When we came on aliyah, my wife and I filled out forms and answered questions: Where will you live? Which kupat cholim will you join? And so on. No one asked our sector. But we gave our address, so maybe they guessed.
Israelis call a sector migzar (or sektor). Both words come from roots meaning “to cut.” The image conjures slicing off chunks of society, each with traits that look alike, especially to others. People inside these chunks see inner distinctions that outsiders have no time for.
Many are born into their sector; some choose it; but once you’re in one, others thrust it upon you. They see you for what they think you are. What you think of yourself is of less concern.
Now that we live in Israel, I am no longer used to hearing my doorbell ring after 9PM. Back in the US for a wedding, I peered through our peephole and saw a bearded figure. I recognized the meshullach, collecting for charity.
“Missed you in shul!” said Rabbi M as he entered. I remembered him well–a chevreman, hail fellow well met with a Yiddish accent. Satmar, to be exact.
“I had no idea you were coming,” I said, “but I thought of you today.”
Rabbi M looked puzzled. “My friend in Yerushalayim just sent me a photo of a poster from Satmar in New York,” I said. “This announced a change in the order of Tehillim for the fifth day of Iyar, which would have been one that is said during Hallel. The poster called that day yom hakamat hamedinah hateme’ah—”the day the unclean state was founded.”
Rabbi M said nothing.
“I showed the sign to my wife,” I told him, “and reminded her that Satmar does wonderful work for bikur cholim [visiting the sick]. And I thought of you, because that’s what you raise funds for.”
Satmar indeed does splendid chesed work. I came to know this, personally.
As a child I spent a lot of time with my Bubba and Zeyde in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. They lived at the corner of Bedford Avenue and Ross Street, half a block from Satmar headquarters.
All her long life my Mom had fond memories of her Williamsburg girlhood. “It was wonderful,” she used to say, “especially until after the War, when the Hungarians came.” The Hungarians she meant were mainly Hasidim, most prominently Satmar.
Fast forward 50 years. In the 1990’s Mom needed urgent surgery, which was performed in a Manhattan hospital that drew patients from Brooklyn, including the Satmar community. Many Hasidim were to be seen in the lobby, on the elevators, in the wards.
Over Shabbat my father and I stayed in pleasant apartments for hospital visitors on East 69th Street. These were maintained by the same chesed organization that helped patients and their families at the hospital. They stocked the apartments with wine, candles, and abundant food. All offered without charge. And all provided with exquisite tact and gentle kindness. By the Satmar community. Even for guests who were clearly not of their own.
I had in the past shared these memories with Rabbi M.
He showed me my canceled donation check from two years before. When I brought him a new one, I said, “Please don’t take this personally. I’ve said the same to the local Jewish Federation. We live in Israel now and have shifted priorities, tzedakah included. Please take me off your list.”
He agreed, wished me happiness, good health, and success—the standard meshullach signoff–and left.
We all self-sectorize: by where we live, what we wear, where we shop, and so on. Others draw conclusions. Subtleties are lost. Knives cut without nuance.
A young man we know came from the US to study in Israel. His was a hesder yeshiva, so its Israeli students serve in the IDF. Each year a few visiting Americans also sign up for military service. The yeshiva exposes students to varied aspects of Israeli life. These include visits to IDF induction ceremonies, celebrated with singing and dancing.
Several weeks back he found himself in Tel Aviv over Shabbat, during the time of anti-government demonstrations, mostly by the hiloni, secular, sector. Dressed in kippah and suit, he was making his way on Sunday back to Yerushalayim, when he found himself the object of energetic disgust. Ironic, perhaps, that after growing up in galut, he had to come to Israel to be derided in public for his religious affiliation.
The people scowling daggers at him did not of course mean it personally; they were showing contempt for what they took to be his sector. His take on his place in his own sector was not of interest. Inner distinctions are ignored; that is how the sectoral game is played.
Does Rabbi M, personally, think the State of Israel is hamedinah hateme’ah, the unclean State? Suppose he doesn’t. What should be do? Publicly repudiate his spiritual leader and break with his community? What would be left of his job, his social position, his sense of himself and his place in the world?
V’af ani bachalomi. What is my own migzar? When I was coming of age, Americans tended to think more of melting pots than slicing sectors, but that was then and there and this is here and now.
Let us see: I am not haredi. I am shomer Shabbat, so hiloni doesn’t work either. My ancestors did not live in Arab lands. My Israeli family either served in the IDF, sent their kids to do so, or plan to. So I must be dati Le’umi—Religious Zionist.
As it happens, leaders of the Religious Zionist camp are prominent in public life lately. They are given to public statements and actions. Many of these make me cringe.
What are my options? Should I buy a shtreimel? Rent a motor scooter and tool around Katamon at 8 on Saturday morning so people walking to shul can see the new secular, elitist me? Forge a birth certificate to show I was born in the Atlas Mountains and not the Alleghenies?
But if I cannot just exit my sector, should I somehow renounce it? What would that achieve, whom would it benefit, and where would that leave me, in society or in my own mind?
I dream of a world where people take the time to note that opposites–kindness and cruelty, courtesy and rudeness, generosity and malice, along with many gradations between—jostle each other inside individuals and the groups they inhabit, by birth, by choice, by assignment. But I like to dream. And people are very busy.
I am not pleased with myself for causing discomfort to Rabbi M. I was feeling annoyed, and took it out on him. But at least I softened my snark by conceding that there is more to his community than political caricature.
My usual strategy is to avoid conflict by trying to stay in a like-minded bubble, not always easy. In these polarized times–in Israel, the US, and elsewhere–many do likewise, or try to.
Here in Israel we have met other Americans of similar, hoary vintage. Some of their progeny live in places with political resonance: the hills of Shomron, or the suburbs of Hevron. I’ve asked a few of these fellow-oldsters, gently, whether their children and grandchildren share their views of things.
They tighten their smile, lower their gaze, soften their voice.
“We don’t talk about it,” they say. “To be frank, I’m not sure I want to know.”
Maybe next time I just won’t answer the door.