Dateline: Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv
In a story first reported in Haaretz, and then syndicated to the BBC, Yahoo, and, among other places, the Fort Mill Times (it's a South Carolina paper), a toddler was left behind at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv as her parents and four siblings boarded a flight to Paris. By the time the four and a half year old girl, roaming around a duty-free shop, was found by an Israeli policeman, the flight was in the air. The parents were informed by a stewardess, according to Haaretz, forty minutes into the flight, that they had left their daughter on the ground.
The left-leaning and often anti-religious Haaretz was unusually restrained in their coverage--only intimating that the girl's family is 'ultra-orthodox.' Sarit Ben Eden, the officer in charge of the departure area, Haaretz reports, bought the crying girl an ice cream cone; the latter had become sufficiently composed to inform the officer that she only eats food with strict orthodox supervision (Badatz hechsherim). Subsequent accounts in the syndicated press, however, include due mention of the toddler's 'ultra-orthodox' background. A post by 'Jane' on the Haaretz 'Talk-Back' gives insight into the world-wide fascination with the story. Jane's post--'That's What I'd Call Too Many Children'--implores: 'If you can't keep track of them it's time to stop birthin' babies.' Anyway, everyone knows, as Jane implies: 'not only do the ultra-orthodox children have too many children, they don't even care about them!'
I'm not going to try to explain or justify what happened. Perhaps the parents were anxious about their departure from Israel, overwhelmed by their eighteen bags and their return to France; perhaps they had arranged some buddy system among their children, and there had been a failure of communication. Even though we've sometimes had a hard time keeping track of our children (as recounted in these pages), I can't fathom leaving one of them behind in the departure lounge (and then snacking peacably on airplane pretzels until given the news by a stewardess!). It's unimaginable to me.
But as much as I'm not interested in apologetics for the parents, I'm also not interested in a diatribe against the media's anti-orthodox prejudice. I'd rather think about why we are so compelled by stories like this one. It probably has to do with the kind of thinking that literary critics associate with synecdoche--which is an expression through which a part of something comes to stand in for the whole. By looking at a supposedly representative part, I claim to be able to make generalizations about the whole. So the story of the hapless French couple becomes a synecdoche for all orthodox parents: 'you see they have too many kids! and the ones they have they don't even care about!'
Stories like this help us keep our pre-conceived notions about people we'd prefer not to know. They are the urban legends--which the quantitative methods of sociology (and the statistics course I never took)--would tell us not to believe. But the stories are widespread, and it's not only stories about the orthodox: there are corresponding stories about other communities as well, stories which are the means by which one community or sector retains its prejudices about another. The 'horror' story of the 'secular promiscuous adolescent,' for example, which gets great play in some circles in Israel, comes from the same psychic place as that of the 'indifferent ultra-orthodox parents.' Though totally different in their content, the stories serve a similar function--insulating from any real knowledge of people who are different. Both stories serve as cautionary tale and modern allegory, ways of transforming people--sometimes whole communities--from their complex realities into cartoon characters. To be sure, sometimes these stories are true in the particular, but they are rarely representative--they are rarely synecdoches--in the ways which some like to claim. What if all secular people are not immoral hedonists? what if all ultra-orthodox are not irresponsible and indifferent to their children?
Imagine: we'd have to re-think. And once we re-think--who knows?--we might see things differently.