Book Review: America’s hassidim – a snapshot

Why the ultra-Orthodox sects have flourished while other Jewish communities have struggled.

Satmar hassidim dance at a Lag Ba’omer celebration in Kiryat Joel. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Satmar hassidim dance at a Lag Ba’omer celebration in Kiryat Joel.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
New York Times reporter Joseph Berger is to be commended for providing an intimate and balanced portrait of several prominent American hassidic sects.
As he points out, hassidim and other ultra-Orthodox Jews now make up more than 30 percent of New York City’s population, and may account for the majority of American Jews by the end of the 21st century.
“Hassidim can no longer be dismissed as an odd curiosity. They are now a major and increasingly muscular player in the largest city in the US and are important in other cities as well… Americans, both Jewish and gentile, will have to learn how to deal with them,” Berger writes.
The Pious Ones is a highly approachable avenue into this learning process. Berger takes the reader into New York State’s hassidic bastions of Crown Heights, Williamsburg, Borough Park, New Square, Monsey and Kiryat Joel, introducing ordinary and extraordinary hassidim, their beliefs and lifestyles.
We learn about Yitta Schwartz, a Holocaust survivor who died in 2010 at age 93, leaving behind 2,000 living descendants.
She attended every family brit, bar mitzva, engagement party and wedding.
And despite have lost two children to the Nazis, she never lost her faith or Satmar fervor.
We meet Shulem Deen, whose doubts about the Skverer Hassidic lifestyle in which he was raised pushed him to defect – at the cost of his marriage and his relationships with his children. He now writes a “rebel blog” called Unpious.
We read about Alexander Rapaport, a young father of six who runs a Borough Park food pantry and doesn’t follow any specific rebbe but considers himself hassidic nonetheless. And Shlomo Koenig, a Viznitz Hassid who is a sheriff’s deputy in Rockland County, New York.
These and many other character sketches support Berger’s contention that “[a]s monolithic as the hassidic world appears on the first impression, it is actually remarkably diverse.” He’s referring here to the differences among 30 or so hassidic courts, but the same holds true for individual hassidim.
Addressing the common impression that hassidic sects are cult-like, Berger writes that hassidic rabbis “have never been accused of the typical defects that trip up cults – a leader’s sexual abuse of his followers or the financial exploitation of the followers to amass a wealthy lifestyle for the leader.” (He does deal extensively with problems of sex abuse and lack of sex education in hassidic communities.) Furthermore, “while cults tend to be fly-by-night, Hassidism has been around for three centuries and the Judaism it has adapted goes back at least three millennia.”
One of his most fascinating observations is that hassidim out on the street neither stroll nor dawdle. “Everyone is hurrying to do the work of the Creator – be it study or prayer or shopping for the ingredients of a kosher weekday meal or heading off to one of the countless obligations: giving to charity, or visiting the sick, or bathing in a mikve or picking out a shofar… Everything is done with earnest or zealous intention.”
Because Berger’s writing style is compellingly conversational, the book is both enjoyable and informative. However, it would have benefited from more careful editing to delete some repetitious segments and insert some smoother segues.
The subtitle, “The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America,” is not altogether accurate. Though Berger mentions other cities with hassidic populations, he focuses exclusively on those in New York.
I expected to see a section devoted to the highly publicized battle between the residents of Postville, Iowa, and the Lubavitch community that moved in to staff the ultimately infamous Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse. It is not mentioned even in passing. But to be fair, New York does have the highest concentration of hassidim, so it is understandable that Berger conducted his many interviews in this region.
The battles he covers include those waged within hassidic sects, such as the violent schism that developed among the Satmars following the death of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum; and the split that divided Lubavitchers after the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson into the “Moshiach camp” and “Moshiach skeptics.”
Berger also examines the value placed on insularity and the ill will this tendency breeds in surrounding populations. One Jewish lay leader in New York’s Rockland County told him: “There are two reasons villages get formed in Rockland: one is to keep hassidim out, and the other is to keep the hassidim in.”
Yet this may be a critical key to success.
“Hasidim believe the implicit walls of their neighborhood will keep their members away from the enticements of the outside world, which could sabotage their meticulously cultivated lifestyle… Whatever other Jews think of the insular philosophy, it explains why Hasidim have flourished when other Jewish communities struggle with dilution of daily observance, assimilation, intermarriage or simply a de facto shrugging off of Jewish identity.”