The Zionist Conspiracy

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Tuesday, June 08, 2004
Orthodox Jews and TV in 2004

The yeshiva elementary school I attended from 1978-1986 was ideologically confused. The only non-chasidic yeshiva in Boro Park, its student body largely came from modern or centrist Orthodox families. The all boys school was clearly more liberal than the charedi yeshivas in Flatbush, and more strict than the proudly modern Orthodox schools in the area.

In a way that was a good thing, except for the school's self-consciousness at being labeled "modern" by those on its right. It would try to compensate in bizarre ways, such as when I was in sixth or seventh grade, and the school suddenly decided that velvet yarmulkes and knitted yarmulkes were okay, but not suede yarmulkes. Even if one accepts that what kind of yarmulke a person wears is at all relevant, this particular decision was non-sensical, since both suede and knitted yarmulkes cause discomfort among the charedi yeshivas. In a hilarious incident, one day the principal did a spot check of yarmulkes, and upon his entrance, one boy quickly placed a black velvet yarmulke atop his knitted yarmulke. The principal saw this, removed the velvet yarmulke and angrily chided the student for "putting a different yarmulke on top of the perfectly kosher one you were already wearing."

Another area of confusion in that school was television. Officially, watching TV was discouraged, but almost everyone in the school had televisions and watched TV. Unlike the high school I later attended, in which the principal railed against television and referred to parents who had TV's in the house as "either idiots or hypocrites," this school tacitly accepted that TV was a part of its students' lives.

When it came to choosing members of the school's honor society, how much TV one watched became an important issue. Joining the honor society was desirable because it allowed the honoree to skip a day of school late in the year to go to Great Adventures, a New Jersey theme park. As the trip grew closer and it became necessary for the school to fill its buses to make the trip economically feasible, the principal would come into class to interview students, mainly to ask how much TV they watched. Officially the limit was 30 minutes a day except for sports, which had a 60 minute limit. I passed the test despite candidly telling the principal that during football season, I watched TV all day on Sunday. Another kid admitted that he could not miss the A-Team each Tuesday night, which, of course ran for an hour. While a logical solution would have been for him to agree to forego his 30 minute allowance on some other night, he too received a dispensation.

In those days, the shows we watched were programs like the A-Team, Greatest American Hero, McGyver, Cheers, the Cosby Show, Diff'rent Strokes, Magnum P.I. and Family Ties. Today, reruns of those shows are often rated G.

For an observant Jew, it's easy to rail against the declining standards of what appears on television today. When the New York Times, hardly a prudish media outlet controlled by the religious right is strongly critical, it's hard not to take notice.

The Times' Alessandra Stanley is to be credited with her column last Thursday. As she wrote, "networks justify their slumming by insisting that such shows are breaking down unhealthy taboos; but there are no taboos left on television, except perhaps, girls behaving decently."

It's easy to tell people to simply turn off the television if one doesn't like what's on. Both liberals and the charedi world make that argument. The problem is that what's shown on TV cannot be separated from the standards of the society we live in. Withdrawal from that society is not impossible, but it carries a heavier cost than simply changing the channel.

The declining standards of American society were well illustrated the other night, on MTV's Punk'd, Ashton Kutcher's hidden camera practical joke program. I was flipping channels during a break in Game 1 of the Lakers vs. Pistons championship series. A joke was being played on actress Shannon Elizabeth. She and her husband had just returned from a vacation, and she was meeting with her publicity staff. They informed her that the Enquirer and similar tabloids were set to report that a hidden camera in her hotel room had taped intimate acts of her and her husband. Elizabeth began crying and called her husband, who was in on the "joke" and MTV filmed away as they "privately" discussed very personal details of their vacation. A minute or two later, Elizabeth was told it was all a joke.

Quite recently, lower-class folks who appeared on Jerry Springer to reveal all their personal details were derided as pathetic. Now, the husband of a wealthy actress thinks it is amusing to reveal their own private information to the world. TV has been a major influence in this decline in moral values, but the problem is much deeper.

Getting rid of one's TV or limiting the stations one can access might be a partial solution, but ultimately the challenge of those of us who are observant but who choose to be an active part of American society goes beyond that. I don't think there's a simple answer either on an individual, familial or community level, but the issue needs to be soberly considered by serious observant Jews. While the approach of my elementary school principal was not especially sophisticated, its pragmatic recognition of reality was, in retrospect, a good start.