April 2, 2007

by Andrew Silow-Carroll
It's a gas

Why did yesterday's Peter Appelbome's NY Times article on Teaneck, "In This Town, Talk Turns to Putting the Volvos on a Kosher Diet," make me slightly uneasy? [Sorry, it's on TimesSelect.] Appelbome roams Cedar Lane with an article from the "Bergen County Jewish Times" claiming a local gasoline dealer is selling kosher-for-Pesach gasoline that will not contain corn-derived ethanol (corn = kitniyot). It even quotes a few of the "rabbis" in the piece saying the idea is not necessary but not bad either, in that it means the driver is "going above and beyond the basic requirements of the law." Most of those he interviews are slightly incredulous but not all that surprised, a reflection no doubt on an ethos that accepts increasingly strict interpretations of the chalacha.

After the jump, however, the original article turns out to be an April Fool's joke, one that has been floating around the web in recent weeks. A pretty good joke, in fact, within the context of the Orthodox blogosphere, where there is frequent satire of the humra-of-the-month club variety.

But isn't this joke slightly lost in the context of the Times' general readership? The premise of an April Fool's joke is that your reader eventually catches on to the ridiculousness of the premise (yesterday NPR ran a fake story about towns with crazy names, and the sculptors who are immortalizing them). But outside of the Orthodox world, how is anyone to know that "pesachdik gasoline" is far-fetched? Is it any more far-fetched than kosher-for-Pesach lipstick or petfood? You'd have to be an insider to know that ethanol-free gasoline is a hoot. (If I were in a conspiratorial mood, I might consider the article as a backdoor way to mock the Pesach restrictions in general. In general, I think I am turning into everyone's paranoid Uncle Sy when it comes to writing about Teaneck.)

So what would a general reader make of the Times article? I'm not sure, but I know what I was thinking as I read it -- "Look at those crazy Orthodox, at it again." And I am glad I made it to the jump, or I might have bought it hook, line and sinker. And even now that I'm in on the joke, the article still leads me to think, "Look at those crazy Orthodox -- they'll accept just about anything they think their rabbis say" (except the one guy who balks when he hears that the gas will cost more than $9 a gallon. "Ha-ha!" is the least charitable implication. "You know those Jews -- when it comes down to money or religion, which one will they choose?") Thanks, Peter, for helping bridge the community relations divide in my adopted town.

It's odd -- Appelbome took a lot of grief for his last article on Teaneck. I agreed with the critics who thought it poorly sourced, one-sided, and shallow -- even as I insisted that it reflected a very accurate picture of Teaneck's growing divide between the Orthodox and everybody else. Was this a little contrition on his part? If so, a very weird way to go about it. And would a similar article have been written about Muslims -- say, if he were to walk the streets of Patterson asking people if they had heard about the latest fatwa? Because, the idea that you can have some gentle fun with a religion assumes that the practioners have a sense of humor. In the case of the Appelbome article, that seems a dubious distinction.

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