The Mitnachmed

I have set myself the goal of helping bridge the societal gap betwen the secular and haredi Israelis.

Oded Steinberger, | updated: 00:14

This week I earned a new label,  mitnachmed.  Loosely translated, a sweet-talker, an obsequious yes-man.

I was irritated by this word and its brazen assault on the lexicon, a perversion of the word nechmad, meaning pleasing, in a derisive form.

As part of my job, I have recently met with hundreds of Haredi men and women  who comprise a true diversity of views and opinions. And usually, when I tell people about my work at Gesher, facilitating connection and forging intersectoral understanding and respect, they commend my activities, or, at the very least,suffice with, “Well, someone should be doing that.”

But last week, I had an altogether discordant encounter.

So, hello, everyone. Pleased to meet you. I’m Oded, and I’m officially a mitnachmed, a sweet-talker, an obsequious yes-man.

I’m a mitnachmed  I’m Doss-Friendly (Doss is slightly derisive slang for religiously observant, ed.): I'm nice to Haredim, with exaggerated, artificial efforts, going to extreme measures to please “them,” while “we” bear the brunt of their religious coercion, pay five times the taxes, and send “our” boys to the army while “theirs” sit and warm yeshivah benches. My tolerance is unacceptable and makes me deserving of ridicule.

These are the facts; I won’t argue them.

The truth: I knew exactly what the Haredim wish to force upon us, the general public. The media and educational system made it their mission to remind me, ad infinitum, who is to blame for the lack of public transportation on Shabbat, why there is no separation of church and state, and why civil marriage is prohibited in Israel… I learned all too well to hate. I am keenly aware, therefore, of how I’ve come to epitomize the mitnachmed; I can see myself through their eyes.

As I began to study the Haredi sector a few years ago, I had an epiphany, suddenly realizing that-heaven forfend!—I, with my true-blue, secular, liberal lifestyle and views have been coercive and have been forcing something upon the Haredi sector! Serious soul-searching ensued.

The first time I used the phrase “secular coercion,” boy, did I get dirty looks! How dare I so much as hint that the secular public is coercing anything on the religious or Haredi public?! Only “they” do that. “They” are the ones shoving their opinions down our throats, while “we” so graciously enable every citizen and human being to live his or her life as he or she pleases. We reject and judge nobody, we accept and embrace all.

Really?

This personal reckoning shook me and I attempted, for real, to imagine trying to penetrate a foreign academic world so as to use my talents and land a high-paying job, only to encounter programs, content and processes that utterly collide with my most deeply held faith and beliefs. I became a mitnachmed immediately-it was impossible to unknow that struggle.

I’m a mitnachmed because I was able to see myself as a Haredi man, spurned by dozens of potential employers or the Haredi woman who got the job, but is paid significantly less than her peers in the general public, and sometimes,less than the person doing the identical job, one desk over in the office.

I’m a mitnachmed because I’ve learned that much of the content spewed by mainstream media outlets, including the government channel, is simply incompatible with a Haredi lifestyle, and I’m a mitnachmed because I (gasp) respect the Haredim who are careful to never glance up while cruising down the Ayalon, because the billboards are so offensive to them.

To be clear, I have no interest in seeing any of this change—neither the academia, nor the workplace, nor the media. I certainly wouldn’t give up Bar Refaeli on the Ayalon! But my honest self-evaluation led me to conclude that my secularist-Zionist-democratic lifestyle and value system dominate the country.

I am the majority, the decisor, and they are the lesser, the minority. If only there was an easy way to bridge between opposite sides of the ravine. Forging social unity is always an exceedingly delicate, complex task, and it begins with appreciating the need to coexist in peace.

If only we could all sit down for some real soul-searching, and step into the shoes of the other. If only the next time we glimpsed a Haredi man or woman, on the university campus, appearing for an interview, or just passing us in the street, we would offer a genuine smile, engage in conversation, and maybe even share a bit of what’s hurting us so deeply.

It would not eradicate all of our differences, nor assuage all of our conflicts, but with just a little bit of heart we could, however, foster our commonality on this tiny piece of land called the State of Israel.

So, yes, I’m Oded, and I’m a proud mitnachmed.

The author directs joint leadership groups for Haredi and non-Haredi students in Gesher.




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