Why is it that every story about Chassidim manages to always gravitate back to the same two or three small minded issues? Regardless of whom the reporter or what the subject is, it comes down to the oversimplified or perhaps even lowest common denominator that is perhaps just easier for readers to intellectually digest.
This time the subject that was featured in the New York Times this past Shabbos was about preparing to bake Matzos for Pesach here at the end of June. But Pesach does not happen again until April 14, 2014. So one of the subliminal suggestions that is floated out there in the piece is—don’t these people have anything else to do?
If you did not see the story it was about the Satmar Chassidic group, mostly from Kiryas Yoel in upstate New York ascending on a sun baked ( I mean scorching hot, not really baked) farm in Yuma, Arizona in order to harvest wheat that has not come in contact with any moisture due to the overt dryness in that region at this time of year. In a way it is beautiful story about scrupulousness and the strictest adherence to the requirement that the wheat for Passover use remain the furthest distance from even the most remote possibility of it becoming leavened or Chometz.
But despite the front page picture of the men garbed in black milling around the field in their long coats and black felt hats in 106 degree heat the story quickly focuses on the petty and ridiculous. A staple of these stories in the secular press that have anything to do with Chassidim are that even though they are out there in the world they refuse to shake hands with women they meet. In this case the woman was the wife of the farmer in Arizona who they do business with. If that’s not enough to communicate how strict or perhaps backward these men are, the reporter goes on to tell us that the trip to the southeast for wheat is really about the continued competiveness for leadership of the sect between Reb Aharon Teilebaum, the older brother and Reb Zalman Leib.
The go to guy on understanding these matters is sociologist Dr. Samuel Heilman of New York who has a knack for breaking things down to the level of the absurd explains to the Times that this aspect of the competition between the two is one saying to the other, “my Matzo is more kosher than yours.”
So what do we know after reading this story? We know that Satmars still do not shake hands with women; two sects are competing with one another for supremacy or something and that even though it’s over a hundred degrees they still dress like its winter outside.
And oh yes—one more thing—that Matzo cost the consumer about $25 per pound, so someone is making money somewhere. The unanswered question is which of these is most important?