Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Some Lessons Taught by an American Shtetl

Sandy Levinson

 Summer is an occasion, at least for academics, for reading big books, and I'm happy to say that I've just finished one of the major books on my list, American Shtetl:  The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York, by Nomi Stolzenberg and David Myers.  I adverted to it in my response to the "Levinsonfest" on religious diversity, in which Nomi participated, but I had not yet finished it.  I had at that time read only enough to know that it was fascinating.  But I'm now in a position to be able to recommend  it to anyone seriously interested not only in the central topic of religious diversity, whether in the United States or elsewhere, but also the various uses (and abuses) of litigation.  The Satmar Hasids (who get their name from their "origin community in Romania) is now "the most populous Hasidic group in the world today" (p. 370).  They imagine themselves as being a tightly-knit community wholly set apart from the ordinary world, speaking Yiddish and devoted exclusively to carrying out their religious duties.  Yet a major theme of the book is the fact that they have created an American shtetl in significant measure because of their adaptation to certain important aspects of American culture.  These include knowledge about how to work within the particular world of New York politics and, over the years, an increasing willingness to engage in active litigation in order to attain their goals.  In addition, Stolzenberg and Myers emphasize as well what might be "exceptional" American laws concerning private property and land-use.  

This is not intended to be a full-scale review of a long, complex, and nuanced book.  Much of it is devoted to explicating the particularities (and peculiarities) of the Satmar approach to the world.  Events in Europe obviously destroyed the foundations of the Satmar order; they were certainly among the victims of World War II and the Holocaust,.  However, their leader, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (whose name is memorialized in the name of the up-state New York village Kiryat Joel), moved to New York and, to an almost incredible degree, flourished in his desire to recreate the equivalent of a European shtetl composed exclusively of fellow members of the Satmar community and, as much as possible, free from the incursions of "gentile" leadership (or, for that matter, other Jews scarcely recognized as such by the Satmars).  To describe Teitelbaum as a "leader" is an understatement: Chasidic communities are basically under the iron rule of singular quasi-monarchical rabbis, and Teitelbaum had the kind of sway over members of his community that no modern king or queen can dream of.  There is a good reason that one speaks of rabbinic "courts" atop any given Chasidic movement.  His words were almost literally law; more to the point, they were viewed as such by most members of the community.  Unlike the probably better known Lubavitch Chasids, the Satmars did not view their rebbe as in fact the Messiah, but, while alive, he certainly exercised complete authority.  Part of the drama of the book is the fragmentation within the Satmar community following his death and the rise of remarkably hostile factions headed by two different grandchildren of Teitelbaum (the Aronites and the Zalites).  Indeed, Joel Teitelbaum's widow turns out to be a major figure in the infighting.  If one were reading a novel called American Shtetl, there would be a temptation to describe some of the events described as "unrealistic" or "over-the-top," but truth really is often stranger than fiction,.

A central tenet of Satmar theology is unmitigated opposition to Zionism, because, among other things, it rejects the command to await God's own decision as to when a messiah might come and restore Israel as an independent nation.   Not only were most original Zionists secular; even the so-called "religious Zionists" rejected the command of political quietism, at least with regard to establishing a "Jewish state," in favor of human action.  Although there are in fact some Satmars in Israel, they are among that group of the ulttra-Orthodox (the "haredi") who disdain the idea that Israel is a "Jewish state."  Viewers of the justifiably popular Israeli series Shtisel, brought to America by Netflix, will be familiar with the fact that some of the most militant anti-Zionists in Israel in fact come from within the community of religious Jews. Stolzenberg and Myers do not mention the fact that the politicians from whom the Satmars seek (and often find) support are often themselves strong "supporters of Israel."  They are more than happy to accept their support for what might be termed their "domestic" project of creating autonomous communities in New York.  All politics are simply transactional.  The Satmars are completely "American" in terms of being the epitome of a Madisonian "faction" concerned only with their own welfare; it is not at all clear that they have a genuinely "American" identity that might require any subordination of group interests to those of the "general welfare."  But, then, that may make them not "un-American" at all, but only a clear illustration of the kind of "interest-group" politics that have made the Madisonian vision set out in Federalist 10 a delusional fantasy.

It would be a mistake, though, to compare the the Satmars to the Amish (and Stolzenberg and Myers do not).   The Amish want primarily to be let alone; they do not involve themselves in politics in any ordinary sense.   Although apparently some individual Amish vote--they appear to have been strong supporters of Donald Trump, as were the Satmars in Kiryat Joel, who gave him 99% of their votes (!)--apparently most Amish sat on the sidelines.  The Satmars, however, have proved extraordinarily skilled in using their political clout to get what they want from the gentiles.  Both Mario Cuomo and his Republican successor George Pataki, for example, were key to their ability to develop Kiryat Joel as a basically autonomous community, described by some as a "theocracy," that, nonetheless, could benefit from a variety of programs of the state of New York, including aid to disabled children.  (It was this issue that precipitated the creation of an "independent school district" at Kiryat Joel that ran a program for such children.)   The ability of the Chasidic rabbis in effect to control a significant bloc of votes, especially in local elections, means that they are figures to be reckoned with in any politician's calculations.  This is thought to have played a role in Bill Clinton's decision, as he was leaving his presidency, to commute the sentences of four (non-Satmar) Chasids who had been convicted of bilking the United States out of millions of dollars.  His wife, embarking on her own political career in New York, benefitted from her close ties with the Chasidic community even as most of them increasingly described themselves as Republican.  

American Shtetl is a "must-read" book for anyone interested in the realities of religious pluralism in America.  "Identity politics" is often associated with the left, but Stolzenberg and Myers correctly note that among the most skillful users of the "identitarian" trope are religious groups attempting to resist what they view as a decadent secular culture.  One of their concluding paragraphs is worth quoting at length:

            [B]oth sides of the culture wars that have dominated American politics for half a century espouse  the politics of group identity.  The battle is not between identitarians and anti-identitarians.  Nor is it between those who espouse the value of religious freedom and those who don't.  It is, rather, a fight between those who see themselves as protecting traditional beliefs, practices, and cultural identity from the corrosive force of secular modernity and those who seek to assert personal cultural or religious identities that are anathema to religious traditionalists.  (p. 378) 

Although "mullti-culturalism" may be viewed as a "left" or "progressive" trope, it is obvious that its most truly effective adherents come from the religious sector.  Indeed, as I elaborated in my own response to the "Levinsonfest" presentations, my friends Doug Laycock and Michael McConnell persuaded me back in the 1980s that a commitment to "cultural pluralism" did require a greater sensitivity to the claims, for example, of religious parents of modest means who could not afford to take advantage of their formal constitutional right, protected since the 1920s, to educate their children in religious schools.  McConnell in particular emphasized that most political progressives (including myself) supported state-subsidized abortions lest reproductive choice become simply a formal right enjoyed primarily by the well-off. So why didn't we as well support greater subsidization of educational choice that would allow more parents to send their children to religious schools?  Part of American Shtetll sets out the collapse of an older liberal consensus on the meaning of "separation of church and state," encapsulated in the rhetoric (if not necessarily the result) in Everson v. Board of Education (1947) that suggested that no public funds should ever go to help fund religious schools.  That vision, for better or worse, is in complete tatters, especially following the recent decision (obviously issued after the publication of American Shtetl) forcing Maine to direct funds to sectarian schools if the state gives funds to any private schools at all.  

There is surprisingly little discussion in the book about the deepening acrimonious conflicts concerning what might be called the monitoring of the education received in Satmar and other Hasidic schools.  There is no real effort to educate the Satmar young, especially males, in any skills relevant to becoming full members of what is viewed as a decadent and basically goyish American society.  Time spent on "secular" education is time taken away from what is really important, at least for males--the study of Torah and the Talmud, where the languages of instruction are Yiddish and Hebrew.  (Here there may be an analogy with the Amish, whose Court-protected freedom from the "tyranny" of state compulsory education laws means that most of the Amish young also have few of the skills necessary for membership in the contemporary American economy or polity.)  Many struggles over educational policy are between adult parents and adult politicians over who should have ultimate control; few people genuinely speak up for the children whose lives are obviously most affected by the decisions reached by their adult superiors.  New York politicians, aware of the importance of the Hasidic bloc vote and the importance the rebbes attach to control of what outsiders might well describe as a totalitarian educational system, are averse to enforcing laws on the books that might seemingly rein in the power of the rebbes to reign over one of the central institutions by which groups (including, obviously, the Satmars) perpetuate themselves.  High birth rates by themselves would be ineffective if the kids were in fact exposed to the lures of outside society.  That must be prevented, and New York, at least practically speaking, seems willing to accommodate the Satmars and other such groups.  

A long chapter detailing literally decades of litigation involving the Satmars both in Kiryat Joel (now called Palm Tree as the former "village" has become an incorporated "town") and Brooklyn--will be of special interest to any lawyer.  Many of us are trained to believe that what "cases" are really about is a result at the end indicating who wins and who loses.  That is certainly not the case with regard to the Satmar litigation.  A loss at the United States Supreme Court about the validity of a New York state law allowing Kiryat Joel to operate as a separate school district was followed by years of further litigation involving new legislation designed to get around the Court's decision.  But, as Stolzenberg and Myers insightfully demonstrate,  at least as important as final decisions, practically speaking, may be the issuance of "stay" orders that leave in place a status quo even as the litigation proceeds.  Moreover, the key event in central litigation between Satmars themselves, and not simply between outsiders and the Satmars, was a settlement that literally drove one of the lawyers to tears because of what he viewed as its surrender on absolutely key points.  (The settlement apparently took place in negotiations among the Satmars, without participation by any of the lawyers involved.). There is also fascinating discussion of the interplay between New York State courts and federal courts.  

In every way, then, this is a long book very much worth reading.  It is a mistake to treat the Satmars as a basically irrelevant "exotic" group of religious zealots.  Their ability to maintain a remarkable degree of independence from general American culture--in part because of their skill in using American mechanisms of politics and litigation--in fact illuminates a great deal about the contemporary divides in American society and whether it is in fact thinkable that they will be genuinely overcome in our lifetimes.

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