Ultra-Orthodox rabbis gather to condemn the internet in 2012 / Josh Nathan-Kazis
A Forward tipster texted us this morning to report an odd spam message he’d received on his phone. Sent from a Spanish phone number, the spam read: “Check out WhatsApp Messenger for your smartphone. Hasidic friendly! Download it today…”
Last year, I reported that the ultra-Orthodox had gone wild over WhatsApp, a messaging app purchased by Facebook for $19 billlion.
“I’m sick and tired of it a little bit,” Lipa Schmeltzer, the Hasidic pop music star, told me at the time. “It’s not an easy task, to keep up with all these messages.”
Now, it seems like WhatsApp itself is catching up to its ultra-Orthodox appeal. The company does not list a press contact on its website, and the Forward has not yet been able to confirm that the ad was actually sent by WhatsApp itself. The download link, however, is genuine.
The ad is phrased oddly, which perhaps should not be surprising for a spam text message. The “Hasidic friendly!” boast uses the adjective “Hasidic” as a noun, suggesting limited familiarity with the term’s usage.
WhatsApp’s appeal for the ultra-Orthodox lay in how it allowed users to get around communal bans on unfettered internet. The service’s group text functions are used as a sort of closed social network by Hasidic Jews.
As early as January 2014, however, rabbis were cracking down on the service. A Satmar newspaper in Brooklyn ran a headline that month warning: “The rabbis overseeing divorces say WhatsApp is the No. 1 cause of destruction of Jewish homes and business.”
The next month, a filtering service affiliated with Satmar blocked photo and video sent through WhatsApp.
Illustration by Lior Zaltzman
As a rule, I abide by a strong belief in personal liberty and freedom of expression. When it comes to vaccinations, however, I make an obvious and vocal exception.
Vaccines, after all, are not a matter of personal choice, but rather a communal responsibility. The power of herd immunity only works if we, as a society, ensure that everyone able to vaccinate does so.
This is why I am particularly appalled by the Forward’s recent editorial on the issue.
Discussing the “fear, ignorance, narcissism and privilege” that fuels the anti-vaxxer movement, the Forward makes a surprising and ignorant effort to point the finger at one segment of the Jewish community.
“An odd alliance of libertarians who reflexively rebel at any sort of government mandate and impressionable liberals who practice what Jon Stewart calls “mindful stupidity” — not to mention those ultra-Orthodox Jews who blindly follow their rabbis’ ridiculous dictates — are demonstrating how badly frayed the American civic consensus has become.”
The Forward, in essence, has taken an issue that impacts all of us, one that clearly transcends traditional social and political boundaries, and chosen to blame one group of Jews for opposing it.
Let me be clear: There is a vocal minority in the so called “ultra-Orthodox” community (though last I checked, the term “ultra” was usually used for laundry detergent rather than people) that aligns with the anti-vaxxer movement. I’ve condemned them and debated them, as have many others I know. It is a problem. And a serious one at that.
Now that Hasidic men are barred from pushing strollers, will they turn to other modes of baby transportation? / Illustration by Anya Ulinich
Baseball. Men’s briefs. Dogs. Hipster eyeglasses. Motorcycles. Neckties. English. Math. Men’s shoes any color besides black. Button-down shirts that flap left-over-right. Fixing your own car. Modern Hebrew.
That’s a partial list of “goyish” things Satmar Jews have successfully banned within their flock.
Pretty impressive, right? And yet, challenges remain. The Satmars have so far been unsuccessful at banning such blatantly goyish things as: Lexus cars, Bugaboo strollers, hipster neighbors, Jacadi stores, sex, pants, ghoulash, Brooklyn and Sol a Kokosh Mar. And they’ve only had partial success with bike lanes and Lipa Schmeltzer.
But there’s one particularly vile scourge the Satmars have yet to unscourge, and that is — men pushing baby strollers.
Unable to withstand such goyishness a second longer, they published the following notice in a recent issue of the Satmar advertising circular, D’var Yom B’Yomo:
With regard to the new custom among some men to push the baby carriage when walking on the street: The great Rabbi Nosson Yosef Meisels said in 1968, during a speech to grooms in the name of our holy rebbe [R. Joel Teitelbaum, the rebbe of Satmar], that one must not perform this practice, as it originates among the goyim.
Cover of the memoir “Cannabis Chassidis” / Amazon
Should the media highlight religious affiliation of criminal suspects when the affiliation has no bearing on the crime, and when those accused are not representatives of any religious group?
This weekend the New York Post ran a story of three Hasidic men busted for attempting to buy 50 pounds of marijuana. The article repeatedly referenced the suspects’ Hasidic affiliation — even how the men wore “traditional yarmulkes and tzitzits.” The men were not practicing rabbis or representatives of any group.
Religious affiliation is certainly relevant when a crime is committed under religious pretenses or authority, such as with Nechemya Weberman, who was convicted of sexually abusing a girl in his position as a Hasidic authority figure, or in the case of a religious patrol group accused of targeting other minority groups.
But in the case of a common drug deal, like the one covered in the Post, is religious affiliation relevant? Would nationality, race or membership in some organization be relevant? Was this just an attempt to sensationalize a story that would otherwise be of little interest? After all, drug busts are routine in Brooklyn. Hasidic Jews dealing drugs, now that’s a story.
The next time a financial executive is indicted for insider trading, we are not likely to read that they were a Protestant, belonging to the Our Father Redeemer Church. Nor that they were wearing a crucifix, and had a nativity scene photograph on their desk. Why should Hasidic religious affiliation be any different?
I first met Zalman Schachter (not yet-Shalomi) in 1971 in Warwick, N.Y., at Kutz, a Reform Jewish camp where my wife, Elana, and I spent our first married summer as teachers and counselors. Our friend, newly ordained rabbi, Larry Kushner, had hired me along with a few other rabbinical students to work with him and his new colleague, mentor and senior rabbi in Chicago, Arnold Jacob Wolf, to staff a concluding arts program that lasted a week or two, and that culminated in a memorable visit with Zalman for the final Shabbat.
The last days of the program unfolded like this: preparation for Zalman, arrival of Zalman, being transformed by Zalman, processing Zalman. Forty-three years later, I am still processing.
His sheer physical presence, generous smile, radiating eyes, soothing melodious voice laughing, speaking, singing, his subtly accented speech that tended to voice ‘d,’ for ‘th’ reminding you that he had been uprooted and nearly killed by the Nazis, his vocabulary, hip, multilingual, contemporary, his beret, glasses, and cigarettes.
On Friday afternoon at the final pre-Shabbat workshop Zalman addressed 100 campers. He evoked God as a lonely audience of one, a lovesick atheist, awaiting our performance of lovesongs, and he told the tale of the Infinite who had reduced himself to an infinitesimal point in order to make space for Creation, and how Creation, the bride, had become estranged from her Lover. On Shabbat, he explained, they reunite. Session complete, I was stunned to see the hall full of teenagers quietly weeping. Then, at his request, I led Zalman to a phone (cell phones did not yet exist.) and stood there as this magician who seemed to speak with angels now smoked a cigarette and discussed an insurance claim with his agent. Startled by the unexpected juxtaposition of the celestial with the diurnal, I thought, for the first time consciously, one may live outside of the world and yet return to live within it.
And then Shabbat. Zalman dressed in full regalia, streimel, kapote, gartel looking strange sounding familiar, leading kiddush to the tune of “Home on the Range,” guiding us through a silent meal in which we fed each other.
At the Shabbat morning service, Zalman flows in his rainbow tallis, swooshing and swooping like a Swallow as he leads us in singing kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, holy, holy, holy.
Hasidim walk through Williamsburg / All photos courtesy of Mo Gelber
Pro tip for anyone considering a tour of Hasidic Williamsburg: It’s not that big a deal. You do not need to wear a hat, broad-brimmed or otherwise. You may visit during the week, and you may visit on weekends. You may bring along with you whatever food you like — nobody cares. And rest assured, there is no group of Hasidic thugs waiting to attack you at the slightest sign of disrespect.
Here, on the other hand, is one thing not to do — especially if you are a gray-haired gentleman of late-middle-age: attempt to engage with eight-year-old Hasidic girls on the street without their parents’ consent, and then throw a hissy fit when the girls seem suspicious of you and your motives.
Other things not to do: gawk, objectify, belittle, and otherwise bring your prejudices and misconceptions with you. Leave those at the edge of the Williamsburg bridge, if you must, and you might choose not to pick them up on your way out.
You would think these guidelines are common sense. To some, however, they are not.
Last month, Dr. Marty Klein, a nationally renowned psychologist and sexuality expert, took a 90-minute walk around the Hasidic part of Williamsburg. After his tour, which he wrote about on his blog, he declared the most notable thing about Williamsburg: the women “have no eyes” and the children are “creepy.”
It isn’t every day that I find myself truly inspired by an Orthodox rabbi; it isn’t often that Forward readers hear me espouse such sentiments. But when the Forward put out a call to readers to nominate a rabbi that inspired or touched them in some way, I felt it my duty to nominate the rabbi who unwittingly impacted my life two years ago.
Fortuitously enough, I had sent a long message the day before to this rabbi’s son – who happens to also be an inspiring Orthodox rabbi, if a bit of a different flavor – explaining how profoundly his father impacted my life.
Sometime late in the summer of 2011, my husband and I walked into the office of Rabbi Aaron Fink, Dean of Ateres Bais Yaakov in Monsey, N.Y., armed with the emotional wherewithal to counter what we thought would be inevitable rejection. We came to try to enroll our four-year-old daughter, Ruchy, in his school – an unconventional Bais Yaakov for girls – a school where love, acceptance and empowerment take precedence over other teachings.
This was approximately three years after we moved out of Kiryas Joel – three years of countless rejections by rabbis of various Hasidic and Orthodox schools.
Before we came to Rabbi Fink, we were told that no one wants former Satmar members in their schools, that our leaving the community indicates a desire to abandon Orthodoxy, that parents are afraid to send their children to school with those whose parents are Hasidic deviants, and that accepting us would negatively affect the school’s reputation. When we came to Rabbi Fink’s door, we were ready to give up on finding an Orthodox school to provide a Jewish education for our kids.
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.