You could live a whole life inside a dream, inside a small, every-moment-busied world where everyone looks and acts alike and you never have to think for yourself or imagine a free identity for yourself. You could live in a cult.

Imagine it: An entire life dictated by other people, by unquestionable holy writ embodied in an authoritarian figure, by – above all – the imperative to breed new adherents. Your entire adulthood could be engrossed in the production and maintenance of ten or thirteen children.

It seems a strange brew to those of us outside the haredi dreamlife; but if, for instance, you attend an ultraorthodox school “where the only history taught [is] Jewish history” — wrap your head around that: the only history — your bizarre ignorance and withdrawal, your almost comical hyper-provinciality, doesn’t seem bizarre. It constitutes an ordered, heavily populated world. It is the only world you’ve ever known.


Henry James put it best: “[T]he world as it stands is no narrow illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of the night; we wake up to it, forever and ever; and we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.” The most successful cults must labor every moment to tamp down the world as it is; they must illude and stupefy and above all keep their members very very busy every moment, so that these benighted people can, against all odds, forget, deny, and dispense with the world. Rabbis must keep alive among sect members the delusion that they are special, anointed, in exclusive possession of the truth. (“I grew up with a sense of the Haredim being special and different. …I discovered I’m not so special or different, that there are millions like me. That’s what suddenly made me say ‘That’s it, I’m leaving.'”) They must even include regular violence in that busy-making mix, as we see in constantly rioting haredim in Israel, and in the national shame here of ultraorthodox Jews having been part of the Capitol insurrection.

Anyone could have predicted that the current pandemic would shake a lot of haredim awake; its own authoritarian rabbis predicted it, which is why many of them defied – continue to defy – the lockdown and other covid-related laws of Israel. If you don’t keep your people very busy and very inside a dream, they are going to begin to perk up.

By definition, pandemics are global, unignorable, penetrative, realities; surviving them depends on a respect for and understanding of science — the great enemy of any cult. The despicable way in which panicky rabbis have endangered the lives of their followers by attempting to disallow simple health measures among them has certainly attracted the attention of the secular world; but it has also nudged awake the moral conscience of elements of their own sects.

“When I had a lot of time to think [under lockdown], the questions flooded up again,” [one ex-ultraorthodox woman said]. “Suddenly, the rabbis didn’t know what to do. They aren’t doctors.”

And now, as this New York Times piece notes, an already discernible drift away from ultraorthodoxy has become outright flight, so that Israel faces a strange and terrible social problem: The sudden emergence into its secular world of significant numbers of isolated, traumatized, and ignorant people. People who cannot do simple math, may speak only Yiddish, and have never used a computer.

[D]eserters often find themselves in a netherworld, estranged from their families, community and the only way of life they knew and, lacking a secular education, ill-equipped to deal with the outside world.

Most Haredi boys’ schools teach little or no secular subject matter like math, English or science.

Out of one netherworld, into another: An exquisitely horrible fate. But the Israeli state holds the blame: They let – continue to let – the haredi sect remain etherized. They have not been willing to awaken it, and now it’s nightmare time.

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One Response to “Life could be a dream, sweetheart.”

  1. Greg Says:

    Sorry to be drawn to the title – song now stuck in my head – rather than to the more serious individual and collective harms of this kind of imprisonment and impoverishment. It seems a little like the (I hope, only thought-) experiment of keeping a child in a dark room from birth to see what happens . . . or doesn’t.

    But here are lyrics of the famous 1954 cover by the Crew Cuts of “Life Could be a Dream.” I did not remembered the vaguely Shakesperean hey hey nonny. Anyway, sh-boom.

    Hey nonny ding dong, alang alang alang
    Boom ba-doh, ba-doo ba-doodle-ay
    Oh, life could be a dream (sh-boom)
    If I could take you up in paradise up above (sh-boom)
    If you would tell me I’m the only one that you love
    Life could be a dream, sweetheart
    (Hello, hello again, sh-boom and hopin’ we’ll meet again)
    Oh, life could be a dream (sh-boom)
    If only all my precious plans would come true (sh-boom)
    If you would let me spend my whole life lovin’ you
    Life could be a dream, sweetheart
    Now every time I look at you
    Something is on my mind (dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-duh)
    If you do what I want you to
    Baby, we’d be so fine!
    Oh, life could be a dream (sh-boom)
    If I could take you up in paradise up above (sh-boom)
    If you would tell me I’m the only one that you love
    Life could . . .

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