Over the years, glimpses into the inner sanctums of the Hasidic world have come along via literary or scholarly works, a few television miniseries, and, once in a while, an intrigued but puzzled magazine article. Yet despite these offerings, the young Hasid striding peppily along under a massive fur hat in ninety-degree weather, the barely-out-of-her-teens pregnant mother pushing a stroller with a toddler or two in tow, the pale, richly bearded septuagenarian parsing a Hebrew text on the subway, oblivious to everything around him, continue to be largely unknown.
Hasidic joy? Not obvious in everyday street sightings. And, except for the curious, it’s unlikely that anyone outside the cordon sanitaire of a Hasidic community will ever get to hear the beautiful nigunim, or religious songs—sometimes joyous, sometimes solemn, sometimes set to well-known secular tunes like “The Marseillaise,” sometimes just wordless melodies—sung at Hasidic gatherings. Any work that sheds fresh light on a Hasidic community adds welcome dimensions to our patchy understanding.
A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg, Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper’s meticulously researched study of Hasidic survival in Brooklyn, opens the door on yet another previously obscure aspect of Hasidic life. “When liberal Jews in the United States were reinventing the kabbalistic concept tikkun to mean the ‘repair of the world’ through social justice, civil rights, environmental activism, and so on,” Deutsch and Casper write,
Hasidim in Williamsburg employed the same term in a dramatically different sense: to repair their own small corner of Brooklyn and make it a “vineyard,” free from the corrupting influence of the outside world, albeit one that would ideally spur a much wider spiritual renaissance.
This is a worthy aspiration but tonally quite different from the teachings of the eighteenth-century founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, who emphasized the mystical presence of God everywhere and had as a goal the infusion of all aspects of life—eating, storytelling, praying, dancing, socializing—with holiness and joy.
It has been estimated that there are some 400,000 Hasidim in the world today. Some 200,000 live in the US, about half of whom are Brooklyn residents. Figures for the number of Hasidim who died in World War II are notoriously unreliable. The decimated Hasidic “courts” of Eastern Europe—as the various pietistic groups named for the places they originally came from were called—scrambled to establish new communities. Some settled in the recently founded state of Israel, the idea of which the Orthodox rabbinate had shunned and repudiated before the war, convinced that a true Jewish state could not exist until the arrival of the Messiah and that a secular one, functioning independently of Jewish law, was essentially sacrilege. But after the war, the saving presence of a place of refuge made anti-Israel objections irrelevant; like all other refugees, those who belonged to Hasidic communities gratefully settled into Jerusalem—and other cities that would have them, including Montreal, London, Antwerp, Buenos Aires, New York, and, in time, a handful of towns in upstate New York and New Jersey.
The best-known of the Hasidic groups are probably the Lubavitchers, with their well-organized outreach programs, roaming “mitzvah tanks” blasting music, enthusiastic emissaries sent around the world, their “Come on in!” attitude of welcoming Jews wherever they are (or aren’t) in their religious observance, and tradition of opening up their homes for Sabbath dinners and always abundant Jewish holidays. A Fortress in Brooklyn, however, focuses on the Satmars, the largest Hasidic group in the world (estimated at between 50,000 and 100,000 followers), who originated in Hungary. Satmar social attitudes differ from most other Hasidic groups, especially in their relationship to other Jews. They not only practice a radical austerity but regard fellow Jews who don’t as sinful.
The Yiddish-speaking Satmars settled in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which already boasted a large, diverse Jewish population, including Hasidim from other groups, in the late 1940s. From then until 1979 they were led by their charismatic founder and grand rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum (born 1887), who is considered a major contributor to the postwar growth of Hasidism in the United States. The rebbe, like the Puritans, thought of America as an “unsettled wilderness,” where as an advocate for strict ideological purity he could create his own holy community and, as one of his followers, citing Scripture, put it, build “a fence around the Torah.” His hatred of Israel continued unabated throughout his lifetime, even prompting him to go so far as to blame Zionism, the authors tell us, “for bringing down God’s wrath in the form of the Holocaust.” While thousands of American Jews were mailing donations to Israel in the postwar years to help plant orange trees, Rabbi Teitelbaum published two theologically dense, book-length denunciations of Zionism.
It was, ironically, a Hungarian Zionist, Rudolf Kasztner, who saved Teitelbaum during World War II. In the spring of 1944 Kasztner, a journalist for Új Kelet (a Hungarian-language Zionist daily), negotiated a deal with Adolf Eichmann in which some 1,700 Hungarian Jews destined for Auschwitz were allowed to leave the country in exchange for goods, jewelry, and money. Initially, Teitelbaum’s name was not on the list for the “Kasztner Transport,” but after Kasztner’s father-in-law told him he’d had a dream in which his own deceased mother warned him that everyone in the transport was doomed unless the Satmar rebbe and his entourage were included in the convoy, his name was added. Another version of this episode—and there are many—is that his followers simply raised a huge amount of money to get him included. In the event, there is no evidence that the rebbe ever expressed gratitude for his rescue, though it is incontrovertible that it was to a Zionist that he owed his life. He also declined to join other rabbis in their rescue efforts in DP camps, where they were working to try to revive survivors’ religious life.
Even to those acquainted with the theological underpinnings of the Satmars’ anti-Zionism, a flock of angry, shouting Hasidim with their huge hats and long black coats picketing outside the White House, hurling invectives against Israel, or staging an anti-Israel protest at the UN is a perplexing sight. Similarly, reports of the group’s physical attacks on non-Satmar Hasidic teachers, like the respected scholar Pinchas Korf, have been as bewildering as they were shocking. In 1983 Pinky, as his friends called him, a beloved mentor of generations of Hasidic yeshiva bocher, agreed to teach a young Satmar student in Williamsburg, for which he was beaten and had his beard cut off.
Deutsch, a professor and the director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Casper, a historian of modern Eastern European Jewish politics and culture, note the group’s combative history (which they unconvincingly attribute in part to its brutal experiences in ghettos and concentration camps in World War II—other groups endured similar hardship and don’t act aggressively), but that subject isn’t what captured their imaginations. Rather, it is the Satmars’ remarkable feat of enduring, even thriving, during the late 1950s through the 1970s—Williamsburg’s turbulent, drug-plagued years.
A core aspect of the Satmar community that has helped them defend their interests has been their ability to act cohesively and, most importantly, vote as a bloc. The directives of their leaders have had the force of law; their commands are regarded as absolute. And though they would doubtless consider the comparison infuriating, one of their strongest resolutions was shared with the Zionists: to not be forced to decamp and move on, as were their ancient ancestors, who wandered around the Negev, the Sinai Peninsula, and the land that is now Jordan, as well as generations of peregrinating Jews ever since. If the minutiae of neighborhood demographic statistics, housing regulations, and building codes of what one observer called “the real estate state” are sometimes too scrupulously reproduced in A Fortress in Brooklyn, it is fascinating to read accounts of the successful moves a group known for its insularity learned to make in the dog-eat-dog world of New York neighborhood development politics.
The Satmars’ mastery of the quagmire that is the New York housing bureaucracy is especially impressive—though the New York City Housing Authority handbook of policies and procedures may be no more abstruse than their scholastic deep dives into the Torah and Mishnah at the yeshivas. By assiduously working to understand the system and its rules, they have managed to acquire and hold on to the housing that has met the community’s ever-expanding needs—and on congenial terms, such as being offered first choice of apartments on lower floors because of the prohibition against riding elevators on the Sabbath. And despite the many violent confrontations between the Satmars and their Black and Puerto Rican neighbors, the Satmars prefer having them living next door to having less than fully observant Jewish families who might pose a problem of assimilationist contagion. And unlike many urban dwellers, they have put up no resistance to the subsidized but unlovely high-rise projects as long as those living spaces could accommodate their growing families.
As a result, in the years between 1957 and 1970, when crime and drug-related problems proliferated and the Jewish population of New York City, fleeing to the suburbs of Long Island and Westchester, declined by more than 40 percent, the Satmars managed to stay put. Their leaders succeeded in getting their predominately poor constituency officially qualified for new federally supported high-rise buildings and other housing projects, without which their large families would have had to move—threatening the enclave’s very existence. Its real estate developers contended successfully with the sect’s ingrained folkways, mystical beliefs, and customs. According to one of the last, for example, it was strictly forbidden to cut down fruit trees. A lurking fruit tree could and did “hold up deals, delay construction, and cost millions of dollars in overruns or lost labor.”
An abiding belief in amulets and other magical influences was also at play. Some days of the week were believed to be more auspicious for beginning construction. Hasidic developers of all stripes “swore by the power of amulets inspired by the Kerestirer Rov, Rabbi Yeshaya Steiner (1851–1925), to stop rodent infestations,” and as testimony to the ongoing belief in his powers, portraits of him could still be seen on construction site fences throughout Brooklyn eight decades after his demise.
Deutsch and Casper are at their best capturing the Satmars’ practical struggles to hold their enclave together. But it’s curious that a work about a group profoundly focused on a spiritual renaissance conveys so little about the central part of their religion: life within the “vineyard.” Students of Hasidism and the Baal Shem Tov sometimes overemphasize his dancing, singing, and acceptance of personal expressions of prayer, and make him seem like a religious stoner. It’s a bit odd, however, to ignore Hasidism’s historic challenge to the rabbinical establishment as well as its joyous philosophy that emphasizes ecstatic prayer as a mystical pathway to the divine, both of which seem so distant from the severities of the Satmar universe. (If we were given a better account of everyday life inside the “vineyard,” we might well have a more complete picture of the community’s internal spiritual expression.) It is harder still to understand how the group’s well-established history of aggressiveness can encourage the fulfillment of what, according to the Jewish sage Hillel, is the core obligation of every Jew: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.”
The group’s spiritual well-being does come up obliquely in the chapter called “The War Against the Artists.” The actual Yiddish word used for the gentrifiers who began to invade their neighborhoods in substantial numbers in the late 1980s and early 1990s is artistn, which lumps together artists and hipsters in three contemptuous syllables. The Satmar leaders were understandably fearful of the economic threat the new population presented to their flock, the majority of whom were renters. They likened the newcomers to the Roman invaders of first-century Judea, and referred to members of their own community who stood to clean up by selling to outsiders as “collaborators.”
Some community members who had no particularly preconceived idea of what the arrival of the artistn might mean grew alarmed after hysterical flyers depicting them as an existential crisis began appearing everywhere. In a ubiquitous accusation repeatedly made in the early 2000s in broadsides posted on Williamsburg streets and in newspaper articles, especially in Der Yid, the official Satmar organ, gentrification was characterized as a hostile incursion by alien forces who threatened to breach the walls of the community and overturn its pure life. “For these Hasidim,” the authors comment, “the threat…was not merely economic or physical but also spiritual and moral.”
As the gentrifiers grew more numerous, the campaign intensified against the “invaders” as well as Satmar developers. At one point an ugly caricature appeared in Der Yid featuring one of the latter standing in front of several multistory buildings with a legend that translates as “Oy, I will make a killing, another hundred million dollars.” Above him is an image of a moving truck pulling away from what are clearly meant to represent former industrial buildings that have been converted to residential spaces. What strikes one immediately about the cartoon is that it is indistinguishable from the standard anti-Semitic fare served up over the centuries with depressing regularity.
Not all Satmars approved of such tactics. They were well aware that while most of the flock is poor, the group’s vast real estate holdings, controlled by its leaders, had been estimated at as much as $1 billion. In interviews the authors conducted with various residents of the Williamsburg community, some members
disagreed with the unremittingly pejorative way that the artistn were being portrayed, took a more moderate stance than the Hasidic activists when it came to other issues (for example, women’s modesty), did not agree with the campaign’s strong-arm tactics, and viewed the activists as hypocrites.
They noticed that many of their leaders “looked the other way” when a big real estate deal was closed by one of those in the inner circle, and as one resident pointed out, they
care about “their holy city being destroyed,” but if they have a chance to make money, they suddenly realize that there’s enough holiness to go around, even if a little gets destroyed. And the fact is that the ones who owned properties, or could afford to invest in properties that the hipsters wanted, were the people who tend to be close to the rabbis…. These are the people who ultimately make the rules.
The financial clout of new, deep-pocketed foreign investors in waterfront development undermined the community’s political leverage and diminished its power to arrest the onslaught of outsiders’ megaprojects. Around 2005 a new era began, which the authors characterize, drawing on a phrase coined by the blogger Jeremiah Moss, author of Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul, as “hyper-gentrification.” Unlike Moss, whose fulminations about the demographic shift make its dangers seem comparable to alien threats in science-fiction movies, Deutsch and Casper maintain a neutral tone, and their admiration for Satmar ingenuity and staying power as well as their “fierce resilience, savvy pragmatism, and a powerful sense of communal pride” is unflagging.
Whether those qualities will keep the Satmars in Williamsburg is unclear. Many younger members have left with their families. And “savvy pragmatism” was not much in evidence in the community’s response to the Covid pandemic, which has devastated it. While the city was implementing new restrictions on businesses, schools, and houses of worship, Hasidic protesters took to the streets to express their opposition and refused to cancel a wedding at which maskless guests crowded into the huge Satmar main synagogue, which has a capacity of seven thousand. Predictably, their ranks suffered an alarmingly high rate of infection and mortality.
In Nomi M. Stolzenberg and David N. Myers’s American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York, the fortress has moved into the countryside—terra incognita for its new settlers. Their unfamiliarity with country ways brings to mind Isaac Babel’s little Odessa boys who saw the sun only when they walked across the street for their violin lessons. Removed as the Satmars’ Williamsburg was from the everyday secular world of its neighbors, it was always the dream of Joel Teitelbaum to establish a still more isolated community, far from the distractions and temptations of the city.
The settling, in the mid-1970s, of Kiryas Joel (or City of Joel) in the town of Monroe in upstate Orange County was the fulfillment of that dream. Stolzenberg, a professor in the law school of the University of Southern California, and Myers, a professor of history at UCLA, provide an impressive charting of the legal, cultural, and political machinery set in motion by the creation of a new religious settlement, which eventually became a bona fide municipality. If Deutsch and Casper offer a detailed picture of what happens when a self-isolating group (or, to employ the modern usage, “intentional community”) that shares a spiritual vision is tested against the challenges of modern urban life, Stolzenberg and Myers provide a fluidly written, lively account of what happens when game but untested religious pioneers encounter the very different challenges of the suburbanized countryside.
On the one hand, they point out, the old-world shtetls the Satmars (and most Hasidim) originally hailed from were actually far more diverse than the Hasidic communities established in the US. To some extent, though their clothing and many of their customs derive from that world, the group’s single-minded focus on religious separation, the authors contend, “led them to invent a new form of Judaism”—or, to put it differently, the dream of purer than pure separation ushered them toward what Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, whom the authors cite, dubbed “the invention of tradition.” Since their beginnings in the eighteenth century and despite their populist underpinnings, the Hasidim have always maintained a well-defined distance between themselves and mainstream Jews; yet whatever their innovations, they follow the same 613 commandments other religious Jews do, so perhaps a more apt phrase might be the “reconfiguring” of tradition.
On the other hand, as the story of the village’s growth unfolds, the upstate enclave was gradually compelled, like the Williamsburg cadre, to learn how to steer the very wheels of government and the legal system it was theoretically dedicated to removing itself from. Counterintuitively, the authors convincingly portray the group as a very American community. Not only does it fit into the well-established tradition of religious pluralism that has long accepted the principle of self-segregation, but in recent years it has begun to merge politically with other conservative religious segregationist groups. It has also benefited from the recent anti-assimilationist trend of the country. If, as the authors believe, the Satmars appear to totally reject American values, the community’s “extreme homogeneity,” marked by separation from others, and their particular political and legal activities are “uniquely American characteristics.”
Critics of the legal accommodations religious communities have received (Justices Kagan and Sotomayor among them) strongly object to their challenge to the Constitution’s principle of separation of church and state. But that critique has been complicated, the authors show, by the fact that many of the groups were established as private-property associations. Courtesy of President Reagan’s judicial appointments, the exalted place afforded private property gave these communities a boost they continue to enjoy today.
Monroe’s non-Satmar residents adjusted after a while to their new neighbors’ strange ways but continued to bristle at their zoning violations and what they perceived as their standoffishness and isolation from village life. These issues mattered less once the enclave separated from the town of Monroe in 2019 and established the new official town (the first in the state in thirty-eight years) of Palm Tree—the English translation of “Teitelbaum.”
The larger context for the uneasy relations between the Satmars and their neighbors is closely related to the history of suburban life in this country. The enclaves established by people fleeing cities in the postwar era were famously marked by socioeconomic and cultural conformity and deep racial segregation. The local zoning laws that exclusionary neighborhoods hid behind were clearly designed to keep out Black people in particular and the lower class in general. When the courts challenged those laws, and even after the federal Fair Housing Amendment Act was passed in 1988, economically formidable building-code restrictions were imposed that had the same effect—not to mention that the act was never fully enforced. It’s doubtful, however, that whoever wrote the Monroe zoning laws had the remotest conception of the power shift caused by the Satmar population tsunami.
The richest passages of American Shtetl focus on the dramatic schism within the Satmar community and the intensely waged war that devolved because of disputes about leadership succession, a subject touched on only briefly in A Fortress in Brooklyn. Since neither book delves much into the Satmars’ daily lives, either in Williamsburg or Kiryas Joel, the succession fight, which involves the familiar human vulnerabilities of sibling rivalry, power lust, and jealousy, is the most dramatic aspect of the two works. When Joel Teitelbaum named his nephew Moshe as his successor (he had no son, the traditional inheritor of the leadership role), a large number of his followers were displeased. They considered Moshe incapable of filling his predecessor’s shoes—especially after Joel’s death in 1979, when Moshe actually did succeed him as Satmar leader.
An intense faction remained faithful to Faiga, Joel’s charismatic second wife, who, after Joel suffered a stroke in 1968, took over many of his duties, exerted considerable power, and was even petitioned for blessings (though she herself could not become the rabbi). Faiga, about whom I wished they had written more, had never tried to mask her contempt for Moshe and encouraged the dissident group, who met for prayers in their own synagogue. Known as “Faiga’s mentshen,” that faction subsequently became involved in endless reciprocal lawsuits against the Kiryas Joel leadership. There were few of Joel Teitelbaum’s followers who weren’t aware that it was Faiga, basically, who had administered the Satmar flock ever since her husband’s stroke, and she had generally garnered respect and authority. But because of the loyalty of her mentshen, hostility toward her on the part of the regular leadership of the upstate faction was unrelenting. An attempt was made, unsuccesfully, to evict her from her apartment, and once, when she was visiting her husband’s grave at night, something she did often, a group of yeshiva students threw stones at her as she got out of her car.
The figure of Moshe Teitelbaum doesn’t emerge particularly distinctly in either book, but it’s clear that, unlike his predecessor, he lacked the authority to keep his flock unified. His decision to appoint his oldest son, Aaron, as chief rabbi of KJ (as the village is often referred to), and his younger son, Zalman, as chief rabbi of the Williamsburg community further divided the fold. Detractors referred to the dual leadership as “two kings serving the same crown.” Even after Faiga’s death in 2001, her supporters were unwilling to demonstrate loyalty to the new leaders. When Moshe died in 2006, the already simmering leadership rivalry between the two sons escalated to the point that it was necessary to hold two separate funerals for Moshe, one in Williamsburg, the other in Kiryas Joel. At the latter, a scuffle broke out and punches were thrown, sending two mourners to the hospital.
As the Satmar village, with its many families boasting eight or more children, rapidly became the fastest-growing community in New York State, they found themselves increasingly embattled with local officials over resource allocations and zoning violations. Instead of building single-family, ranch-style homes with open land around them, as virtually all their neighbors did, the Satmars built three- and four-story buildings capable of housing multiple families, so that the village’s density became seven times greater than the regional norm. Instead of building purely residential houses, as the local zoning laws required, they installed small prayer rooms (shtiblekh) in the basements of a number of homes; heavily trafficked grocery stores sprouted inside family residences.
When the Satmar officials decided that the best way to educate the community’s special-needs children was to establish a state-funded public school in the village, they found their neighbors vociferously objecting and instigating lawsuits to stop them, one of which eventually landed in the Supreme Court. The Court found the publicly funded school unconstitutional on the grounds that a government institution could not be established for only one religious group. Nonetheless, KJ’s friends in the state legislature subsequently found ways to broaden the definition of the eligible district until it withstood challenges.
The Satmars’ long history of meeting opposition with denunciations and violence, which formerly had as its main target Zionism and Zionists, turned inward in the leadership battle and also continued in new contexts. When one Kiryas Joel woman decided to wear denim skirts and brightly colored blouses, uncommon choices in a group in which even special-occasion garments are not supposed to call attention to the wearer, the village “Modesty Committee” told her to desist from wearing them because they departed from accepted norms. When she refused, the committee distributed flyers accusing her of “contaminating” the village, slashed her tires, and demanded that she and her family leave, which they did.
After Moshe Teitelbaum’s death in 2006, the battle between his sons intensified. Even before then, in the fall of 2005, riot police had to be summoned on a Jewish holiday when the two rival groups exiting the Williamsburg synagogue descended into a brawl. At the time of Moshe’s funeral, there were four court cases related to the succession issue outstanding; despite the ongoing legal fights, most Satmars had by then probably accepted the fact of dual leadership. But at the funeral itself Zalman released a will supposedly naming him as the sole heir to the leadership, which only fanned the old fires. Looking in from the outside, observers of Satmar goings-on hardly knew whether to compare these developments to the Medicis or Abbott and Costello. In Williamsburg and upstate New York, the feud went on. Apart from the elusive matter of spiritual leadership, the right to control the alleged $1 billion of Satmar property dangled above the dispute.
The challenges to Satmar officialdom by dissidents in both locations resulted in their being excluded from important community celebrations, physically attacked, and at one point forbidden from visiting their relatives’ graves. In 1996 the Hilltop Maternity–Convalescent Center run by dissidents who live in KJ had to be shut down because of arson.
When the first wave of Satmars arrived in Monroe, some local, less observant and even secular Jewish residents had felt a bit of protective solidarity with the Brooklyn newcomers. Their comradely attitude was not reciprocated, however, and subsequently some of the harshest responses to the Satmar presence “came from the non-Hasidic Jews in the neighborhood,” the local paper, the Times Herald Record, reported. Things changed for the better with the creation of Palm Tree, at least administratively. The community no longer received services from Monroe, paid taxes there, or voted in its elections, which resolved numerous ongoing conflicts. Yet local homeowners still fear that their leafy back roads and quiet green landscape will eventually change in character as the Satmars continue to expand.
It’s impossible to read either of these works without acknowledging the Satmars’ tenacity and fortitude, but equally difficult not to suspect that their emphasis on austerity and isolation has combined with their embrace of political and bureaucratic realpolitik to cast a shadow on the giving heart of a great religion, and in particular Joel Teitelbaum’s hope for a wide spiritual renaissance.
But what lingered in my mind after I closed both books were not so much the sociopolitical issues they explore but the fate of the unfortunate Nathan Lichtenstein, mentioned in A Fortress in Brooklyn. Lichtenstein, a Hasid who was born and raised in Williamsburg, transgressed community norms in 2007 by opening up a food truck that he parked at the intersection of Lee Avenue and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Sub on Wheels, as Lichtenstein named his truck, offered a menu of traditional foods like knishes, kugel, and chicken soup as well as hamburgers and hot dogs. His truck, which served its fare from 6 PM to midnight, five nights a week, was a great success until the Satmar food police forced him to shutter it. As the group’s website explained, a business “hawking an unnecessarily wide variety of foods” introduced unwelcome “secular, pleasure-oriented values.” Lichtenstein, we’re told, moved to Monsey, New York, where I like to think he found greater tolerance, reparked Sub on Wheels under a shady tree, and continued, undisturbed, to dispense his knishes.
February 24, 2022
‘Invitations to Dig Deeper’