Religion & Beliefs

What’s the Difference Between an American Life and an Ultra-Orthodox One?

Joel Teitelbaum, the Rebbe of Satmar and the most coercive of all modern day ultra-Orthodox leaders, passed away 29 years ago this month.  A vociferous anti-Zionist, Teitelbaum is known for having exhorted his followers to stay in Europe.  Later, as … Read More

By / August 28, 2008

Joel Teitelbaum, the Rebbe of Satmar and the most coercive of all modern day ultra-Orthodox leaders, passed away 29 years ago this month.  A vociferous anti-Zionist, Teitelbaum is known for having exhorted his followers to stay in Europe.  Later, as the Nazis approached, he was one of many Hungarian ultra-Orthodox rabbis who told their flocks to remain calm.  There is nothing to worry about, these rabbis announced, God will protect us because of our anti-Zionism. Unfortunately for Teitelbaum’s followers, God didn’t go along with his promises. While most of his followers perished in Auschwitz, Teitelbaum went into hiding and later escaped to freedom. He did not do this through his own ingenuity or through some divine intervention – Joel Teitelbaum, uber-anti-Zionist, was saved from certain death by a Zionist leader. That Zionist, Rudolph Kasztner, organized the largest Holocaust rescue of Jews by another Jew.  He did it with smoke and mirrors, with bravado and slight of hand. Kasztner saved thousands of his people by negotiating with Adolph Eichmann – short of Hitler, the most feared Nazi in the world. Oskar Schindler of Schindler’s List fame said Kasztner was the bravest man he knew. After the War, Teitelbaum lived for a brief time in Palestine, where he became a leader of the rabidly anti-Zionist, rabidly anti-modern, Edah HaCharedit. When you read about Jerusalem video stores being torched or Internet cafés trashed, chances are the thugs who did it are proudly affiliated with Edah HaCharedit. Teitelbaum couldn’t stand what he saw as the ‘destruction’ of the Holy Land by the irreligious and imperfectly religious – in practice, pretty much everyone who wasn’t a Teitelbaum follower or acolyte. So, in 1946, Teitelbaum moved to Brooklyn and set up what was then his small hasidic court.  Teitelbaum found America’s Orthodox welcoming, and America’s Jewish welfare agencies helped to resettle many of his followers in Brooklyn.

You’ve probably heard the stories about these American Jews – the same ones who were so hospitable and supportive of Teitelbaum when he first arrived: Pious Jews fled pogroms in Eastern Europe.  The need to make a living in America forced them to give up strict Shabbat observance and other Orthodox practices. Their children, lacking the example of fully Orthodox parents, became even less observant. If those pious Jews had just kept Shabbat, the story goes, their descendants would still be Orthodox today. The flip side to this story is another story you’ve also probably heard: Seemingly pious Eastern European Jews board a ship bound for America. As the ship leaves the harbor and gets beyond sight of the shore, they cut off their beards and pitch their tefillin into the sea. Both stories probably happened, although the first was probably far more common than the second. But even though these are iconic stories, neither really tells the tale of Eastern European immigration to the United States. That is because both are based on a lie – the idea that these immigration ships were filled with characters out of Broadway’s Fiddler On The Roof: long-bearded shtetl-dwellers with untrimmed earlocks, whose only brush with secular culture had taken place moments before. By the 1920s, the masses of Eastern European Jews were secular or only nominally religious. Emancipation, which spread throughout Europe during the 19th century,  made belonging to a religious community – and following that community’s laws – optional. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, itself a reactionary movement to the Enlightenment that preceded Emancipation, lost its state-sponsored coercive powers as did all forms of Orthodoxy. And Jews, no longer forced to be Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox, left Orthodoxy by the tens of thousands as a result. Most Jews who came to America during the great wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were neither ultra-Orthodox or rabidly secular – they were somewhere in between. They were Jews with a respect for Jewish law and tradition, but they were also Jews who appreciated and enjoyed secular culture and the freedoms it gave them. The Orthodoxy they found in America was more suited to this hybrid outlook than the Orthodoxy of Eastern Europe. Never subject to state enforcement of religious law, American Jews – even American Orthodox Jews – took any type of religious coercion badly. These new immigrants developed their own versions of Orthodoxy, too, founding shuls grouped around country or city of origin. In part, they did this to preserve the unique customs they grew up with. But they also did it for coarser, more practical reasons. These new shuls also served as affinity associations, and the social networking they provided helped immigrants land jobs and acclimate to American life. These shuls were rarely coercive – you paid your dues and you helped out with a minyan when you were able, and you were in. These old and new American Orthodox Jews founded yeshivas like Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn and what would later become Yeshiva University in Manhattan. They also founded or helped to found many of the leading national Jewish organizations of their day, including what we now know as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other welfare organizations meant to help suffering Jews in Eastern Europe and beyond. Despite this, and despite the fact that these same American Orthodox Jews would be instrumental in rescuing and resettling Eastern European Jews during and after the Holocaust, Teitelbaum rejected American Orthodoxy as impure and watered down by compromise and modernity.  He sought to impose Edah HaCharedit standards on it, demanding stricter forms of kashrut and the rejection of all secular values, including basic secular education. He created a community virtually walled off from the rest of society. And, when that was not enough, he created another in Upstate New York that now carries his name.To this day, when Satmar hasidim choose to leave Brooklyn or Kiryas Joel and the hasidic life, they often leave it illiterate in English. An entire organization, Footsteps, exists primarily to help these former hasids adapt to American life. Yet the pull of a closed life and the allure of rebuilding a fantasy version of pre-Holocaust Satmar Jewish life was strong. Teitelbaum’s group grew to be largest hasidic court in America, although that growth has far more to do with the fertility and fruitfulness of its members (not to mention the difficulties those members face when defecting) than it does with the attractiveness of its lifestyle to outsiders. Like the Edah HaCharedit, Teitelbaum and the movement he founded are ultra-Orthodoxy unvarnished, presented without PR agencies or concern for anyone else’s opinion. Although he had opportunities to do so, Joel Teitelbaum never thanked the man who saved his life. Teitelbaum even refused to acknowledge that a Zionist had saved him. His pat answer when pressed was that he was saved by God, not by man, and would discuss the issue no further. Perhaps most shockingly, despite the failure of his theology and the success of Israel, Teitelbaum continued his anti-Zionist agitation, becoming the leading anti-Zionist in the world. He showed little if any respect for the American Orthodox community that initially welcomed him, and he eventually shunned its leaders just as he shunned their schools, shuls, and organizations. Many of the men and women who immigrated to pre-Holocaust America did so to flee men like Teitelbaum and the extremism that so often surrounds them.  That did not mean they threw their Judaism into the sea.  It meant they wanted to live a life free from religious enforcers and from antisemitism – a life where they could rise or fall based on their merits, not on their religious observance. In short, they wanted an American life, not an ultra-Orthodox one.

In a fit of rabid theodicy unmatched in modern times, Teitelbaum ultimately blamed Zionism for the Holocaust itself.