional-Orthodox do not work on the Sabbath (Shabbos)—which begins an hour before sundown on Friday night and lasts until sundown on Saturday night—or on a number of other holy days throughout the year. Given these restrictions, many Traditional-Orthodox Jews prefer to be in business for themselves. In Israel, many of the men continue full-time religious study after they are married, while their wives work, often as teachers or secretaries (or, more recently, in such fields as computers, graphics, and bookkeeping). Outside Israel, the men have traditionally gravitated toward the diamond and real estate industries. Electronics re-tailing is also popular, and a number of Traditional-Orthodox Jews own nursing homes.


Sports are generally frowned upon as a form of recreation for adults but considered acceptable for children. Athletic activities are part of the schedule at Traditional-Orthodox summer camps although the clothing worn during games varies from ordinary uniforms to Hasidic garb complete with long black coats. The strictest groups, such as the Satmar Hasidim, forbid all sports for children past the age of the bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah (13 for boys and 12 for girls), which traditionally signals the formal beginning of adulthood. Swimming, for all Traditional-Orthodox groups, is strictly segregated by sex: men and women never swim in the presence of members of the opposite gender.


Religious considerations play a major role in how Traditional-Orthodox Jews choose to spend their leisure time. They own no televisions, which are seen as a corrupting influence, and most reject virtually all other facets of popular culture, including movies and popular music. Even cultural events such as concerts, to which there is no inherent moral objection, are generally out of bounds, since Traditional-Orthodox Jews are not supposed to mingle with members of the opposite sex in public. For the most part, their recreational needs are met through concerts and other special events organized by the religious community, where they know that the content will not be objectionable and that men and women will be seated separately. It is also considered acceptable to frequent museums and cultural exhibits of other types which do not require mingling at close range with strangers of the opposite sex. Another cultural resource is the variety of recordings of contemporary music by Jewish recording artists such as Mordechai ben David and Avraham Fried, whose songs combine religious content with popular musical styles.


Centuries of skilled silversmithing has gone into the creation of Jewish ritual objects, many of them for synagogue use, including Torah scroll cases and ornaments, pointers for reading the Torah, and a variety of ceremonial objects such as esrog boxes for the Sukkot holiday. Probably the most universal ritual object for home use is the mezuzah, a small oblong tube containing a parchment scroll inscribed with a Biblical text and affixed to the doorposts of observant Jewish homes. Mezuzahs may be made of silver, brass, wood, ceramics, or other materials. In the Jewish home, embroidery is found on the tablecloths used at festive Sabbath or holiday meals, and also on such objects as the special cloths used to cover the ceremonial loaf of bread, or challah, at Sabbath meals.

A favorite hobby of Traditional-Orthodox Jews is gathering for storytelling sessions at which inspirational tales of rabbinical wisdom and miraculous events are recounted.


Although Traditional-Orthodox communities are relatively free from crime, suicide, and the high divorce rates common among other segments of society, their members are not immune to some of the same problems that plague the world beyond their neighborhoods. The number of Traditional-Orthodox Jews participating in twelve-step recovery programs for drug and alcohol abuse is rising in spite of deep-seated fears of discovery and subsequent ostracism by others within the community. In 1988 the Lubavitcher Hasidic sect, headquartered in Crown Heights, New York, started a drug and alcohol awareness program—a rarity in the Hasidic world—called Operation Survival, which offers referral services and provides counselors to yeshivas.

Other potential sources of tension inherent in the Traditional-Orthodox lifestyle include the universal custom of arranged marriages ( shiddachs ) and the pressure to produce and support large families. In addition, there is the potential culture clash that can occur between men who continue their full-time religious studies after marriage (a practice particularly common in Israel) and their breadwinner wives, who often find employment in non-Orthodox work environments, where they may enjoy easygoing, informal social contacts with co-workers of a type forbidden them in their role as Orthodox wives. Outside employment also means that a Traditional-Orthodox woman may advance professionally while her husband—if he remains a student—has little hope of advancement to a secure teaching or rabbinical position.


Traditional Orthodox Jewish women are to be helpmates for their husbands. That means that the wife is there for her husband and is loving and supportive, especially in his religious studies. It is the husband's obligation to be the breadwinner of the family. However, sometimes the wife will be the breadwinner, so that her husband can further his Talmudic studies. Women also help raise their children, and play a large role in their religious education.

Traditional Orthodoxy has insulated itself from such evolutions as feminism, the gay rights movement, and laxer sexual norms in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Allowing changes in women's religious roles is evidence of unacceptable surrender to the broader secular culture. However, for some Orthodox women, Jewish tradition has always engaged and been influenced by prevailing intellectual and cultural norms, strong enough to incorporate them without compromising its core values or laws.


Buxbaum, Yitzhak. The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov . New York: Continuum, 2005.

Eisenberg, Robert. Boychiks in the Hood: Travels in the Chasidic Underground. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Eliach, Yaffa. Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. New York: Avon Books, 1982.

Greenberg, Tsipora. Personal interview, 25 July 1996.

Harris, Lis. Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family. New York: Summit Books, 1985.

Hass, Nancy. "Hooked Hassidim: The Long and Secret Road to Recovery in Brooklyn's Ultra-Orthodox Communities." New York. 28 January, 1991: 32.

Hecht, Eli. Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge: Memories of an American Youngster Growing Up with Chassidic Survivors of the Holocaust. Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris, 2004.

Hoffman, Edward. Despite All Odds: The Story of Lubavitch. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Kezwer, Gil. "Shalom, Bonjour: A Flourishing Community of Chassidic Jews Awaits the Messiah in Rural Quebec." Canadian Geographic. July-August 1994. Vol. 114:4, p.54.

Landau, David. Piety and Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Remnick, David. "Waiting for the Apocalypse in Crown Heights." The New Yorker. 21 December, 1992: 52–57.

Unterman, Alan. Dictionary of Jewish Lore and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.

Wertheimer, Jack. A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

Wiesel, Elie. Somewhere a Master: Hasidic Portraits and Legends. New York: Schocken Books, 2005.

Winston, Hella. Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.

—reviewed by J. Hobby