My husband tells the story of being taken by his father as a young teenager to the Bobover Rebbe’s “tish,” or Friday-night dinner table. His father came from chasidic ancestry, although the family did not follow that path. During the meal, the rebbe tore at a roasted chicken, and passed pieces to the dozens of surrounding chasidim, who basked in the honor of eating from his hand. When he reached my husband, the young boy, repelled by the greasy chicken in the rebbe’s fingers, turned away, mumbling, “I’m not hungry.” The stunned assembly stared at him in silent disbelief, while his father quickly whisked him out, humiliated that his son had refused the rebbe’s bounty.
I thought of this story while reading Joseph Berger’s fascinating new book, “The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America” (Harper Perennial). A New York Times reporter and columnist for the past 30 years, Berger has frequently written about chasidic sects, particularly in New York. In this book, he investigates every aspect of chasidic life, from its origins in 18th-century Eastern Europe to its impact on American politics today. Considering that the population of chasidim in the United States doubles every 20 years — there are now more than 330,000 chasidim in New York City alone, 30 percent of the city’s 1.1 million Jews — that impact continues to grow. Berger speculates that before this century ends chasidim and other ultra-Orthodox groups might form a majority of America’s six million Jews. If that happens, their generally conservative voting patterns could reshape the traditionally liberal and progressive profile of American Jews. And that change would have profound political implications in areas such as abortion, women’s rights, education, housing and many more.
It behooves all of us, then, to understand this segment of our population, who seem foreign to most Americans, including a great many Jews. Even those of us who have some familiarity with chasidim have rarely penetrated their insulated world. Now, in the best journalistic fashion, Berger opens that world to the outside by chronicling individuals and groups within it.
There is Yitta Schwartz, who left behind 2,000 living descendants when she died in 2010 at the age of 93. She had survived the Nazi death camps, reared 16 children, knew the names of her great-great grandchildren, and led an exemplary life as a member of the Satmar sect. Through her experiences, Berger shows the experiences of most chasidic women, barely different today than in her day — an arranged marriage, limited education (although more secular studies than the men get), lots of children, endless cooking and cleaning, yet a deep and satisfying acceptance of the sect’s beliefs and practices.
There is the Skverer Rebbe, the grand rabbi of the upstate chasidic village of New Square, adulated by thousands of followers. When he recites a blessing over the Chanukah candles, hundreds of chasidic men press in close to soak up his every syllable. And when he passes around slices of honey cake, the men elbow forward to get their pieces from his hand. “When a righteous man touches the food it has a transformative effect on the food,” a chasid explains to Berger. (No wonder people felt shocked when my husband, than a youngster, rejected a rebbe’s chicken.) Berger notes some elements of a cultlike nature of this sect and others in their adoration of their rebbes as almost superhuman beings. Yet, he asks provocatively, haven’t people always sought out transcendent figures to idolize, from John Lennon to Joseph Stalin to Barack Obama in his early appeal to the young?
There is Borough Park, in my youth a leafy middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood, now a “ghetto” with almost 132,000 Jewish residents, 200 synagogues and dozens of yeshivas in its one square mile radius. Its main thoroughfare, 13th Avenue, is rife with wig stores for women and hat stores for men carrying an array of styles to accommodate the great variety of chasidic sects here.
And there are the dissenters — Shulem Dean, who broke away from chasidism and in doing so lost his family and community, or “Shtreimel,” who has remained in the fold, but blogs under this pseudonym about his conflicts with it. Although sympathetic, Berger does not romanticize the chasidim. He writes about serious problems of sex abuse in the community, of mental illness families cover up to preserve suitable marriage matches for the children, of dire poverty. He describes rigid separation of the sexes from childhood on and “modesty committees” that enforce strict conformity in dress. But he also describes the low divorce rate among chasidim and the profound joy many experience in their way of living.
However one feels about them, chasidim have become a major part of the Jewish landscape, Berger proves. His book takes us on a remarkable journey into the complexities of their lives.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book, “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day,” is now an e-book. She is writing a biography of Golda Meir.