Who Are the People in Your (Orthodox Jewish) Neighborhood?

When I became fully observant some 50 years ago, I found that I was a novice in what I’ve come to refer to as “Orthospeak”. It is a strange (to me) version of English, that sometimes sounds like it is being spoken by someone who is not a native English speaker (most likely a remnant of the immigrant parents or grandparents), and, among Ashkenazim, the Yiddishisms tossed in. Yinglish, many call it.

But there is also some butchering of the English language in ways that are deeply disturbing, and certainly to those who didn’t grow up in observant families.

Today’s pet peeve is the use of the word “People” or “Everyone”. As in the synagogue announcement in which the rabbi states: “It’s Simchat Torah, so we need to make sure everyone gets an aliya” (called to the Torah). In the synagogues I’m writing about, not everyone gets an aliya. Every man gets an aliya. Regardless of one’s opinion on the subject of women’s role in the synagogue, we can all agree that, in the vast majority of Orthodox synagogues, not everyone is called to the Torah. And by announcing it the way I’ve heard it announced dozens of times over the past 50 years, the rabbis making the announcements have shown their dis-counting of women. And that dis-counting then carries into other parts of religious life that I’ve witnessed: women being told to recite Kaddish in a whisper only (if at all), women being told that they cannot shovel dirt at a funeral (as is the traditional practice), and, in some Orthodox publications, the elimination of all photographs of girls and women.

It isn’t only women who are dis-counted in the modern Orthodox community in which I’ve generally chosen to be a part of. It’s also about those who are not Jewish. Example: in one modern Orthodox social media group I belong to, a woman raised the question about a certain neighborhood’s Orthodox Jewish population, by asking “Do any people live in —-?” Thinking on my toes, I responded “No, all the houses there are abandoned and are being overrun by wolves.”

Again, when we dis-count groups of people, we cannot be surprised when those who are being marginalized are then treated with disrespect by those in our Jewish communities.

The Chofetz Chaim, in his many writings on the topic, reminded all Jewish people that they must be careful with their speech. We need to take that teaching to heart and make sure that our speech reflects an inclusivity and a recognition that all humanity is created “in the image of God”.

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