“American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, A Hasidic Village in Upstate New York” is a brilliant, eye-opening, thought provoking, easy to read and enjoyable book by two university scholars, Nomi M. Stolzenberg of the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law who has written widely on law and religion, and David N. Myers of the University of California, Chair in Jewish History, whose many books include Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction.
Despite the radical ways Satmar Hasidim differ from mainstream religions and even from most other Jews, as we will soon read, the authors write, “The fundamental claim of this book, [is] that the Satmar community of Kiryas Joel is a quintessentially American phenomenon.” “Fighting for the right to preserve one’s culture is in fact quintessentially American … whether it be the Christian baker who refuses to make a cake for a gay wedding or an Orthodox Jew who practices a controversial form of circumcision.” Thus, the authors tell us that we will learn much about America by reading how Satmar became successful.
Readers will learn how a group of pious, Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jewish families, dressed differently than the current American fashion, settled in a small area in upstate New York. They built a village that was turned into a town. They have a powerful local Satmar government despite strong even legal opposition by nearby non-Jewish and even Jewish neighbors. They did this despite there being no precedent for such a town in European Jewish history. Remarkably, as the authors stress, although Satmar insisted that their adherents continue the practices of a prior century in Eastern Europe, they achieved success by using American methods of participating in local and state elections, becoming a formidable voting bloc, influencing politicians at all levels, using the courts, getting government monetary support, and more. They would not have been successful – not at all – if they maintained their basic principle of separation from the non-Jewish world to the greatest extent possible.
We read a detailed description of the charismatic founder of Satmar Hasidim, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1974), who had this view of separation. He dreamed of founding a Jewish town modeled on the shtetls, the small enclaves, where he was born in Hungary. The project began on September 27, 1972, when a Satmar man purchased the first parcel of land in Monroe, New York. On March 2, 1977, the village of Kiryas Joel was formally established. On July 1, 2018, Kiryas Joel became a formal town called “Palm Tree,” English for “Teitelbaum.”
The name Satmar is derived from the name of the birthplace of Rabbi Teitelbaum’s version of Hasidim. He formed the group in 1905. He dedicated it to reject modernity, to reverence the way of the ancient Israel, and separation from the non-Jewish world. He included a strong hatred of the current State of Israel which, in his opinion, failed to wait for the messiah’s arrival before establishing a secular state. The “impure language” of Modern Hebrew must never be spoken. His view of Judaism and that of his followers is a refusal to change any tradition of the nineteenth century, including clothes, reading material, beliefs, and practices. This is a code of conduct enunciated by Rabbi Moses Sofer (1762-1839 – known as Chasam Sofer), “innovation is forbidden as a matter of Torah law.”
Satmar Hasidim grew quickly from 1905. It is today the largest Hasidic movement in the world. It has over 150,000 members. Since the death of Rabbi Teitelbaum and the death of his successor, most of the Satmar Hasidim are either located at Kiryas Joel or in Williamsburg under two different leaders. What prompted the division is reported intriguingly by the two authors.
As a result of conformity, Kiryas Joel is a sea of uniformity. Men are dressed in black with tzitzis (fringes) hanging outside their pants from their prayer shawl undergarment. Most men have beards and carefully twirled sidelocks based on their interpretation of Leviticus 19:26. Women wear long skirts as well as tops that cover their necklines and sleeves that extend to their wrists. They wear thick stockings, not sheer ones. Married women cover their heads after shaving off their hair every month.
Procreation is a sacred ideal in the community and many families therefore have between eight and fifteen children. Girls are encouraged to marry at age 18 and boys at 20. The median age of Kiryas Joel is 12.4. Homes are crowded, children rarely have their own bedroom, but each parent has his and her separate bed for religious reasons.
There are signs advising men and women to walk on different sides of the street during the Sabbath and holidays. Women are forbidden to drive cars. Foods such as sushi is deemed too blatant a symbol of assimilation into American society and is unacceptable.
Secular education is minimized. There is no public library in the town. Men are encouraged to learn sacred texts. Women are allowed some secular studies. The average Satmar has little understanding of how the outside world works and many men lack functional levels of English required to make their way into a competitive labor market. The burden of economic responsibility therefore shifts to women.
The median household income is $26,000 half the national average. As of 2008, nearly fifty percent of Satmar families live below the poverty line. A high 93 percent of the village are enrolled in Medicaid programs for low income individuals and families.
The authors conclude their very insightful book by reminding us that “one may look aghast at the weakened wall of separation between synagogue and state” because of the many supports that the state, including the funds the federal government gives Satmar, “as well as KJ’s [Kiryas Joel’s] decidedly conservative values on gender, education, and social integration. But none should doubt that Kiryas Joel is an American creation, born and bred in this country, and belongs to a long tradition of strong religious communities [of all faiths] that have survived and flourished in the United States.”
We should add that although one may disagree with the Satmar Hasidim and dislike how they practice their religion, we need to recognize that under American law and the biblical demand to love your neighbor as yourself, they have a right to their view. We dare not interfere with them or belittle them unless they harm others, which they certainly do not do.