Brooklyn’s Satmar Separatists

I lived in deep South Williamsburg for six years. My building was the only one on the block not occupied exclusively by Hasidim. They were my neighbors and my landlords (though the owners of the building were from a different sect based in Boro Park). I almost ripped up the sizable check I had just written securing the apartment when the Satmar building manager refused to shake my hand because I was a woman. But, the size of the apartment, and my determination to leave the land of roommates behind won out over principle.

Over the years, of smiling at my neighbors and having them look away, of having old ladies blatantly cut in front of me in line at the corner market, of having toddlers point at me and yell, “Goy” when I took the trash out, I felt more and more, confused by and, frankly, hostile toward the Hasidic community. The trial of Nechemya Weberman, a Satmar counselor accused of sexually abusing a teenage girl over the course of several years during counseling sessions, is bringing out the same reaction from New Yorkers who are normally more geographically removed from the ultra-orthodox. Last week, four Satmar men, young, yes, but old enough to know better than behave in such a way in a courthouse, were arrested for photographing and intimidating Weberman’s accuser. On blogs and on Facebook the same incredulous, disgusted comments keep popping up–no one wants to be a bigot, but at the same time they cannot square this behavior with any sort of healthy community. The inherent misogyny apparent in these acts and Satmar beliefs makes my blood boil, but it’s the willful separation from the rest of the city that I have trouble squaring logically.

Hasidim in general, and the extremely conservative, insular Satmar sect in particular, are nearly impossible for most of the rest of modern, aggressively diverse New York City to wrap our minds around, it seems. After  years of living in their midst, I’ve decided it’s with good reason–the Satar mix of tradition and modernity, piety and power, is genuinely confounding.

A few years ago I was walking home on a Friday night and a Hasidic man asked me if I could come into his apartment and help him with something. “Oh, do you need me to turn something on or off for you?” I asked, familiar with the tradition of the Sabbath goy. “How did you know?” he asked me with wide eyes. When we walked into his apartment, where I lit the pilot light for him, he said to his wife, “She knew all about us,” in the same incredulous voice. I spent 20 minutes there, talking mostly to his wife, holding her baby and answering her questions about what I knew about her world and how, and about my world.

It freaked me out more than the semi-regular experience of nearly being killed by a Hasidic driver while riding my bike. She was so curious and so kind and seemed whip smart. How could it be that she didn’t know that “Americans” as she referred to me and my kind, not unkindly mind you, were aware of her culture, that we recognized the Hasidic tradition and their right to exist? The Satmars drive cars (at least the men do) and have cell phones. They live in the middle of Brooklyn in neighborhoods with hipsters and Puerto Ricans. They are not isolated and yet they choose to be, but only in bits and pieces.

Fundamentalism of any kind is hard for me to understand, but the Hasidic pick-and-choose attitude toward modernity is impossible for me to swallow. The Amish make for an interesting foil–these are people who eschew zippers as the devil’s fasteners and live on farms without electricity. And yes, they have some genetic diversity problems and their own strange, beard-cutting splinter groups, but they also insist that teenagers, boys and girls, take a rumspringa, an extended period of time where they jump into the outside world and try clubs and parties, drugs, sex, even zippers. In recent years, from the relative isolation of the Pennsylvania countryside, the Amish have become leaders in local, organic farming, making in-roads with shops and restaurants in New York. Their balance of tradition and modernity is weird but seemingly functional.

Shaming and intimidating a young woman who has come forward as the victim of horrific sexual abuse (clearly there will be a Law & Order SVU based on this story soon) furthers the incomprehensible isolation of the Satmars–especially when the ringleader of the shamers looks like a frat boy with peyos and legally changed his name to Lemon Juice. Cell phones, minivans, post-modern rap names? The Hasidim have seemingly embraced these trappings of 21st century life, while rejecting the idea of a modern justice system. There’s no shared New York City there, nothing even to commiserate and kvetch about together–it’s just us and them, at their insistence.

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