On January 8, the first day of the so-called Spring Semester at The Ohio State University, the Department of Near Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures sponsored a very interesting and special presentation by Professor Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar on “Old Order and Jewish Ultra-Orthodox Women’s Responses to the Media.”
Her lecture was built from a comparison of two very distinctive groups by lifestyle and religious beliefs. Distinctions and differences are important, because without the ability to systematically compare in any field of study, scholarship is much more difficult to achieve.
Professor Neriya-Ben Shahar is a Senior Lecturer at Sapir Academic College in Sderot, Israel where she teaches courses in research methods, communications, religion, and gender. She earned her doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her doctorate was titled “Ultra-Orthodox Women and Mass Media in Israel – Exposure Patterns and Reading Strategies.”
For many years now, she has traveled to the United States, meeting with Old Order Amish women and learning about Amish culture and the roles of women in Amish society. She was a Snowden Fellow with the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College (Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania) in the Fall of 2017.
From her reading and research on the Amish, combined with her own background and dissertation research at Hebrew University on Ultra-Orthodox Women, she is able to make many interesting comparisons, noting both similarities and differences among women from both groups.
Old Order and Jewish Ultra-Orthodox Women’s Responses to the Media
Professor Neriya-Ben Shahar’s lecture begins by describing several essential features of both groups.
For Old Order Amish women, it was that they have eight years of education (same as the men), average about seven children during their child-bearing years, and stay at home as housekeepers, with the husbands as the breadwinners, supporting their families through a great variety of agricultural and non-agricultural pursuits today.
The Ultra-Orthodox community, representing about one in every seven citizens in Israel, were described as a “community of scholars”, meaning that the men pursue study of the various sacred texts associated with the Jewish faith and do not have full-time jobs. This creates some interesting differences from Old Order Amish women. Ultra-Orthodox women average about fourteen years of education, and nearly four out of five work outside the home, yet, they too average about seven children during their child-bearing years.
Her study included eighty-two respondents, forty of whom were Amish (from Lancaster County, PA) and forty-two of whom were Ultra-Orthodox from Israel. Professor Neriya-Ben Shahar developed a survey to study their perceptions of the media, constructing straightforward questions with required only “yes” or “no” responses (after discovering during previous field-testing that any more than two response categories created too much ambiguity among those answering the survey).
The respondents themselves were identified through what in research is known as a “snowball” sample. This means that the first individuals who agree to participate in the research recommend others who might do the same. This snowball process is continued until a sufficient number of respondents are obtained.
Professor Neriya-Ben Shahar found that neither group watch television because they have little opportunity without televisions in their homes, but they all have watched television on occasion, usually when traveling or shopping. Remarkably, they are aware of the same programs, such as “Little House on the Prairie” and other family-oriented shows.
She quotes one Amish woman who responded by saying: “I would lose my Christian value if I would watch it daily.” Another stated: “The Bible says to keep away from evil. The time you spend watching TV should rather be spent with your family.” An Ultra-Orthodox woman wrote in response to the question about televisions: “…families are destroyed because if a man watches other women, much prettier than his wife, and the other women are always happy, then what are the expectations of this home?”
Perceptions of the influence of radios is not much different from how women within both groups see television. Only one respondent, an Ultra-Orthodox woman, listens to the radio regularly. Old Order Amish women expressed negative views, such as radio programs are filled with “negative news”, that they can “fill your mind with trash”, and radio “…connects you to the world too much, and we want to be a separate people.”
For the Ultra-Orthodox women, similar views are expressed, even though so many work outside the home. For example, one exclaimed “There is no need to listen to the bad things that happen in the world” and “I don’t want them to brainwash me or decide what I should think and understand.” One firmly declared: “The radio is anti-Ultra-Orthodox, anti-moral, and anti-education.”
Newspapers & Magazines
Despite their views of television and radio, both sets of respondents do read newspapers and magazines regularly. For Old Order Amish women, it is the local paper, in this case, the Lancaster County newspaper (the Lancaster New Era), and periodicals made for Anabaptist subscribers, such as Die Botschaft (The Message), Family Life and Keepers of the Home, among others.
Similarly, Ultra-Orthodox Women would read Ultra-Orthodox Newspapers, including Hamodia (the informant) and Yated Ne’eman (literally translated as trustworthy peg). Magazines might include Mishpacha (family), Bait Neeman (faithful home) and Bait Shelanu (our home).
Reasons for reading newspapers and magazines seem remarkably the same for both Old Order and Ultra-Orthodox women. For example, Old Order Amish women said they would read things that are “food for my soul” and “if it contains helpful knowledge, encouragement and promotes Christian living, I feel it can help me live a better life.”
On the Ultra-Orthodox side, respondents would say they read newspapers and magazines “to get updates in a clean way, with a quiet heart”, and “It’s good that we have so many newspapers, so we are busy with our own supply and don’t try to search for the secular ones.”
Despite all these similarities in media use and opinions about the media, there is one notable difference. It is the use of the internet, which is directly associated with the extent that married Old Order Amish do not, and Ultra-Orthodox women work outside the home.
Professor Neriya-Ben Shahar found that only a handful of Amish women have ever used the internet, compared to most Ultra-Orthodox women who have, especially on-the-job uses, including information searches, emails, shopping, news updates and even maintaining contact with family members who do not live nearby in Israel, or live in other countries.
When asked about using the internet, one befuddled Old Order Amish women exclaimed: “I have no idea how to use this internet. All I know it that you have to type in words, and there is a little mouse.” However, another Old Order Amish woman was philosophical about it: “It’s only a good as the people who use it.”
On the Ultra-Orthodox side, one respondent said “A blocked internet is a Kosher internet.” Another declared: “The internet is the most terrible thing now. It’s poison, a Satan, an angel of death. It is destruction and ravage and all of terrible things written in the Bible, degeneration of everything.” Yet, a third voiced the view that “This is part of contemporary life and we need to learn how to deal with it.”
Professor Neriya-Ben Shahar observed that the lack of internet use by Old Order Amish women, and selective internet use by Ultra-Orthodox Women, creates a valuable cultural and religious currency for women in both communities, which goes as well for restrictions on television and radio. Newspapers and magazines, although more frequently read, are done so by both Old Order Amish and Ultra-Orthodox women within self-consciously regulated practices that neither threaten core religious beliefs, nor violate important cultural practices, hence, helping to keep both apart from the mainstream.
Professor Neriya-Ben Shahar’s book, Strictly Observant: Amish and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Woman Negotiating Media was released by Rutgers University Press in mid-January, 2024. Hot off the presses! If you are interested in purchasing a copy, go here.
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