In a recent essay in the Forward, I made the case for jettisoning the time-honored (if, to me, less than honorable) term “ultra-Orthodox.”
I argued that, like “ultra-conservative” or “ultra-liberal” in domestic politics, the prefix implies extremism, something that isn’t accurate about most Haredim.
What best to replace it with is less obvious, as “haredi” is a foreign word, and euphemisms like “fervently Orthodox” insult non-haredi Jews, many of whom are as fervent in their prayer and observances as any haredi Jew (not to mention that some haredi Jews are far from fervent).
I suggested using the unadorned word “Orthodox” to refer to Haredim, whose lives, I contended, most resemble those of their forbears.
After all, I argued, self-described “Centrist” and “Modern” and “Open” Orthodox Jews are, well, self-described, with those prefixes of their choices. So why not use “Orthodox” alone, without any modifier, to refer to “black-hatters,” or “yeshivish” folks. (The Haredi subset of Hasidism could simply be called Hasidim, a word familiar to English speakers.) Think Coke, Cherry Coke, Diet Coke…
One immediate response to my essay came from Samuel Heilman, a Queens College professor of sociology.
Professor Heilman’s jaundiced eye regarding Haredim is legend. He is often quoted in the media as critical of Orthodox Jews more conservative in their practices than he. (After September 11, 2001, he famously, risibly, implied that haredi yeshivas are “quiescent” beds of potential terrorists.)
The professor rejects “ultra” too, but sees the prefix not as a pejorative but as reflecting the idea that Haredim are “truer in their beliefs and practices than others.”
He also accuses Haredim of departing from the Orthodoxy of the past. The example he offers is that, in the charedi world, “water must be certified kosher.” And he decries the Haredi “notion that Orthodox Jews always shunned popular culture.” Hasidic rebbes,” he explains, were, “among the crowds who streamed to Marienbad, Karlsbad and the other spas and baths of Europe for the cure, so much a part of popular culture in pre-Holocaust Europe.”
Racheli Ibenboim chats with writer Tuvia Tenenbom./Photo by Isi Tenenbaum
I may not be a dyed-in-the-wool feminist by any stretch of the imagination. But I have a strong sense of the rights of women to take agency in their own lives and a repulsion for the oppressive nature of men who harass women for their own reasons. That is why I was completely taken aback by Tuvia Tenenbom’s latest article “Everything He Wanted To Know About Sex Among the Orthodox.”
How this tabloid-worthy work of voyeurism could ever be considered a legitimate work of journalistic inquiry is beyond me. Which is a shame, because there is a so much to explore here.
Racheli Ibenboim’s story is fascinating. Here is a women, seemingly pious and observant, in love with her Hasidic lifestyle, but dedicated to being a change-agent in her community. She may have taken a step back due to internal pressures, but it seems that she has not stopped in her mission.
Yet instead of focusing on her deeds and actions, we’re given what amounts to some sort of voyeuristic look at a man who must fetishize women in thick stockings and wigs. The reader sits and reads with increasing shock as we witness the literal recreation of catcalls on the street. Tenenbom pushes her to a place no man that respects women ever should.
Menachem Stark’s death and the media’s inflammatory response to it highlight a particular kind of anti-Semitism: the kind that can emerge as a result of the religious Jewish community’s involvement in real estate and the horrible living conditions in many of those buildings.
As a tenant organizer at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, I work alongside tenants citywide to form tenant associations and improve building conditions. I was shocked by the headlines describing Stark’s murder, but not surprised, unfortunately, by the shady business practices or lack of upkeep on the large stock of rent-stabilized buildings he was connected to in Brooklyn. That’s something I see all too often.
Through my work, I do a great deal of research to try and untangle the mess of who owns what property and who’s connected to whom in the real estate industry. And it’s not easy. Take 199 Lee Avenue, an address in the religious Jewish part of Williamsburg. It’s connected to literally hundreds and hundreds of distressed buildings. Entities with an address at 199 Lee touch all sides of any real estate deal — as owners, mortgagers, brokers — and it’s nearly impossible to connect the address to an actual person.
Stark’s death, and the resulting uproar, comes at a particularly interesting time for my coworkers and me, since we’re in the midst of planning a tenant-driven rally in Borough Park, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn. The rally is targeting a group of Jewish investors who are trying to flip two horribly distressed rent-stabilized buildings in Crown Heights. Like at 199 Lee Avenue, the investors are nameless — associated only with a P.O. Box in Borough Park that is associated with many other distressed properties in Brooklyn and Queens.
Menachem Stark, a Brooklyn Hasidic real estate developer, was abducted, murdered, and thrown into a dumpster. Stepping to a new low, the New York Post reports this story with inappropriate levity and derision toward the victim.
Practically gloating over Stark’s death, the front cover of Sunday’s New York Post rhetorically asks, “Who didn’t want him dead?”
We still don’t know all the facts and it’s certainly possible that Stark’s business deals in some way caused a dispute that led to his murder.
But how about the eight children and widow mourning over him? How about the hundreds of mourners who showed up at his funeral in the bitter cold to pay respects? How about any decent human that believes murder is the wrong way to settle disputes?
Frimet (third from right), holds up her Footsteps certificate with the other fellows.
I am a Footsteps member and supporter. I am also an observant Jew.
To the critics of Footsteps, a not-for-profit organization that helps those seeking to leave their ultra-religious communities, this statement may seem like an oxymoron. Until about a year ago, I too believed that one could not remain Orthodox and be a Footsteps member at the same time — that one could not eat a plate of chulent at the Shabbos meal, completely unplugged from the world, and engage in an intelligent existentialist debate.
I became a Footstepper — the term of endearment embraced by members — this past May. Five years after leaving the Hasidic community I grew up in, but still remaining Orthodox, I finally decided to join the community of exes (ex-Hasidim, ex-ultra-Orthodox and ex-Orthodox). I’d never felt the need for social and emotional support, but until this year I had been unaware of the other resources Footsteps offers to help the exes get better education and find jobs.
Furthermore, as an Orthodox woman, I half believed the rumors flying around — that Footsteps is anti-religious, that their only goal is to get you to abandon your traditions and that all Footsteppers are losers, drug-addicts and ne’er–do–wells. I almost bought into it because I did not know otherwise. Even though some of my closest friends — successful, educated and settled individuals — had been Footsteppers for years without spewing venomous fires of atheism through their nostrils, it was still easy to think that joining Footsteps meant throwing the Jewish baby out with the cultural bathwater.
My first visit to the Footsteps headquarters in New York City was on a scorching hot Sunday morning. I was selected to participate in the Footsteps Career Fellowship pilot program — a paid opportunity for 12 members to gain meaningful work experience, develop a career network, improve their presentation, and access valuable professional support (full disclosure: I ended up using my fellowship to work at the Forward). This first welcoming workshop was designed to acquaint fellows with the program. In between panel discussions and introductions, lunch was served — turkey and ham sandwiches from a local restaurant. Oy.
Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein have yet to sell shtreimels. But one fashion commentator — and a whole lot of YouTube viewers — think Hasidic garb is worth another look.
“The Substance of Hasidic Style,” a video posted by fashion platform StyleLikeU (and reposted by Upworthy), has garnered more than 170,000 views after it was picked up by Upworthy.com. The 16-minute mini-documentary is comprised of interviews with several Hasidim and focuses on Hasidic attitudes towards fashion, modesty, community, and belief in God.
Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandlebaum, the mother-daughter team that runs StyleLikeU, could easily have treated the Hasidic community as some sort of oddball curiosity. When I read that they had previously produced short films on the style of monks, nuns, and ballerinas, I was skeptical about how they might portray Hasidim: would they be shown as a freakish “other,” wearing outlandish clothing, stuck in the past?
To the team’s credit, the film treats the Hasidic community quite respectfully and even admiringly. Elisa Goodkind writes that the time she and her team spent among Hasidim in the Catskills was “a 12-hour odyssey that would change us forever.”
“[N]ot only did I begin to identify with some of my own life values, but I found a new group of the coolest people I had met in a long time, who were about to become my new great friends,” writes Goodkind, who describes herself as “a reform and rebellious Jew.” Her film not only depicts Hasidic clothing, but offers a broader looks at the Hasidic way of life. Hasidic views on modesty, community, and femininity are all portrayed sympathetically.
For this week’s story about the cases of accused molester Baruch Lebovits and accused extortionist Sam Kellner, the Forward was provided with a trove of secretly-recorded conversations.
Among the recordings is a conversation Sam Kellner had with the family of a man who had already pled guilty to abuse charges.
Over the course of 80 minutes, Kellner counsels the family that the man could avoid jail by getting ultra-Orthodox rabbis to pressure Brooklyn district attorney Charles Hynes and by bribing prosecutors. (A spokesman for the DA’s office said assertions of possible wrongdoing are “ludicrous.”)
The Forward made a commitment to protect the identity of the family involved, therefore we have provided two excerpts from the recording. Passages where people other than Kellner talk have been bleeped out.
More than 5,000 Chabad rabbis and supporters gathered on Sunday for the 30th annual conference of international Shluchim, or messengers of the Hasidic movement. Former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman addressed the crowd as the first keynote speaker.
Rabbi Dov Greenberg, Chabad rabbi at Stanford University, told the crowd that you are more likely to find an atheist, secular, or humanist Jew at a Chabad house than you were to find an Orthodox Jew.
And one lanky man in the sprawling crowd of black-hatted men summed up what he meant.
Among the guests was Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in North America.
Chabad strictly follows Orthodox Judaism’s central belief that the Torah was given directly from God to Moses and applies in all times and places. Reform Judaism, on the other hand, maintains that Judaism and Jewish traditions are not divine and can be modernized, changed, to reflect surrounding culture.
Chabad’s invitation to Jacobs reflects the movement’s philosophy to embrace everyone on the human level, without regard to creed or denominational differences.
Jacobs returned the sentiment, telling Lubavitch.com that it was “inspiring to be with a group of Jewish leaders who feel so passionately about bringing the love of yiddishkeit [Judaism] and the life of commitment to the widest possible circle.”
If the Reform president and Chabad Shluchim can sit at the same table to connect as one people, who knows: Maybe there’s hope for other denominations of Judaism to sit together notwithstanding their deep theological differences.
The smile — her smile — was remembered by scores of mourners.
It was reflected in the crackling flames shooting out of a backyard pit, and in the grief-stricken smiles of loved ones. In a circle around the makeshift campfire, on lawn chairs set on the damp autumn ground, sat a group of people intent on doing justice to the life of a young woman gone far too soon.
The memorial for Deb Tambor, a 33-year-old ex-Hasidic mother of three who died a little over a week ago, was held last Thursday evening. This was an invite-only event, hosted by OTD Meetup, a New York social group for those who have left Orthodox communities. Held in a modest backyard of a private home in Suffern, N.Y., the organizers at first considered capping the attendance at 30. Instead, at its peak, the group of mourners swelled to 85.
I arrived an hour late, in typical Hasidic fashion. I tried to quietly make my way to the circle, avoiding the gravel in the driveway. A dark, solemn silence greeted me. Backs hunched over, tears streamed down faces, and that fire spat flames into the night sky. There was a melancholy magnificence in the air.
“I never met a person who had so much love to give. It was never about her, but always about someone else,” said one of Tambor’s closest friends, amid sobs. “She went through so much pain in her life, but she always thought about others. She worried about others. It genuinely bothered her when someone was suffering.”
This sentiment was echoed throughout the night. Deb Tambor was remembered as a beautiful soul – a selfless woman who cared about fellow humanity more than she cared about herself – helping them with every fiber of her being, as if giving was the ultimate joy.
“She got light from helping others,” her grieving boyfriend, Abe Weiss, said to me the day before. He thought that her concern for other’s well-being is what prevented her from sharing her own pain. This, he said, is what ultimately killed her.
“She did not have a bad bone in her body,” Weiss said.
We’re used to seeing adolescent-looking girls posing like wannabe porn stars in American Apparel ads.
That probably makes Yoel Weisshaus the most unorthodox American Apparel model ever. His dark blond peyos long and bouncy, the Hasidic 32-year-old college student poses in what is surely the company’s most modest ad ever, wearing a white button down and black pants, and in some shots his own fur shtreimel.
It is not Weisshaus’ first star turn, said the Satmar Hasid, who has his own website. He is part of a group of shomer Shabbat actors who work as extras in movies and television shows set in Hasidic areas. He was in the 2011 Sean Penn movie “This Must Be the Place” about a Nazi war criminal hunting washed up rock star, and recently shot an episode of the CBS show Blue Bloods, which is about a family of police officers and stars Tom Selleck. “I’m one of the very few Hasidim who puts my face out there,” he said, in a thick Yiddish accent.
It’s not enough to earn a living.
“I’m a peasant, a shlepper,” Weisshaus told The Forward. “I do a little bit here and there, I do a little bit sales in a family business, a little bit Hevra Kadisha,” preparing the bodies of the dead for burial. “I’m trying to do more legal writing, writing legal briefs and memoranda.”
New York mayoral candidate Bill Thompson’s political tour guides to Hasidic Brooklyn are two guys named Joseph — both famous influence-peddlers with strong community connections and checkered pasts.
When he campaigned in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Williamsburg on Labor Day, Thompson was accompanied by Hasidic fixers Joseph Menczer and Joseph Goldberger, the New York Observer reported.
Menczer and Goldberger are members of the Pupa Hasidic sect, a small ultra-Orthodox group based in Williamsburg. They have close ties to Rabbi David Niederman, a leader of the larger of the two halves of the divided Satmar Hasidic community.
Once owners of retail stores in Williamsburg, the two rose to prominence in the late 1990s after their prodigious fundraising efforts for George Pataki’s gubernatorial campaign gave them exceptional access to the governor’s office.
In 2000, the New York Times revealed that Goldberger and Menczer had parlayed their $500,000 in donations to the Pataki campaign into a highly unusual relationship with state health officials who they lobbied behalf of for-profit businesses.
For most Americans, a solid high school education is a stepping stone to college. But Hasidic boys and girls who chose to pursue a higher degree do not have this foundation to build on. Most Hasidic boys receive one hour of English studies per day, four days per week, from third grade to bar mitzvah — one hour in which they are taught the bare minimum, often by Hasidic teachers who themselves lack a secular education. Most Hasidic girls, on the other hand, study the rudiments of English, math and science three hours per day, four days per week. Most boys do not graduate high school, and most girls receive non-accredited diplomas.
Hasidic men and women who choose to go to college do so for different reasons. Some face challenges in providing for their large families, and see education as the key to a bigger salary. Others seek a way out of their communities, and want to function as intelligent adults in the secular world. In their pursuit of a college degree, Hasidim struggle to bridge many academic and cultural gaps.
Six weeks ago, I embarked on a journey to document the stories of individuals, myself included, who took the leap from a rudimentary Hasidic education to college. I spoke with Frieda Vizel, Naftuli Moster and others, who are identified by their first names or by pseudonyms in the piece. (They asked to remain anonymous out of concern that they would face retribution for criticizing the schools in the Hasidic community, of which they are still a part.)
I raked through hours of poignant interviews. What resulted was a story of collective hope, struggle and triumph. Click below to listen.
Frimet Goldberger is a radio producer, writer and senior at Sarah Lawrence College. When she is not running after people with a recorder, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two children.
When I first saw that the faces were blurred out in a photo of two little girls in the Williamsburg Bulletin, a weekly newsletter aimed at the Satmar Hasidic community, I was not surprised. It’s not that I believe that a little girl young enough to throw a tantrum could be sexually suggestive, and therefore an alluring threat to pious male readers. It’s because the Hasidic community, and Satmar Hasidim in particular, has been on this radical trajectory for the last few decades. It’s a trajectory of intolerance and extremism without any moderation in sight — and it may lead to the social implosion of the Hasidic communities.
There is a popular Yiddish saying I grew up with, which served as the justification for new restrictions: di doyres falen, which roughly translates to: ‘the generations are in [religious] decline.’ This notion epitomizes the beliefs and practices of the Hasidim in the 21st Century. Prominent Hasidic groups in America – Satmar at the epicenter – constantly seek ways to combat this supposed decline. In order to reverse the inevitable, they engage in the Sisyphean task of raising their walls ever higher to ward off secular encroachment. They constantly add new restrictions, and tightening the loopholes that allow for this slippery slope of spiritual decline to continue.
As the world becomes more open, the Hasidim continue to raise the fences to limit that encroachment.
We cannot discuss Hasidism in America without invoking the name of the late Satmar Rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum. He was the pioneering force of contemporary American Hasidism, and his influence is far-reaching to this day.
When Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum landed on the shores of the treifene medina (un-kosher country) after the utter destruction of European Jewry, America was nearly devoid of Hasidic life. The rebbe was well aware of the dire state of Orthodoxy, at least by ultra-Orthodox standards. And, in order to distract his people from the lures and dangers of American culture, he immediately set out to transplant a very simple, pre-modern way of life in this deeply profane city of New York.
Back in the Hungarian town of Szátmar (the place that gave Satmar its name), Rebbe Yoel fought zealously to maintain this lifestyle. This was not as difficult, since it was located in Máramaros County – the Hungarian province populated with ultra-Orthodox groups – and considered the backwater of Hungary, nothing like the urbane Budapest hub of modernity, let alone the polyglot of New York.
A rare joint rally sponsored by both of the dueling factions within the Satmar Hasidic movement could bring upwards of 20,000 protesters to downtown Manhattan this Sunday, according to Satmar insiders.
The Satmar factions, led by two warring brothers who each claim the title of rebbe, rarely cooperate. Yet activist supporters of both sides are said to be in the final stages of negotiating a deal to both endorse the same massive protest against Israeli efforts to draft ultra-Orthodox men into the Israeli military.
A committee within the Israeli Knesset agreed on draft legislation early this week that sets quotas for the number of ultra-Orthodox men expected to join the military, and raises the possibility of criminal penalties for draft dodgers.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States and in Israel oppose the draft. While Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States are not Israeli citizens, and would not be subject to the draft, many have close family and communal ties in Israel. Young ultra-Orthodox men from the United States often study at yeshivas in Israel, institutions that they worry would be shuttered if their Israeli counterparts are drafted.
Followers of Aron Teitelbaum, the Kiryas Joel-based Satmar rebbe, first called the protest, which is permitted to begin at 3 p.m. on Sunday in Manhattan’s Foley Square. Followers of Zalman Teitelbaum, his Brooklyn-based brother, then offered to lend their support. Negotiations are reportedly ongoing.
Assuming the deal between the Satmar factions is finalized, and assuming other ultra-Orthodox groups join in as expected, attendance could surpass 20,000 people, according to one activist follower of Aron Teitelbaum. Without Zalman’s support, the follower estimated an attendance of 10,000 people.
Last May, the support of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, including Zalman Teitelbaum but not Aron Teitelbaum, drew 40,000 Orthodox Jews to an anti-Internet rally at CitiField in Queens.
Why does Chabad want the Schneerson Library back so badly?
While researching this week’s story recounting the latest twists in Chabad’s decades-long struggle for the library, several people offered various explanations. Somehow, they seemed too speculative to include in the story — but interesting enough to raise here.
Rabbi Berel Levin, the chief librarian of the Chabad Library in Brooklyn, told me that Chabad has 250,000 books at its HQ in Crown Heights. But the thousands of books held in Moscow are, according to Levin, the “core of our library, gathered by the Rebbes of the generations.”
Levin said the books in Moscow are written mainly in Hebrew, and deal mostly in Torah, Gemara and Kabbalah. But because the Soviets and Russians never catalogued the library no one really knows for sure. Even the total number of books in the library is disputed. Russia claims there are about 4,000 volumes, Chabad says the number is closer to 10,000 volumes.
Pinchas Goldschmidt, a Moscow rabbi who has a contentious history with Chabad, said that for the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the battle for the library was about much more than ownership and theology. It was about politics and, perhaps, about something more.
“Maimonides spoke of the Messiah as king,” Goldschmidt said. And Schneerson, who died in 1994, wanted to show the world that he had fought like a king and “won against Communism.”
People in Boro Park tend to stick with traditional Hasidic clothing like headscarves, shtreimels, and rekels. But on Purim you’re bound to see people dressed as clowns, princesses and even SpongeBob SquarePants. Here are a few Instagram photos from around the neighborhood that give a sense of what it’s like on Purim in Boro Park.
Jews are image conscious. A quick Google search of “embarrassed to be Jewish” will turn up two main hits—Jews ashamed of the state of Israel, and Jews ashamed of the behavior of certain “Hareidim” — tremblers, the Hebrew term for the ultra-Orthodox — in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh. I should amend that statement: this Google search will turn up results for Jews with access to the media who have image consciousness about these two issues. As we all know, these are not the only kind of Jews. But let me first address these.
Jews on the left, politically and religiously, are often embarrassed by Israel’s behavior, especially when it fails to conform to a secular path. In 2011, Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the New York Jewish Week, enumerated the Gaza flotilla debacle, the chief Rabbanite, and its crackdown on non-governmental organizations as examples of “When Israel Becomes a Source of Embarrassment.”
Left-leaning Jews imagine that the outside world lumps them together with the values they see portrayed by the occupation, or perhaps by Israeli police brutality. Under the imagined gaze of the secular and gentile world, these Jews imagine that their own image will be tarnished by osmosis, by a proximity of blood, however diluted, to their Israeli brethren, especially those wielding guns or sitting in the Knesset. The burden of the imagined gaze of non-Jews rests heavily upon them.
But image-consciousness is not the sole property of Jews on the left. It is part of the tradition, any rabbi will tell you. Already in the Talmud, the term chillul hashem — profaning God’s name — begins to refer less to a verbal utterance and more to a public display, for example, “If I take meat from the butcher and do not pay him at once, Rav said” (Yoma, 86a).
Some news, apparently, is fit to print, but not too boldly. Take, for example, the demure self-censorship on display Saturday in the New York Times’ eye-opening report, headlined “On Island, Largely Blue, an Exception: Trump Tower,” on the handful of New York City neighborhoods that voted for Mitt Romney over President Obama. Overall, the city voted Obama over Romney 81% to 18%.
The headline and the first five paragraphs were about the two isolated election precincts on the Upper East Side of Manhattan Island where Romney won half or more of the vote. It wasn’t until paragraph 7 to find out that the main news began to trickle out: that the “deepest single bloc of Republican support in all the five boroughs” was a four-square-block section of Gravesend, Brooklyn, “dotted with Sephardic temples and yeshivas.”
Finally, well into the jump, we learned that Romney “enjoyed strong support from a range of neighborhoods with large populations of Orthodox Jews.” Many precincts in Borough Park, Kew Gardens Hills and Sheepshead Bay (which is largely Russian, not Orthodox) voted 90% GOP. A note on the accompanying map gave you the money quote: “Mr. Obama’s worst precincts were in Orthodox Jewish areas like Ocean Parkway and Williamsburg in Brooklyn and Kew Gardens Hills in Queens.”
The map shows the city’s 5,286 precincts as a sea of blue and red dots, shaded darker or lighter to indicate higher or lower percentages of partisan leaning. The darkest red voted over 80% for Romney, while pale pink gave him 50% to 65%. In addition to the broad swathes of dark red running down Brooklyn from Hasidic Borough Park down Sephardic Ocean Park to Russian Brighton Beach, there are dark red clusters in mostly Italian-American Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, and mostly Irish-American (and storm-ravaged) Breezy Point, Queens.
Hurricane Sandy won’t last 40 days and 40 nights, but it still seems pretty Biblical to some.
Flooding has already been reported in parts of Manhattan and Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for the evacuation of residents in low-lying Zone A.
Despite power and heat set to be shut off in public housing complexes in the evacuation zone, some residents of the Jacob Riis Houses on the Lower East Side have ignored the evacuation orders, DNA Info reported.
The storm has sent emergency response workers and welfare agencies into overdrive. William E. Rapfogel, the CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, said in a e-mail to board members Monday morning that most residents had been evacuated from buildings in Seagate, Brooklyn.
“All our more than 4,000 home care clients (including Bronx JCC and UJC of East Side) have been accounted for, and service plans are in effect including home attendants sleeping at many of their homes,” Rapfogel wrote.
He added that extra food was being stockpiled at Jewish homes in case the bad weather lingers.
Floods are expected in coastal areas such as Coney Island and Brighton Beach, and Williamsburg, home to the Satmar Hasidic community, has some chance of flooding due to its proximity to the East River. The Crown Heights neighborhood, home to the Lubovitch Hasidic community, is much farther inland on higher ground.
A few months ago I sent an email to my editor, pitching a story on Yiddish Farm. (That piece is in this week’s paper, and online here.) I didn’t have to make a hard sell. An organic farm, run by 20-something-year-olds, where everyone speaks Yiddish? The piece practically writes itself.
Indeed, Yiddish Farm is one of the most interesting things happening in the Yiddish world and, I thought, an important story for us to cover. But as I reported the piece, visiting the farm and speaking to its participants, it became clear that the farm has significance well beyond its novelty value. Thanks to Yiddish fluency, and to a progressive cultural ethos, it has succeeded in bringing together the most diverse elements of the Jewish community, thus playing a role that few other organizations are equipped to play. In light of the recent Jewish population survey, which put into question long-held assumptions about the demographic makeup of the American Jewish community, it is a role that has never been more important.
During my visit to Yiddish farm, the participants I met spanned a wide range of Jewish practice. Some were culturally Jewish (they were speaking Yiddish, after all), but had no interest in religion. Some were Modern Orthodox, while others participated in Jewish activities affiliated with more liberal movements. The farm accommodated its religious members by keeping a kosher kitchen and observing Shabbos, but no one was compelled to perform any religious practice. When one participant was lightly chastened for lighting a cigarette on Shabbos, one of the farm’s leaders, Naftali Ejdelman (himself Shabbos observant), politely countered, “Let’s not make rules for other people.” In short, I found Yiddish Farm to be a model of Jewish pluralism.