You might say that Kiryas Joel, the Orange County town controlled by Satmar chasidim and the subject of a new book, “American Shtetl,” by Nomi Stolzenberg and David Myers, is as American as apple-pie flavored-dessert hummus.
That is to say that it’s an only-in-America mutation of something with clear roots on a foreign shore.
“This kind of community could not have taken place in Europe,” Dr. Myers said. Dr. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA. He is married to Ms. Stolzenberg, who holds the Nathan and Lilly Shapell Chair in Law at the University of Southern California School of Law. The two will talk about their book in a Zoom session on Sunday evening arranged by Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael. (See box.)
It was Ms. Stolzenberg who began the couple’s exploration of Kiryas Joel, with a law review article in the wake of a 1994 Supreme Court ruling that the New York State law setting up a separate school district for Kiryas Joel violated the Constitutional ban on the establishment of religion. (In response to that ruling, New York State passed a modified law with the same effect, which survived court challenges.)
“As a legal scholar working in the area of law and religion, this caught my attention,” she said. She was intrigued by “the role that American law plays in enabling private voluntary action to occur.”
To really understand that, she decided that she had to look past the Supreme Court pronouncements to examine “both the community and the law from the bottom up,” she said.
“I had, close at hand, the perfect person to really conduct that much more textured, bottom-up portrait of how did this community really come to be, what determines what life is like within the community, and what actually are the nature of the relations between this community and the world outside of it. That really required the skills of a historian or an ethnographer to fill in the blanks.”
“As a Jewish historian, this was an undeniably interesting phenomenon,” Dr. Myers said. “A common thread in modern Jewish history is how do Jews assert a strong form of groupness in the wake of the strong countervailing forces of liberal assimilation, attempted genocide and totalitarianism? In Kiryas Joel, you have an incredibly thick Jewish culture preserved in an enclave that has the remarkable characteristic of being formally recognized by the State of New York. It’s not just a shtetl removed from the allure of the city; it’s a legally recognized village.
“Where in the modern diaspora do you have a community of Jews that have gained a measure of local sovereignty? It was too interesting to pass up. I asked Nomi if I could get in on this.”
The couple conducted dozens of interviews, most with residents of Kiryas Joel and their various lawyers. And lawyers there were aplenty, because the 1994 Supreme Court battle was only the first of many lawsuits, most involving other Satmar chasidim, both inside and outside of Kiryas Joel. The village is named after Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the rebbe of Satmar, who had settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, after World War II. He died in 1979, leaving no male heir as an obvious successor. While his nephew, Rabbis Moshe Teitelbaum, was given control of the community’s institutions, a minority, led by the rebbe’s widow, dissented.
A second schism came in the late 1990s, when Rabbi Moshe appointed his younger son, Zalman, to be the chief rabbi of the Williamsburg chasidim, after having appointed his older son, Aaron, as Kiryas Joel’s chief rabbi.
“Each of them views themselves as the rightful heir to the throne, and each has a sizable group of followers,” Dr. Myers said. “That dispute led to another round, 10 years of litigation, designed to get a court to say which one of them was the real leader and which one of them controlled the Williamsburg synagogue.”
This may not have been a great moment in the annals of Jewish self-governance. But it was excellent material for a study focusing on the interplay of a self-isolating Jewish community and the American legal system.
And it provided evidence for the thesis that “this is a decidedly American phenomenon,” Dr. Myers said. After all, in pre-modern Europe, the Christian rules recognized a single Jewish community. By contrast, Kiryas Joel “was in some way a breakaway from the mainstream of American Jewry. They wanted to depart New York City, the world capital of Jewry outside Israel.”
But such a retreat, Dr. Meyers said, “is decidedly American. In a certain sense, the very idea of the United States of America is based on religious separatism. The Puritans came to separate themselves from what they saw as an oppressive regime. America has been extraordinarily receptive to these communities.”
And the Satmar community — both in Kiryas Joel and in Williamsburg — mastered “the American game of interest group politics,” he said.
“It’s unwitting assimilation. There are all sorts of ways that Kiryas Joel has absorbed the legal, political, and cultural norms of their American environment. They’ve learned how to forum shop, how to get great legal teams, how to work the corridors of power in New York City and Washington, D.C. They’ve learned how to deliver a bloc vote. They’ve learned the rules of the game and deployed them to great effect.”
And in a classical American fashion, they spend a lot of time waging legal battles.
“One of the main differences between this community and a premodern kehilla” — the Hebrew term for Jewish community — “is that they’re constantly going to the secular courts,” Ms. Stolzenberg said. “In contravention of the principle both sides profess to adhere, that you should never bring internal disputes to a gentile court. It tells us that separatism is a kind of fantasy, like libertarianism.”
By coincidence, “American Shtetl” was published not long after a book looking at the Williamsburg Satmar community through a similar lens: “A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg,” by Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper. Dr. Casper is a former doctoral student of Dr. Myers.
“We each framed our respective stories in strikingly similar ways,” Ms. Stolzenberg said. “There’s is also an American story. They emphasize to what extant it’s a story about real estate. They talk a lot about race, and really focused on how access to real estate and access to whiteness has been central to the success of the Satmars in Brooklyn.
“The Satmars’ success lies in the fact that they have the capital. In Williamsburg, it’s more the political capital to have access to public housing. In Kiryas Joel, public housing is also a significant part of residential property. Per capita, the community is really poor, but they nonetheless were able to amass enough wealth to play the capitalist game you have to play in America. Both of the books explore the racially ambiguous position the Satmars occupy vis-a-vis whiteness, and the ambiguous position they occupy vis-a-vis wealth and capital.”
After researching Kiryas Joel, have Dr. Myers and Ms. Stolzenberg found broader lessons for American Jewry?
“One thing we learned is what a thick Jewish culture looks like,” Dr. Myers said. “This is an incredibly powerful force of Jewish life that pulsates with Jewish custom, law, and ritual,24 hours a day.
“We can learn something about chiyuv, the idea of obligation or responsibility. We often think of America as the land of boundless choice and autonomy, where everybody gets to choose his or her path to freedom of Judaism. This is a community that operates on a different principle, a principle of responsibility. It wouldn’t be unhealthy for American Jews to integrate a more robust notion of obligation into their relations both with other Jews and other Americans,” he continued.
But Ms. Stolzenberg said that there is an irony lurking within the Satmar ethos of obligation.
“The ethos of mutual solidarity and mutual obligation and sense of being a member of an organic community within which the individual is subsumed within a whole has gone hand in hand with a support for the libertarian philosophy of the religious right,” she said. “While on one hand that serves to protect a community’s right to operate the way it wants to and adhere to its own distinctive way of life and be free from state law that would interfere with its ability to educate children the way it wants to, at the same time it bespeaks a renunciation of the commonweal and a renunciation of a sense of obligation to people outside the community.
“I think it is a cautionary tale for the American Jewish community.”
Who: Professors David Myers and Nomi Stolzenberg
What: Talk about their new book, “American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, A Hasidic Village in Upstate New York”
When: 8 p.m., Sunday, February 20
Where: On Zoom, sponsored by Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael. See rinat.org for login details.