An extraordinary account of a Hasidic enclave
In an old joke, a secular Jew sits on a park bench next to a man in a tall black hat and a long black coat. The secular Jew turns to the man dressed in black and says, “What’s wrong with you Hasids?” It’s not the old country, it’s the modern world. You are an embarrassment to the rest of us. The man turns around and says, “Hassid? I am Amish. The secular Jew responds immediately, “It’s so wonderful how you’ve kept your traditions!
The joke revolves, most obviously, on the tension between assimilated Jews and their sectarian counterparts, the same dynamic that inspired the dark comedy of Philip Roth’s first short story “Eli the Fanatic.” But, in the decades since Roth’s story was published, the changing American context has given the joke a broader, secondary drift. What resonates with the exchange now, beyond its Jewish versus Jewish antagonism, is the insinuation that ultra-Orthodox Jews do not, one way or another, count as legitimate traditionalists.
Contemporary critics of the political order—most often from the right, but also from within the left—have gained ground with increasingly bold arguments for the spiritual or moral bankruptcy of liberalism. Figures such as Ross Douthat, Adrian Vermeule, Patrick Deneen and David Brooks share, to varying degrees, the belief that the axioms of liberal thought – the emphasis on individual rights and individual prerogatives, a definition of freedom as negative liberty and a faith in the mechanisms of the market to serve and regulate the interests of the private sphere – have undermined the values of traditional communities, and thus corroded the civic virtues that should make liberalism work; liberalism, in other words, contained the seeds of its own downfall. They survey the cultural landscape and see, in the absence of strong and shared moral commitments, an ignoble back and forth of decay and decay.
What to do then? At the end of the book”Why Liberalism FailedDeneen, a conservative political scientist at Notre Dame, suggests that those seeking to renovate past moral decorum are better off if they “avoid the temptation to replace one ideology with another. Politics and the human community must seep from the bottom up, from experience and practice. Modest pastoral localism might outshine depraved cosmopolitans; rather than attempting to raze Sodom, we might instead choose to live in “intentional communities that will benefit from the openness of liberal society.” They will be seen as “options” within the liberal framework, and while suspect in the wider culture, they will be widely allowed to exist as long as they do not threaten the core business of the liberal order. Vermeule, a conservative scholar at Harvard Law School, agrees with Deneen’s assessment but considers his prescription to be altogether too quietist, proposing instead the cultivation of clandestine agents who could “come occupy the commanding heights of the administrative state”, where they “can have an influence”. a great deal of discretion to promote human dignity and the common good, entirely defined in substantive rather than procedural-technical terms. (One can’t help but think of jurists like Amy Coney Barrett.) Brooks, a commentator, has fewer qualms about liberalism per se and thinks the focus should be on renewing a culture of civic justice.
None of these diagnoses are new, which is part of the point. Their immediate antecedents are in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the rise of communitarianism, a family of related ideas that describe how liberalism philosophically and practically fails to generate and sustain the kinds of communities morals that structure society, the self with roots and life with meaning. Part of the current appeal of communalism is that it has always been a big-tent phenomenon. Religious critics can take inspiration from Alasdair MacIntyre, who denounced a culture dominated by “the wealthy aesthete, the therapist and the manager”; cultural curators have Robert Bellah; more pragmatic moderates can reach Michael Sandel; and dirty left types helped resurrect the work of Christopher Lasch, who pitted the dignified brotherhood of working people against the smoothing vulgarity of restless “elites”.
What’s strange about this recent nostalgia for nostalgics of a previous generation is that, roughly since the publication of “after virtue(1981) and “Sandel”Liberalism and the limits of justice(1982), a group of people have achieved precisely the trick that liberalism is supposed to thwart – and they have done it, no less, with the tools of liberalism itself. They live in a close-knit intentional community in a rural county; they are scrupulous in maintaining a very restrictive moral code; they have their own representatives in the municipal government; and almost all of them vote, not only in national elections, but in all electoral races that could conceivably affect their lives. They welcome visitors to their community with a sign that calls for long skirts or pants, covered necklines, and elbow-length sleeves, and further states “gender separation in all public spaces.” They are the Satmars, among the most exacting and prosperous of the Hasidic dynasties, and they have built, within commuting distance of New York, their own village, Kiryas Joel.
And yet their separatist model, which was not only tolerated under the aegis of a liberal state but flourished within it, and which in its historical particularities undermines the airy lamentations of conservative critics, does not seem register as relevant. In a response to Deneen’s 2018 book, Vermeule identified the ideal cynosures for his administrative reactionaries as “Joseph, Mordecai, Esther, and Daniel, who variously exploit their providential ties to widely differing political incumbents, in order to protect their own views and the community that shares them. Like the secular Jew on the bench, Vermeule seems to believe that the twenty-five thousand living Mordecai and Esthers who call Kiryas Joel home simply don’t count.
“American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York, a new book by Nomi M. Stolzenberg, professor of law at the University of Southern California, and her husband, David N. Myers, professor of Jewish history at UCLA, is an extraordinary and captivating account, based on fifteen years of searching for what has been, with the arguable exception of the state of Utah, the most successful separatist enclave in American history. As the authors write in their prologue, the aspects of Kiryas Joel “that appear to be most at odds with American values, most estranged from American culture, and therefore most indigenously Jewish, arose because of, not despite, of the American political system”. The insularity, homogeneity and political empowerment of the community “were not present in the Jewish communities of Europe, even in their most strictly Orthodox quarters. These are characteristics that have been actively encouraged by American political, legal and economic institutions. »
The Satmar dynasty was founded by the charismatic and indefatigable quarrelsome Joel Teitelbaum, born in 1887 in a region of Eastern Europe which during his life was exchanged between Hungary and Romania. In 1934 he became chief rabbi of the village of Satu Mare, or Szatmár. Stolzenberg and Myers point out that Satu Mare bore little resemblance to the shtetl of the myth; Jews made up only about a quarter of the city’s population of some fifty thousand people, and the Jews themselves were hardly an integrated bloc. As a child, Teitelbaum was obsessed with cleanliness rituals, which he transformed into a lifelong intolerance for all spiritual “impurity”; he had special tutors for his Jewish education, which consumed his waking hours, but he studied no secular subjects and was even protected from familiarity with local vernaculars. (His mother had to teach him to sign his name in Latin characters.) As an adult, he spent most of his energy campaigning against other Jews – Zionists, modernizers and even his fellow ultra-religionists. orthodox sects and dispensations. which he considered capricious or compromised. He was, however, happy to compromise with secular authorities, by virtue of the third-century principle, developed in the Babylonian exile, of “dina di-malkhuta dina”, the equivalent of the diktat to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s; in a famous photograph from 1936, he is seen bowing before the Romanian king, Carol II. This doctrine “supported his belief in the advantage of allying himself with governmental power in order to promote his community”, write Stolzenberg and Myers. “It was this belief that Teitelbaum carried with him as Europe entered the darkest of historical epochs.”
During the Holocaust, however, the Rebbe was unable to protect the Jews of Satu Mare, who were almost all deported, within twelve days in May 1944, to Auschwitz. Teitelbaum’s deliverance from the Nazis is a source of considerable dispute and controversy – his personal freedom was bought by a Zionist, whom many believed to be an opportunist – and he spent a few months in Bergen-Belsen before going to Switzerland, then in Palestine. He arrived in New York, during Rosh Hashanah, in 1946, and made a new home for himself and his remaining followers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But he dreamed of establishing an enclosed orchard outside the city, where the Satmar could live and study alone, free from the temptations of secularism and vice.
Despite Teitelbaum’s calls for outright separatism, the men who made up the secular leadership of the fledgling community were not only free but encouraged to pursue business opportunities – typically import-export, industrial production and real estate – and to develop relationships with officials. locals, who have come to depend on them as a reliable electoral bloc. These secular leaders served as a conduit to the outside world, protecting the interests of the community outside, and internally collecting and distributing funds for the establishment of Satmar institutions – schools, places of worship, ritual baths.
By the 1950s, the Satmar community in Williamsburg was growing rapidly, and Teitelbaum became convinced that future growth—and the maintenance of strict observance—required a self-closing satellite elsewhere. Other Hasidic groups had begun to demonstrate the viability of the model, in New Jersey and upstate New York, and Teitelbaum ordered his lieutenants to follow suit. The existing enclaves did not seek to establish themselves as political entities. “But they lived as more or less isolated pockets within the established boundaries of their cities,” write Stolzenberg and Myers. The authors connect the Satmar to broader trends in American life: “In this way, they were an indicator of the postwar pattern of suburbanization that fostered a high degree of residential segregation”—a pattern that developed along racial and economic lines, “one of the defining characteristics of American suburbia.