On Cul­tural Ortho­doxy

How suc­ces­sion strug­gles tell a larger story about the Amer­i­can Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence.

Forward Magazine - - Contents - by Shulem Deen

WHO WILL LEAD US? THE STORY OF FIVE HA­SIDIC DYNASTIES IN AMER­ICA By Sa­muel Heil­man Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 336 pages, $26.95

A friend of mine, the blogger once known as “Shtreimel,” au­thor of the pop­u­lar (but now-de­funct) web­site “A Has­sid and a Heretic,” was a mem­ber of the Belz Ha­sidic sect when he be­gan, in 2004, to write about liv­ing a Ha­sidic life while be­ing an athe­ist in se­cret. In public, he prac­ticed Ha­sidic Ju­daism, but in pri­vate he did not even ob­serve Shab­bat or keep kosher. Nev­er­the­less, he re­mained, at least in his mind, a Belzer Hasid.

“For the first 20 years of my life,” “Shtreimel” told me re­cently, “ev­ery­thing was Belz. That’s not some­thing you can take away. I was more Belz than Jewish.”

It may strike some as un­usual, but it ap­pears that, just like the cul­tural but non­re­li­gious Jew, there is also the cul­tural but non­re­li­gious Hasid.

Pe­sach Eisen, a 31-year-old man raised in a Ha­sidic fam­ily within the Bobov sect, is now an athe­ist and a nonob­ser­vant Jew, but the last things to go, he told me, were the ves­tiges that at­tached him to Bobov. “I had al­ready cut off my peyes. I was no longer re­ally ob­ser­vant, but on Shab­bos I still wore shvartze zukken.” Peyes — the curled side­locks Ha­sidic men wear — were not spe­cific to Bobov, and eas­ier to dis­card. So were the reg­u­lar rules of Or­tho­dox Ju­daism. But shvartze zukken, the black stock­ings and knick­ers worn by un­mar­ried Bobov young men, were a stronger marker of Eisen’s iden­tity, the loss of which, he feared, would cre­ate a real psy­chic void.

Though Eisen was 12 when Shlomo Hal­ber­stam, the rebbe who re­built Bobov in Amer­ica, passed away, Hal­ber­stam’s im­pact on him had been pow­er­ful. “He was al­most like our Je­sus,” Eisen told me. “He ra­di­ated this thing — like a myth­i­cal fig­ure.” Eisen is now part of a tight-knit group of ex-Ha­sidim, for whom crit­i­cism of Ha­sidic lead­er­ship is al­most de rigueur for mem­ber­ship. But, Eisen said, “I re­ally think he [Hal­ber­stam] was one of the good ones. He was a solid dude.”

Eisen and “Shtreimel” ul­ti­mately made the de­ci­sion to leave Ha­sidic life, but many other Ha­sidim have lost their faith, and yet their at­tach­ments to Ha­sidic life re­main strong.

Ayala Fader, an an­thro­pol­o­gist at Ford­ham Uni­ver­sity, has been study­ing this phe­nom­e­non, and has dis­cov­ered a net­work of “dou­ble-lif­ers.” She has in­ter­viewed dozens of them for her forth­com­ing book, “Dou­ble Life: Faith, Doubt and the In­ter­net Among Ul­tra-Or­tho­dox Jews in New York.”

“I al­ways ask don’t you want to leave if you could,” Fader told me re­cently. “And they’re, like, no, this is my com­mu­nity.”

Her sub­jects claim that de­spite their non­be­lief, they ap­pre­ci­ate the “life­style,” an amor­phous con­cept in­volv­ing so­cial and fa­mil­ial bonds, com­mu­nal in­sti­tu­tions, a love for Ha­sidic folk­lore and for Yid­dish (in many cases their first lan­guage), and an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for foods like cholent — the tra­di­tional stew eaten for Sab­bath lunch.

But Fader thinks there’s some­thing deeper. “The term ‘life­style’ is kind of su­per­fi­cial,” she said, “but it’s re­ally about a deeper sense of com­mu­nity, a sense of be­long­ing, and the cen­tral­ity of fam­ily. All of which they see lack­ing in the sec­u­lar world — and you know, maybe they’re right.” The no­tion that one can be a cul­tural

Jew rather than a re­li­gious one is deeply em­bed­ded in the mod­ern Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence. That a sim­i­lar phe­nom­e­non should be true of Ha­sidic iden­tity is per­haps sur­pris­ing, but it ex­plains the in­creas­ing num­bers who are ques­tion­ing their faith — and yet, there is no mass ex­o­dus.

Ha­sidic com­mu­ni­ties re­main strong, with some of the high­est birth rates not only among Jews but also among most Western pop­u­la­tion groups. They are be­lieved to more than dou­ble their num­bers with each gen­er­a­tion, and in the United States es­pe­cially in the New York Metro area, have be­come a pow­er­ful force as a valu­able elec­toral bloc for can­di­dates run­ning for public of­fice. They are of­ten char­ac­ter­ized by re­li­gious and ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ments, but a deeper at­tach­ment to cul­ture and iden­tity ap­pear to be just as great a fac­tor — if not greater — in this com­mu­nity’s re­siliency.

One as­pect of this deep-rooted Ha­sidic cul­ture is the at­tach­ment to a re­bistve — the Ha­sidic court led by a rebbe — which for many Ha­sidim forms a cru­cial part of their iden­tity, as it did for “Shtreimel” and Eisen.

I re­mem­ber be­ing a Ha­sidic 13-yearold, in 1988, at­tend­ing a yeshiva in Mon­treal, and grilling two Sat­mar friends, Sen­der and Yitz­chok, on just how de­voted they were to their rebbe. “Would you go in fire for him?” I asked them. To “go in fire” for one’s rebbe is the ul­ti­mate test of a Hasid’s de­vo­tion. In Ha­sidic par­lance, a true Hasid is known as a far­brenter. Burned. As if the readi­ness to be con­sumed by flames ren­ders him al­ready charred to the bone.

Sen­der hes­i­tated. “In fire? I can’t re­ally say.” He sounded a lit­tle em­bar­rassed, like it was a con­fes­sion. “But up to fire, ab­so­lutely!”

Yitz­chok looked at him in dis­be­lief. “Of course I would go in fire for my rebbe!”

This was teenage boy talk in the Ha­sidic world, but like teenagers ev­ery­where, we were mim­ick­ing adults, to whom our

‘It’s re­ally about a deeper sense of com­mu­nity, a sense of be­long­ing.’

re­spec­tive rebbes pos­sessed sin­gu­lar im­por­tance. None of us was par­tic­u­larly pi­ous. We shirked our re­li­gious du­ties fre­quently — com­ing late to prayers and goof­ing off dur­ing Tal­mud study. Sen­der even con­fided in me that in be­tween semesters, he went days with­out pray­ing or put­ting on tefillin. But still, rebbes mat­tered. Deeply. The rebbe that Sen­der and Yitz­chok would or would not go in fire for was Moshe Teit­el­baum, nephew and suc­ces­sor of the first rebbe of Sat­mar, the charis­matic anti-Zion­ist fire­brand Yoel­ish Teit­el­baum, who died in 1979. The el­der Teit­el­baum was mourned by tens of thou­sands, but left no chil­dren as heirs, and so it was left to the Ha­sidim to look to Moshe Teit­el­baum, 66 at the time, to lead them.

Teit­el­baum, how­ever, was an unin­spired choice. In his new book, “Who Will Lead Us? The Story of Five Ha­sidic Dynasties in Amer­ica,” Sa­muel Heil­man de­scribes him as a man who, at the time of his un­cle’s pass­ing, spent “much of his time run­ning a num­ber of small busi­nesses, man­ag­ing real es­tate,” and busy­ing him­self with other such un-rebbe-like oc­cu­pa­tions. He lacked his un­cle’s nat­u­ral charisma and for­mi­da­ble in­tel­lect, and his ide­o­log­i­cal pas­sion. To many — in­clud­ing the “dowa­ger reb­bet­zin” Feiga Teit­el­baum, the el­der Teit­el­baum’s widow — Moshe Teit­el­baum was sim­ply un­wor­thy.

Ul­ti­mately, though, there were few other vi­able can­di­dates. De­spite cut­ting a rather medi­ocre fig­ure, Moshe Teit­el­baum would re­tain the loy­al­ties of most Sat­mar Ha­sidim and gain con­trol of their in­sti­tu­tions. By 1988, for boys like Sen­der and Yitz­chok, his wor­thi­ness was no longer in ques­tion — nor par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant. Once cho­sen, he was the only rebbe they had. The only rebbe to “go in fire” for.

The story of Moshe Teit­el­baum’s as­cent to the Sat­mar re­bistve is one of the many riv­et­ing sagas of dy­nas­tic suc­ces­sion within the Ha­sidic world, which is the broader sub­ject of Heil­man’s lat­est book. A so­ci­ol­o­gist by train­ing, Heil­man has writ­ten nearly a dozen books about the Haredi com­mu­nity, and in this lat­est work he ex­plores the chal­lenges of suc­ces­sion in the courts of Sat­mar, Munkatch, Boyan, Kopy­czynitz, Bobov and Chabad-Lubav­itch. His sur­veys span the his­tory of each sect’s found­ing in the shtetls of Eastern Europe to its re­build­ing in the post-Holo­caust era, and the re­sult is a set of grip­ping nar­ra­tives, with drama­tis per­sonae of deep hu­man com­plex­ity: rebbes who nearly crum­bled un­der their lead­er­ship bur­dens; rebbes with sex­ual ob­ses­sions; a rebbe re­jected in his own life­time in fa­vor of his teenage son; even a reb­bet­zin with as­pi­ra­tions for her own re­bistve.

Ha­sidim of­fer a spir­i­tual and philo­soph­i­cal ba­sis for rever­ing their lead­ers on the prin­ci­ple of tzadik­ism, the no­tion that an in­di­vid­ual Jew can reach greater spir­i­tual heights by at­tach­ing to the su­pe­rior right­eous per­son who does the heavy re­li­gious lift­ing. The process of dy­nas­tic suc­ces­sion, how­ever, il­lu­mi­nates the rather mun­dane fac­tors that de­ter­mine who gets to be called right­eous. Within most con­tem­po­rary Ha­sidic courts, lit­tle weight is given to a po­ten­tial rebbe’s per­sonal char­ac­ter traits. The more im­por­tant qual­ity, by far, speaks to a tribal in­ter­est rather than a spir­i­tual one. The new rebbe must pro­vide that sense of con­ti­nu­ity that will main­tain the group’s co­he­sion and pre­serve its iden­tity. As such, he must claim dy­nas­tic de­scent from ei­ther the last rebbe or one of his an­ces­tors, and also demon­strate an in­tu­itive un­der­stand­ing of the re­quire­ments for this group’s re­bistve — ei­ther by claim­ing ap­pren­tice­ship from the old rebbe, or through groom­ing by el­der Ha­sidim.

A fa­mous Ha­sidic joke, which Heil­man re­peats, goes: A Hasid comes to the rebbe and says, “Rebbe, I dreamed that I be­came a rebbe,” to which the rebbe replies, ‘Yes, but did any Ha­sidim dream it, too?” That is to say that rebbes don’t ap­point them­selves. As Heil­man notes else­where: “The way demo­cratic so­ci­eties choose lead­ers is not for­eign to con­tem­po­rary Ha­sidic life.” The Ha­sidic world might ap­pear au­thor­i­tar­ian, with power run­ning top-down, but in re­al­ity, “the led se­lect and be­stow on the leader the power to gov­ern their spir­i­tual and per­sonal lives. But after they’ve done so, they come to be­lieve it is in­her­ent and in­born, bow to it and ask it for bless­ings.” If this feels a bit idol­a­trous, that’s be­cause it sug­gests a con­cern with mat­ters of spirit, when in truth, at least where dy­nas­tic suc­ces­sion is con­cerned, Ha­sidim are more con­cerned with mat­ters of tribe. As Heil­man said to me in a con­ver­sa­tion: “What ties the Ha­sidim to the rebbe is what ties the Ha­sidim to the other Ha­sidim.” This, in many re­spects, is the core of Ha­sidic iden­tity, a tribal at­tach­ment that tran­scends ide­ol­ogy. Strik­ingly, among them­selves, Ha­sidim of­ten re­fer to the panoply of Ha­sidic courts as par­tayen, Yid­dish for po­lit­i­cal par­ties, as if to ac­knowl­edge their iden­ti­ties as a form of par­ti­san­ship, fealty to a group re­gard­less of prin­ci­ple. Faith and spirit might carry weight for a Hasid in­di­vid­u­ally, but for the group, when their rebbe passes, Heil­man writes, “the ques­tion of who might [suc­ceed him].... be­comes cru­cial for their con­ti­nu­ity as a dis­tinct group. This is be­cause the rebbe is es­sen­tial to Ha­sidic iden­tity and their sense of who they are.”

If Moshe Teit­el­baum was an un­der­whelm­ing choice for the Sat­mar Ha­sidim, the choices in some other Ha­sidic courts prove even more telling. A survey of Ha­sidic courts to­day shows a num­ber of rebbes molded to their po­si­tions from child­hood — in some cases as early as in­fancy.

In the 1950s, the Munkatch Ha­sidim, re­build­ing in Brook­lyn after the Holo­caust, were in need of a new rebbe, and so they looked to the teenage

Moshe Leib Rabi­nowitz, grand­son of Chaim Elazar Shapira, Munkatch’s pre­war rebbe. Rabi­nowitz was at that time study­ing at the non-Ha­sidic Telshe yeshiva in Cleve­land far re­moved from Munkatch’s Ha­sidic cul­ture. When he took the post at age 22, after mar­ry­ing and un­der­go­ing an of­fi­cial crown­ing, the young rebbe was ex­pected to learn on the job.

“If [he] did some­thing his gab­bai [sexton] thought was wrong, he would be sure to tell him,” Heil­man writes.

But if Rabi­nowitz was a rebbe, he could hardly be called a leader. When his Ha­sidim grum­bled about him walk­ing around in or­di­nary black socks, Chaim Ber Green­feld, the el­derly at­ten­dant of the pre­vi­ous rebbe, made sure to in­struct him: “We are your ha­sidim, and we want our rebbe to wear white stock­ings.” The rebbe, of course, com­plied.

A sim­i­lar tale un­folded in the court of Boyan. The old rebbe died in 1971, and the Ha­sidim turned to a young grand­son, Nachum Dov Brayer, who was 11 when his grand­fa­ther died.

Brayer was raised in a more open and mod­ern en­vi­ron­ment than most Boy­aner Ha­sidim. His fa­ther was a uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor, and his mother had a Mas­ter of Arts de­gree in chem­istry. Nev­er­the­less, a dearth of can­di­dates left the Boy­aner Ha­sidim with few op­tions, and they chose the boy (with his par­ents’ bless­ing) and groomed him to be their fu­ture holy man.

Other groups (not cov­ered in Heil­man’s lat­est book) of­fer even starker ex­am­ples of this. In Kar­lin-Stolin, the rebbe, Boruch Meir Yaakov Sho­chet, was ap­pointed in in­fancy, after the death of his grand­fa­ther, and of­fi­cially crowned at age 9. In Belz, Yis­sachar Dov Rokeach was pegged for the re­bistve as a 9-year-old when his un­cle Aaron Rokeach, the pre­vi­ous rebbe of Belz, died and left no heirs.

The Ha­sidic world is made up of about a dozen ma­jor sects and sev­eral dozen mi­nor ones, but few of their lead­ers have a gen­uine claim to a con­ven­tional idea of “charis­matic lead­er­ship.” What we have in­stead is a charisma that emerges out of what Heil­man calls “cul­tural per­for­mances.”

“The rebbe comes in al­ways at the end; there is the part­ing of the sea, as it were, the push­ing, the ef­fort to see him, the singing, the spec­ta­cle. It’s like when you go to a rock con­cert... when there are 50,000 other peo­ple, and they’re all scream­ing, and the mu­si­cian’s in the distance, and ev­ery­one is try­ing to see him. What you’re wor­ship­ping is a pro­jec­tion of the group.... You’re wor­ship­ping your­selves.”

Which is why, per­haps, it should be no sur­prise that for Ha­sidic teens, even those un­con­cerned with piety or re­li­gious du­ties, like my friends Sen­der and Yitz­chok, rebbes still mat­tered. Be­cause what ev­ery teenager (and per­haps, to a de­gree, ev­ery hu­man be­ing) wants is to be­long, and wor­ship­ping the rebbe is a pow­er­ful ex­pres­sion of be­long­ing. It isn’t re­li­gious. It isn’t spir­i­tual, or ide­o­log­i­cal. It’s sim­ply hu­man na­ture.

Ear­lier this year, I was in Brook­lyn’s Boro Park, which con­tains the largest Ha­sidic com­mu­nity in the United States. It was late evening, and most peo­ple were home hav­ing their Sab­bath din­ner, but here and there I would pass a Ha­sidic man in full garb, long black coat and fur shtreimel, al­most al­ways ap­pear­ing to be in a rush. One of those I passed, though, stopped and looked at me in­tently. “Shulem?” he said.

We’d met sev­eral years ear­lier, when he told me he was no longer a be­liever and was con­sid­er­ing leav­ing. Now he is glad he stayed. “Ev­ery­thing’s changed, Shulem,” he said, standing un­der a street­lamp with his shtreimel in hand. “Peo­ple sit around in shul ar­gu­ing, yuh

gott, nisht gott — yes, God, no, God. Ev­ery­thing is permitted. Ev­ery­one has a smart­phone. You can do what­ever you want now.” He waved his hand across the street, now empty of its chaotic week­day traf­fic. “This life here — it’s the best there is.”

After­ward, I wan­dered the streets a bit, and am­bled into a hand­ful of syn­a­gogues. At the Bobov and Belz syn­a­gogues, posters warned wor­ship­pers against bring­ing smart­phones into the build­ing. In the Skulen sy­n­a­gogue, a sign warned against the very pos­ses­sion of a smart­phone. Right next to it was a slop­pily pasted pho­to­copy of a rab­binic rul­ing, im­ply­ing that any­one sus­pected of us­ing a smart­phone must be pre­vented from lead­ing prayers.

Ha­sidic lead­ers are clearly anx­ious, but they also ap­pear to be fail­ing to curb in­ter­net use. And yet, what few re­al­ize is that Ha­sidic iden­tity might be stronger than the cur­rents sweep­ing through it. The walls are be­ing breached. The in­for­ma­tion age might be no less im­pact­ful than Guten­berg’s print­ing press. What we see, how­ever, is a com­mu­nity adapt­ing nat­u­rally to a chang­ing world, rather than whole­sale re­jec­tion of a cher­ished iden­tity.

Sev­eral weeks ago, I sat with my friend “Shtreimel” in my apart­ment. We had first met in 2005, when he and I both looked and dressed like Ha­sidim. Now, we both looked like typ­i­cal New York­ers, bare­headed, in jeans and T-shirts. Over Heinekens and roasted sun­flower seeds we rem­i­nisced about the past decade. He had watched as I made my own ex­o­dus from the Ha­sidic world in De­cem­ber 2007, but it would take him years to do the same. I asked what took him so long.

He took a sip of beer and smirked. “I was a Belzer. And I wanted to re­main a Belzer.” He thought for a mo­ment. “You know, that’s the real Amer­i­can dream, to have the best of both worlds.”

Ul­ti­mately, his com­mu­nity learned of his heresy, and he was no longer wel­come at his old sy­n­a­gogue. His wife, too, com­plained about his hereti­cal ways, and wor­ried about his in­flu­ence over their chil­dren. Now he spoke rue­fully about it all — he had no in­ten­tion of in­flu­enc­ing his chil­dren away from ob­ser­vance, he said. Quite the op­po­site. “I have five chil­dren,” he said, “and I would like at least one of them to be a Belzer.”

He was mostly be­ing face­tious, but there was also a hint of earnest­ness. His chil­dren, he told me, are grow­ing up, his youngest near­ing ado­les­cence. After he him­self was forced from his com­mu­nity, his chil­dren, too, be­gan to drift from the tra­di­tional life.

“Are any of your kids con­nected to Belz now at all?” I asked.

“Doesn’t seem like it.” he an­swered, gri­mac­ing, but then his face lit up with a grin. “But I do hope that’ll change.”

Like the cul­tural Jew, the cul­tural Hasid feels an at­tach­ment to his iden­tity, but might let it drift un­der the right cir­cum­stances. But the kids. He’ll al­ways still want it for the kids.

‘We want our rebbe to wear white stock­ings.’


HEIR AP­PAR­ENT: Rebbe Moshe Teit­el­baum was the nephew and suc­ces­sor of the first rebbe of Sat­mar, Yoel­ish Teit­el­baum

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