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In my Sept. 7 CJN column, “Israeli Haredi must learn to co-exist,” I wrote about the street battles that a fringe element in the ultra-Orthodox community has been waging in Jerusalem to stop the construction of a light rail line through one of the city’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. It’s essentially a fight against the intrusion of modern secular Israel into the neighborhood. The line will also make it easier for the young people in the neighborhood to go elsewhere in the city, where secular enticements could undermine their allegiance to ultra-Orthodox religious practice.

Barely a week after my column appeared, a variation on the same theme landed on the front page of the New York Times. The massive article highlighted the abject failure of private Hasidic schools in New York to give their male students a basic education in secular subjects such as English and math. As the Times put it, they are “failing by design” – on purpose.

That’s because providing a secular education isn’t these schools’ mission. Their goal is to instill a Jewish identity in the students – in part by isolating them from secular influences. In Israel, where I live, there is similar neglect of secular subjects in ultra-Orthodox schools. That neglect poses a long-term threat to the Israeli economy because many of the schools turn out graduates, particularly male ones, who are incapable of functioning in a modern workplace.

To a great extent, Israel is the product of a secular Zionist movement that was the antithesis of ultra-Orthodoxy and a reaction to it. A central tenet of mainstream Zionism was the belief that Jews should reclaim a modern version of their ancient national existence in their homeland rather than achieving redemption by praying for the Messiah.

One can’t generalize about ultra-Orthodox schools in New York or Israel, but the Times story and the Jerusalem light rail issue both highlight the insularity of much of the ultra-Orthodox community in its fight to maintain traditional values. An interesting sidelight on the Times story is the newspaper’s website included a link to a full translation of the article into Yiddish, the native language of many of the students at these schools.

As someone who has a real affection for Yiddish, I was pleased to see that, but then I began thinking that it was a wasted effort. In its insularity, much of the ultra-Orthodox community disapproves of use of the internet – due to its secular influences.

The ultra-Orthodox community needs to find a way to preserve its adherents’ identity without shutting out the modern world. Its attempt to insulate the community is a losing battle and it also condemns its members to poverty due to their lack of skills, whether they live in New York or Jerusalem.

The tension between modernity and “tradition” is a “Fiddler on the Roof” dilemma that all modern national cultures have had to grapple with. Insularity is not the solution.

In Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Joseph Stein, who wrote “Fiddler,” recounted his visit to Japan in 1967 to see the Japanese-language version of his play. “I got there just during the rehearsal period and the Japanese producer asked me, ‘Do they understand this show in America?’ And I said, ‘Yes, of course, we wrote it for America. Why do you ask?’ And he said, ‘Because it’s so Japanese.’”

As Wayne Hoffman wrote on the Tablet magazine website: “Tevye and his daughters had to leave Anatevka and even move across an ocean to find their new world. The Japanese stayed put, but the new world came to them just as surely, with the same uncertain mix of hope and fear.”

Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East from Ra’anana, Israel. He is an editor at the English edition of Haaretz.