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The Making of an American Shtetl

The following is a transcript of Episode 87 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi, and welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, President of Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. 

I live in Riverdale, New York, which is the Northwest corner of the Bronx, a neighborhood that has a pretty high population density of Jews, something on the order of maybe 40%. Of that, Riverdale has a lot of observant Jews in the kinds of Jewish communities and with the kinds of Jewish institutions that are visibly and obviously Jewish, with kosher restaurants, prominently labeled synagogues, Jews who wear conspicuously Jewish clothing. Even so Riverdale is an experiment and the relationship between American religion and American liberalism. And I would argue it leans more on the latter. Our Orthodox synagogues, boast as members, the former US secretary of the treasury and even a vice presidential candidate. And in general, these synagogues tend to be environments of upper middle class economic and social mobility. We don’t only have kosher restaurants in Riverdale, as you might find in places that are more enclave like, and needless to say, the roads are open to drivers even on Shabbat.

So this form of religiously observant Judaism forms kind of part of the dance of the American project for Jews, trying to use the frameworks that America offers to make possible Jewish thriving, and to figure out how to also thrive religiously in this assimilative environment all the same. But not all that far from us about an hour with no traffic heading upstate right past Harriman State Park is another American Jewish experiment and it looks quite different.

It’s a village called Kiryas Joel, best described as a Hasidic enclave, founded by Satmar Hasidim and named for the head of the Satmar sector at the time, Joel Teitelbaum from the second half of the 20th century, who envisioned this new settlement for his followers to rebuild what was lost in the Holocaust, but on American soil.

Kiryas Joel is not fully hermetically sealed. Some of it’s Hasidim commute to Midtown for their jobs. There’s commerce and trade throughout the rest of Orange county where it’s located, but it is pretty tightly controlled as an ultra Orthodox environment. And in the past number of years, as the result of significant legal battles with its neighbors, it has even been rezoned to a totally new township called Palm Tree, which is the English for Teitelbaum. Whatever we were as Jews, whatever we eat, however we vote, however, we construct our Jewishness in America, we’re all figuring out a shared underlying question. What does it mean for us to be at home in America? How does America grant us entitlements to practice our religion? And what obligations do we, as Jews owe to America and return?

What’s the right balance between flourishing here as Jews and assimilating to the American social order. In general ultra Orthodox Jews are a great case study for questions of at homeness. Some of their separatist behaviors, their forms of social detachment, seems to suggest that they are living with a fundamental otherness to the societies in America and Israel, where they live. At the same time those various societies make possible those types of social detachments as expressions of the society’s values.

So you can either assimilate as an American Jew by suppressing your Jewishness, or you can fully assimilate as an American Jew by taking advantage of America, granting you the right to express yourself religiously in public. I wrote about this earlier in the pandemic now almost a year ago, about how protests and ultra Orthodox communities in Brooklyn against masking and social distancing were not just another expression of ultra Orthodox counter-culturalism. I wrote that it might be tempting to see these protests as the product of communities that are at odds with the dominant culture, adamantly refusing to comply with American behavioral and social norms. But that gets the story precisely backwards.

The protests are profoundly American. The members of these communities are so at home in the American public square that they can air their grievances without fear of retribution as their own particular expression of their constitutional rights. In a partisan America participating in partisan rancor, in other words, is merely an expression of feeling free and at home. There’s a new and remarkable book out on just this topic, which I think will become quite quickly the definitive textbook on this and a wide set of attended issues for American Jews beyond mere curious curiosities about ultra Orthodox Judaism.

The book is called American Shtetl by professors Nomi Stolzenberg of USC and David Myers of UCLA. It’s a book about Kiryas Joel, a place that is thriving demographically, even as it drives a lot of people crazy. And it combines a history of the village with some detailed analysis of the legal strategies that the Satmar community has used to advance its self interests. 

So David and Nomi, thanks for coming on the show this week. And please start us off by helping us understand your core thesis that we make a mistake. When we see Kiryas Joel as anomalous from the American project or in opposition to it.

David: Kiryas Joel really requires us to rethink our idea of what America is and in moreover, what American Jewry is. Just because as a descriptive and likely empirical matter, it will become it. Kiryas Joel as an emblem of of Haredi life in America will become a much more important part of the demographic and cultural pie moving forward. I think it was already 10 years ago that the New York Federation did a demographic survey that showed that something like 30% of the community identified as Orthodox in the New York metropolitan area and 60% of first graders. So this is the time to really reassess what it means to be an American Jew. It’s a much, you know, just as we’ve come to consciousness about the presence of Jews, of color within our Lily white world. I think it’s also important to recognize how important and how important this communitarian, strong, often illiberal kind of spirit is within American Jewry.

It requires an alteration of the narrative, discomfiting as it may be. 

Nomi: And I would add to that. I think this tells us something really important about America and American political culture because I think you’re absolutely right. You know what we described earlier as communitarianism from the bottom up, this private pathway to political empowerment in the formation of local governments is coupled with what we call unwitting assimilation.

You know, there’s sort of a, not necessarily a conscious bargain, right? Where you get to do that. You get to follow that private pathway, but it comes with the price tag of being assimilated into absorbing the values of American culture. But what are those values? Again, we’re talking about paradoxes, we’re talking about contradictory impulses within American liberalism.

And so that means there are two starkly different visions of what America is and what the principles are for which America stands. Each of which take those contradictions in opposite directions. So there’s the liberal vision and many of the outsiders who engage with Kiryas Joel and contest it’s institutions, many of them are Americans and more specifically, many of them are Jewish Americans who are very much beholden to this liberal vision of what America is. You know, I think of it as sort of, based on the holy Trinity of individualism, individual rights, integrationism, right?

This is very much a cold war era, you know, this is oftentimes referred to as the liberal consensus. It’s, it’s the vision of liberalism born really crystallized in Brown vs. Board of education. The belief that separate is inherently unequal and therefore only in a truly integrated society will the liberal values of individual liberty and equality be recognized.

So individualism, integrationism and last but not least the separation of church and state, religion, and state, that sort of the holy Trinity of this 20th century version of liberalism and importantly, you know, a core element of that liberal vision is the idea that the public schools are the most important site for integration and the inculcation of these liberal democratic values.

Well, that’s one vision of America and its constitutional principles. And then there’s a radically different vision, which is anti individualist, anti integrationist, and anti separationist. Right. And so it it’s so happens that precisely at the point in time when Kiryas Joel was being formed, it’s the anti liberal pro separatist vision of America that was becoming ascendant and curious.

The Satmars of Kiryas Joel both benefited from that and contributed to that in important ways. 

David: Yeah. I will just add one thing if I may you to which is you know, precisely around the time that KJ Kiryas Joel takes rise 1977, the date in which it is officially incorporated as a village in the state of New York is the time when we see the beginning of a certain arc of religious conservative activism, symbolized by the creation of the moral majority of 1979 by the Reverend Jerry Falwell who called for really an erosion of the boundary between religion and state and a greater place for religion in the public square. And what’s interesting, as we mentioned in the book is that that vector of development aligns with the emergence and rise of multiculturalism often coming from the left, both of which are advocating for sort of a more communitarian impulse in sort of imagining our political identity. And 40 years later, a really important question, when one takes stock of the extraordinary success of the religious conservative movement and the partial success of the multicultural movement is, has the pendulum swung too far.

And I think January 6th really places that question in, in, you know, in the spotlight of attention. 

Yehuda: You know, Nomi, on your list of, of the, of those three things, you know identity and integration. And and, and, and the relationship between church and state, you know, I don’t know if, you know, I’m sure you saw this past week where Neil Gorsuch used the phrase, the so-called separation of church and state. So you talk about how deeply this has become entrenched in the, in that kind of conservative form of thinking What is American about America? That’s kind of an extraordinary moment, which I suspect Satmar would essentially embrace. But I do, I did find that what you just said, David, to be one of those interesting pieces of the book, because the impulse to treat Satmar as essentially a conservative project, as opposed to watching the ways in which progressive politics, identity politics have been part of the cascade of making this possible, it helps to understand why liberal Jews don’t quite know what to do with Satmar, right? It’s exactly that like, to the extent that it’s a conservative project, great. I need to oppose it because public schools are better for everybody. But to the extent that I’m also supposed to, as a liberal kind of validate the articulation of personal identity, allowing people to narrate their own stories, to preserve their value systems, I genuinely don’t know what to do. 

And I think maybe one of the places where this is most pronounced is around what the voice of liberal Jewry should be in relationship to something like Yaffed, the educational, the organization that’s advocating for Haredi schools to have to teach secular studies in ways that are consistent with the state’s expectations, where the struggle is, are we supposed to be foisting this kind of these kinds of expectations on  other people, or are we supposed to kind of respect their right to narrate their own experiences? That’s simply one type of example. Maybe we’ll start. Well, we could get to that, but we’ll even go back a step. You know, the book is in part about real estate and a lot about American law. And about the use of American law to articulate a certain kind of Jewish self-interest.

It feels as though the long-term play of Kiryas Joel  is to enable American law to allow this community to be separatist. Which is of course a kind of incredibly artful way of using a system in order to be able to articulate your separateness. So, Nomi. Maybe start there’s so much to say about law, it’s like half the book but maybe tell a little bit of the arc of that story. And, and I guess one of the questions that ran throughout in this is, obviously the project of this litigation starts because the community wants certain things. When is the moment of sentience of realize of Kiryas Joel realizing that what they’re doing is not just trying to get to be able to run their own township the way it want to run it, but that they’re actually on the threshold of advancing a kind of a new legal theory for minority groups and subgroups in America in ways that are going to outlast them and outlive them. 

Nomi: Those are both such great questions. Let me start with the first, the arc. You, you rightly said that one could summarize a lot of the immense amount of litigation. I mean, there’s just a staggering number of lawsuits that emanate out of, or revolve around Kiryas Joel. You sort of summarized it as what at least ends up being a pretty successful quest as you put it to enable American law to allow the community to be separatists.

I think that is a good description of one big swath of the litigation. And I’ll be happy to sort of describe that in brief strokes, but it’s important to note, that’s actually the smaller part of the amount of litigation that emanates out of this community. That’s the litigation that responds to challenges to the separatists nature of the community, in particular, those from the outside, that’s the relatively simple story, but there’s a whole other story that’s very difficult to summarize, which emanates out of the splits within the community, beginning with the rise of a dissonant movement within Kiryas Joel, which is on the one hand, you know, more Catholic than the Pope, right?

They purport to be more separatist than the mainstream Satmar faction in Kiryas Joel but at the same time, they are constantly resorting to the courts and to other state authorities to intervene in their disputes and to empower them as again, so there on the one hand that’s it’s, it’s much more complicated because they’re not seeking to use the law to prevent them from being separatist. Quite the contrary, they are trying to use the law to prevent one faction from embodying its theological separatist vision in the form of secular municipal institutions. So they’re really two different stories going on at the same time.

The first story can be summarized relatively quickly. That’s the one that’s most well-known outsiders challenge the constitutionality of a law that was enacted by the New York state legislature, allowing the village to form its own public school district within the confines of the village. Which means it can be homogeneou, they can use Yiddish. And really the main motivation for that obviously was not to be able to have a public school where all or most of the children could go. Cause the community sends its children of course, to religious schools, which in America have to be private schools, but it was about addressing the needs of children with special needs and how do you deliver special educational services to children within the community without breaching its boundaries. And there in point of fact, the Supreme Court initially declared the first law, authorizing the creation of a public school district inside Kiryas Joel to be unconstitutional, but it did so on very narrow grounds that actually explicitly gave voice to this more separatist vision of Americanism, according to which so long as every similarly situated community, every separatist community has an equal opportunity to form its own public school district, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. 

David: Let me just jump in and say that the original statute known as chapter 7 48, that was overwhelmingly passed by the New York state legislature explicitly made reference to the creation of a public school district in Kiryas Joel. Supreme Court justice has said that’s not gonna work. And they offered a template for what might be a more successful bill that could pass constitutional muster. 

Nomi: Right. And it’s a perfect example of the difference between this sort of 20th century liberal vision and way of interpreting constitutional principles and this, I’m not going to say necessarily anti-liberal, but let’s say anti integrationist vision that has, as we talked about before proponents on both the left and the right. So from the standpoint of the integrationist vision, right, a separate school district, right. A school district that is formed with the explicit purpose of allowing a homogeneous community to resist being mixed in with people outside the community that is inherently unconstitutional, right? And there was one justice on the Supreme Court, Justice Stevens, who essentially took that position. He was the lone one. A very different vision, says there’s nothing wrong with groups separating themselves out so long as they do so as a matter of private choice, right? Here’s where we get back to, you know, so long as it’s individuals exercising, freedom of choice and deciding for themselves whether or not to live with their own kind. Right. And using the rights of private property so long as it’s done from the bottom up, nothing wrong with that.

And then if those people want to then have their own actually local government institutions. That’s fine. So long as the homogeneity wasn’t degreed from the top down, but, said the court, you can’t single out one and only one religious community and give them the privilege of doing that. All communities have to have an equal opportunity to be separate.

It’s the kind of doctrine of separate but equal, if you will. 

Yehuda: I guess if we’re going to map Haredi communities in America, and I’m a novice at this, but kind of extreme counterexample to Satmar in the Haredi community is Chabad. Which, which participates in American liberalism by its own rules. It basically thinks of free market individual identity and pursues kind of a, a culture of persuasion. 

In the open marketplace of identities and ideas, we’re going to be in it. We’re not going to live in separatist ways. We’re going to be in it and we’re gonna, basically win. We had a Mordecai Lightstone from Chabad on this podcast few weeks ago. And essentially what he said, like I’m playing by, essentially playing by the rules of American liberalism in a very different way.

What’s so striking about what you said, Nomi, though about the internal battle. Like you might think that Satmar would have said, okay. We have to litigate our battle with the state in order to be able to create this tight community that the state doesn’t invade in and gives us the right to be able to pursue our own destiny.

But the fact that the community litigated its internal battles in reference to the state. It’s kind of messed up, like why wouldn’t that have been the site for Halakhah, for the Beit Din, right? Why, why, if you were going to be really good at that, why wouldn’t you have used your own internal legal systems, which would corroborate from an outsider’s perspective that this community is capable of handling almost everything on its own, with the exception of the use of American law, to allow it to remain separate.

David: Because they become so American. Plain and simple. Which is to say that that really the, the, the rift between the multiple factions within the community that followed the death of the towering charismatic founding Rebbe of the Satmar dynasty, Rav Yoilish, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum was so fierce and ferocious that there was no ability to agree on the composition of a Beis Din.

No ability to agree on who should sit on a rabbinical court. And let’s just take note of the historic nature of what transpired. A complete evisceration of the taboo, the prohibition on appealing to our coaches going to Gentile courts. It’s not as if there was a kind of slight creaking of the door, the door was thrust open and the litigants fled out to the, the, the secular court system with gusto and enthusiasm, and litigated back and forth, you know, at a staggeringly at a dizzying pace for decades.

This is one of the ways in which we argue that Kiryas Joel is a manifestation of unwitting assimilation. It assumed the legal norms of the surrounding culture. It not only appealed to Gentile courts, it engaged in forum shopping with a skill that is surpassed by none. It also learned to play the American political game, the game of interest group politics.

By lobbying, by cajoling, by encouraging, by gathering a block vote to to really change the complexion of an election with remarkable skill. Now we could say, you know, this isn’t American, certainly according to the more traditional liberal paradigm, but in fact, it’s decidedly American. It’s not a liberal vision of how to play the game, but it as Chabad might in, its commercialization of religious identity. But it’s a very very unmistakably American approach to playing the legal game and the political game. And there’s, I think some measure of resentment that they’ve been as successful as they have been. 

Just one other observation about Chabad versus Satmar, arguably the two most renowned Hasidic communities, though Satmar is bigger maybe by an order of magnitude of two, than the far more well-known Chabad. Chabad’s mode of expansion is through outreach. Satmars very decidedly rests on the principle of, of growth from within. So it has grown at a staggering rate. Just Kiryas Joel itself grew by 62% from 2010 to 2020. And it’s entirely the result of of the growth of the community through it’s birth rate. 

Nomi: David described how the door that supposedly is shut tightly against the secular courts is blown open. But to give a little more detail and texture to that, it’s not that Rabbinic courts, Beis Din, that that was never resorted to. There were frequent resorts to the rabbinical courts inside the community, but they didn’t work for two reasons.

And I think understanding why that move was always superseded by a subsequent move to the secular courts. I think that helps us to understand the answer to the why that in many cases what would happen. Oftentimes a dispute in one of the factions would first go to a rabbinical court.

The rabbinical court would issue a summons. I mean, this is what happened in the case of the major split between the followers of Aaron and the followers of Zalman, the Aronis and the Zalis that erupts in 2000. And it plays out specifically over a contest over who is the true president of the board of the Williamsburg  Synagogue.

And the side that has less defacto power because it’s always the side that has less defacto power that doesn’t have physical control over the institutions and the assets and the synagogue. They went to the Rabbinical court. Right? The Aronis went to the Rabbinical court, a rabbinical court, issued summons, the Zalis simply ignored the summons three times, Right, three strikes and you’re out, as a principle of Halakhah, it is, it is permissible, right, And so then the, the Aronis get the authorization of the Beis Din to go to the secular courts, ostensibly for the limited purpose of a compelling the Zalis to submit to arbitration. And then that results in literally 10 years of the most complex convoluted, why? Because the Zalis said that’s not an impartial court, they’re in the pocket of the Aronis. 

Any court that the Zalis would pick. So the lack of neutrality and that, you know, no one would recognize any particular set of rabbis, any Beis Din as impartial. And the second problem was the very limited nature nature of their enforcement proceedings. So even in the rare instances where there was agreement as occurred when the one case that actually went to trial in 1997. It was litigated before Judge Rakoff and it resulted in a settlement that was presided over, you know, the one rabbi that both sides could agree to, they broker to settlement, but then the settlement immediately broke down. 

Yehuda: Right. I mean, it, it, the power piece feels the most essential once. If you don’t, if you don’t have to abide by the ruling of a local rabbinic court, because you can simply claim it’s lack of legitimacy. You can malign it, you can ignore it, but you can’t ignore the power of the state. Then you basically show in your hands that you essentially accept the power of the state over you, you are subordinate to it.

It reminds me of like in the first century BCE. Great. So Hyrcanus and Aristobulus are fighting in Jerusalem and one of them decides to ally itself with the Roman empire. Well, you may think that you now you’ve just won over your brother, but you’ve essentially aligned yourself with the Roman Empire. And that’s essentially the move here to signal you know, our Halakah courts, our rabbinic courts only matter on the things that matter less because they have by definition, weaker enforcement mechanisms, and we only trust them as pertain to minor things. 

David: It’s an interesting inversion, if you will, of the classic implementation of Dina d’malkhuta dina which usually bespeaks the subservience of the Jewish community to the state and the legitimacy of an autonomous religious fear for the Jews. But here, in sort of this interesting move, it’s not merely a mad matter of subservience to the state, but it’s really eroding the authority of that self-contained religious community with its legal institutions. And that I think is sort of one step towards what we saw in 2020 in, in what may be fleeting fascia, may not, which is a new audacity toward the state itself. 

Sort of a new willingness on the part of Haredim in general and Satmar Hasidim to push back against the perceived intrusion of the state. So

Yehuda: But wait, on that point, I was happy you got to 2020, because you say an audcaity towards the state, but you also cite, and it’s just an unbelievable statistic, which is that 55% of Kiryas Joel votes for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Which, by the way I was struck by, because I assumed in these communities, whoever the Rebbeim tell you to vote for you vote for. 55% suggests that’s not the case, but that 99% votes for Donald Trump in 2000, which means it’s not merely audacity towards the state.

It’s also maybe the embrace of American politics with a far more far greater passion, like a love for the protagonist, the antagonist. And that to me is the most radical thing of this whole thing because the Jewish history of Jews relative to the state has always been one of a kind of, I don’t want to say neutrality, but a cautious distancing.

Like we’re going to instrumentally be in relationship to the power order. To the extent that it serves our interests, protects us, or doesn’t make us vulnerable. But the notion of a Hasidic community seeing itself. As passionately intertwined with the political system, loving certain individuals, hating others, being willing to brashly protest against the system in its own self-interest, that to me is like mind blowing. 

David: So let me just begin with 2016. 55, 45. That’s pretty close to the breakdown between the Aroni and Zali faction in Kiryas Joel. So both sides may indeed well have been listening to its respective rebbeim. You know, we are cautious about 2020. We saw things that seem to reflect the collapse of a traditional, pragmatic, transactional approach to politics, which says we will support whoever basically advances our direct interests. In the name of a kind of ideological conservatism that on the face of it, seemed to resemble that of white Christian conservatives.

That’s certainly the way it looks from the outside. With that shift from 55 to 99%. It’s important to note that I think the data are partial at this point. We should note sort of the, the, the long arc beginning in the late seventies of this new religious conservative activism. And I think we should approach 2020 with some measure of caution.

It’s something that interests me a lot, and I helped convene a group of scholars that are now looking into the Haredi moment of 2020, and trying to situate it in time and also think about where it might lead. So you know, we’re at a moment where I think we need to assess it carefully.

One thing that’s not often noted, you know, the data seem to suggest this abandonment of, of that transactional pragmatism and a new ideological conservatism. One thing that was very clear to me and explaining the shift from 55 to 99% was the fact that Donald Trump commuted the sentence of Sholom Rubashkin and supported the First Steps prison reform bill which allowed for quicker commutation or pardoning if your sentence if your behavior in prison was considered good. These matters, these kinds of local matters of Haredim who are in prison, especially in the famous Otisville prison in upstate New York. These are really important matters that made a difference in that shift that we just talked about, a kind of Hakaras Hatov, of gratitude, towards in this case, Donald Trump for supporting something that was deemed to be of great and local interests. That said there is this larger trend line. And I think we need to pay very careful attention. I think Nomi wanted to say a word about it. 

Nomi: I think this is where we see that there are tensions and contradictions and maybe just changes within the culture of the Satmars that both parallel and intersect with the changes and paradoxes and contradictions within the culture of wider American society. And if you just think about those, right, two different legal arcs, two different legal stories we were talking about, you began by talking about the one set of cases that manifest. The quest of the Satmars, the successful quest to enable American law to allow the community to be separatists.

Yes, we see that. But the cases that are an expression of the political disputes within the community, the disputes between the dissidents and the establishment inside Kiryas Joel, and the disputes between the Aronis and the Zalis, they actually, I think the lesson from them is there, you see at least the side that is going to the courts, manifesting a recognition, as you said before of, of its need for the enforcement powers of the state. So they’re in that domain, you see the community recognizing, and respecting, and recognizing its own dependency on the enforcement powers of the state. That’s the very opposite of an attitude of defiance towards the state.

And is very much in keeping with the general, you know, we have to say we completed our research on the book by the beginning of 2020. 

And up until that point, although we saw increasing convergence between certainly legal strategies, litigation strategies undertaken by the Satmats and litigation strategies of the religious right, really meaning the Christian right. We did not see a subscription to the ideology, to the libertarian ideology. And certainly not the kind of defiant attitude that we don’t know how new it is, that’s why it’s so important that David and the other members of this newly convened research group are undertaking that research, we don’t know, but I think that something very new. And it does seem to be, you know, maybe the most paradoxical form of Americanization of all, which is the absorption of attitudes and, you know, an ideological beliefs that developed principally in the precincts of the American conservative legal movement and more specifically the religious right, which is an anti-government ideology. The Satmars were not anti-government. But now we are seeing suggestions that the anti-government ideology of the Christian rate is beginning to filter in to the Satmars, at least some Satmars own mind, worldview. 

David: Just one sentence to add. And the, the pandemic, the COVID pandemic and the responses to a particular lockdown in quarantine really amplified that sense of their religious liberties being violated language that was deeply evocative of what we have been hearing out of the religious conservative movement over the last years.

Yehuda: So you have two things going on there, which is one is what doesn’t originate necessarily as a particular political ideology of America becomes one over time. That almost seems inevitable. You participate in a system. It also correlates. Kind of the culture of polarization and allyship. Once you start having other people who represent your viewpoints, you start hanging around with them, right? Maybe not in Kiryas Joel, but in Washington, and in other places. And the other piece is like for a Satmar community that may, 150 years ago in its historical memory, has said, we are basically agnostic around political ideology, we’ll work with whoever. As you’re hinting throughout, this ain’t Satmar of 150 years ago, which “Lo haya v’lo nivra,” there was no version of Satmar that looked like Kiryas Joel in Hungary slash Romania, it just didn’t exist. So there’s a whole construction process here and it’s no surprise that ideology becomes a component of it. 

The last thing I want to ask you about, which is a little bit of a left turn, but I look, if you drive 57 minutes down, route 17 from Kiryas Joel, you wind up in Bergen County, right. Where there’s also a different Orthodox community, a centrist or modern Orthodox community that has also shifted politically quite considerably, over the last 20 or 30 years. And so you wind up with this situation of two, two different types of Orthodox Trump pockets, right? One in Kiryas Joel and one in Bergen County, and where Israel represents something totally different to those different communities.

Satmar is a publicly anti-Zionist community. And therefore, who knows how much Israel plays into the sympathies of a pro-Trump community in Kiryas Joel, but it is the single issue that, that brings the centrist Orthodox community, or at least publicly so, it’s probably also economic issues. But it’s the single biggest public issue that brings the centrist Orthodox community in support of Donald Trump.

So I can’t help but hear Zionism throughout, this book is not a book about Zionism, but it kind of is, because it’s about American Jewish at homeness. And it’s hard to disconnect those two. It’s a big set of questions there, but I’d love for you to just reflect a little bit on how the politics of Israel or the politics of Zionism are hanging around this story, if at all.

David: So first thing to say is that Reb Yoilish, raised in the Northeast quadrant of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Hungary grew up in a time when Jewish nationalist ideology was being ferociously debated and he was deeply attentive to it. And in fact, took steps to engage through condemnation with various forms of Jewish nationalism, even accusing agudat Yisrael, of collaboration with the Zionists. I mean, that was sort of the extent of his tolerance for anything that even hinted at collaboration. And I make this point because I think that in the same kind of osmotic way that Satmar in America has become American, Reb Yoilish sort of drew within him some of the, the ethos of the strong form of community that Jewish nationalists were aspiring to countering sort of the, the corrosive forces of modernity. And in that regard, Kiryas Joel is in a certain sense, a kind of counter Zion in America. And you know, in the most explicit way, The Hei B’Iyar, Israeli independence day was, was indeed recognized with a long series of of defamatory, derogatory speeches drawing from Reb Yoilish’s classic anti-Zionists treatises, Vayoel Moshe, from 1950-1960, where he calls Zionism the world’s chief form of spiritual pollution.

So there was a kind of unrelenting obsession with Zionism that suggests something left a deep imprint, and may have even conduced him to shape his theological political vision in the way that he did. It’s not just enough to sort of reconstitute the community. It’s important to create a very strong form of community.

It’s not clear by the way that Reb Yoilish has had any desire to create a legal village initially. But he certainly came around to the idea. Having said all of that. What is clear is that, although it is still the formal policy of the Satmar community I think passions are waning with respect to the anti Zionists of the community, as Israel has become normalized and as Israel has become a Jewish cause to support. So there are different categories of people in the community with respect to Zionism that I’ve observed. There is sort of the old guard, who approach Israel independence day with the same anti-Zionists fervor as Reb Yoilish, and I think they’re a small and declining number. 

There are those who would have go through the motions of, you know, the recitation of the relevant passages from Vayoel Moshe on, on Yom Ha’atzmaut because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. There are those who have been to Israel often for various family reasons, and say, you know, it’s kind of a dirty place but you know, there are dirty places in the world. And then there are the Zionists then there are people who say, I kind of like it. You know, I go there, there’s what to do. There are people to meet, there’s good kosher food, it’s readily accessible.

And that’s another way in which I think we see that process of unwitting assimilation, which suggests to me that maybe that juxtaposition that you’ve drawn, maybe overdrawn, certainly as we think of the next quarter century in the life of American Orthodoxy. 

Yehuda: Yeah. Well, what’s exciting about the move and the book is really, this is a book about America. And in that respect, the passions for America that run throughout Kiryas Joel even if they’re not articulated as theological or spiritual passions, are pronounced in the forms of political participation.

And the most powerful idea I’ve found throughout is a kind of flattening of all of these forms of American Judaism as modern projects. For better or worse, we are engaging with the same set of raw materials. Clothing choices may matter a lot less than what is weirdly shared in common, which is a participation in the same social order, the same larger historical dynamics that affect all of us and various different calculuses along the way.

There’s a lot we didn’t talk about today around poverty, around race, so much more, and certainly about law, and I’m grateful to both of you, to professors, Nomi Stolzenberg and David Myers for being on the show today. And for this book, American Shtetl, the making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic village in upstate New York.

And thanks to all of you for listening to our show, Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This week’s episode was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M. Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by Socalled.

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at We are always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes. So if you have a topic you’d like us to talk about, or a book that you want us to read, or if you have comments about this episode, you can write to us [email protected].

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