The Satmar shtetl as American as apple pie

Kiryas Joel, rather than being a European hangover, might be the Jewish American future


Orthodox Jews of the Satmar Hasidim dance in the village of Kiryas Joel, New York, May 14, 2017, during celebrations for the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer, marking the anniversary of the death of Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai approximately 1,900 years ago. / AFP PHOTO / EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ (Photo credit should read EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP via Getty Images)

In the early 1970s, the Satmar rabbi Joel Teitelbaum led the surviving remnant of his people out of the fleshpots of Brooklyn and upstate to the town of Monroe in Orange County. After a little more than 40 years in the wilderness, Kiryas Joel, the “village” that bears Teitelbaum’s name, had 33,000 residents by 2020.

Kiryas Joel is an American shtetl. Almost everyone who lives in Kiryas Joel is a Satmar Hasid. Its unemployment rate is below the local average, but so is its median income. It is the most populous municipality in Orange County, and then some: more than half its inhabitants are under the age of 18.

If Kiryas Joel seems to be a ghost from the European past or an out-take from Yentl, Nomi M. Stolzenberg and David N. Myers would advise you to think again. The authors of American Shtetl, a fascinating new history, Stolzenberg and Myers call Kiryas Joel an only-in-America phenomenon: “a self-standing, homogenous, Yiddish-speaking shtetl that became a legal municipality recognised by the state; a vision long fantasized by utopians and novelists, but without precedent in European history”.

As this is an American story as well as a Jewish one, it’s about law, and property law in particular. It’s true that the Constitution forbids the establishment of a state religion, and that the United States is a land of individual rights. But the truth, as often is the case in America, is more complicated.

America is a secessionist’s paradise. Kiryas Joel is following the legal path of the Amish, who themselves cite the precedent of the Pilgrims who first settled in New England; or, if you like, the followers of Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh, who founded the colony of Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, and were sued by the State of Oregon in 1982 as a “theocracy”.

Kiryas Joel, Stolzenberg and Myers argue, has followed this well-beaten and entirely legal “pathway to political empowerment”. The result is “a degree of insularity, homogeneity, and religious uniformity never before seen in the Jewish world”, and, given the Satmars’ demographic exuberance, a matching degree of political clout.

Kiryas Joel’s leaders have “learned the rules of American interest-group politics”. They manage their bloc vote in local and state elections, they cultivate politicians and funding, and they form their own local government.

Before 1933, Jews constituted the majority of the population in only a fraction of the towns and villages of Eastern Europe; nowhere did Hasidic Jews constitute a majority or control local government. Yet that is what has happened in Kiryas Joel. Given the trend lines of Jewish demography in America, and given America’s apparently infinite tolerance for social balkanization, Kiryas Joel, rather than being a European hangover, might be the Jewish American future.

The wall between state and church has always been permeable in America, and it’s getting weaker. As Stolzenberg and Myers note, it’s being weakened from both sides, by “a combined weight of pressure from religious conservatives and growing sympathy for multiculturalism (and criticism of assimilation) from the left”. This is not the only reason why Stolzenberg and Myers see Kiryas Joel’s carefully managed secession from the mainstream as “wholly in sync” with its times.

Like the hippies, or the black nationalists who “sought to lift up African Americans by developing economic self-dependency and cultural autonomy at a remove from white society”, Joel Teitelbaum seceded after the identity politics revolution of the Sixties. In the Seventies and Eighties, the Haredim found new allies among Evangelical conservatives. More recently, as America’s culture wars split the country into two camps, Kiryas Joel voted 99 per cent for Donald Trump. No wonder Harley Doles, the late supervisor of Monroe, called Kiryas Joel “as American as apple pie”.

Dominic Green is the editor of The Spectator world edition

Nomi M. Stolzenberg and David N. Myers’ American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York is published by Princeton University Press (£28).

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