Today I was going through the files on my computer, trying to decide which documents to keep and which to include in a massive purge to free up space on my systems disk, when I found an article that I wrote two years ago in an introductory journalism course. When I took that class, I had the honor and privilege of being taught and mentored by the writer Suzanne Glass (author of The Interpreter), who pushed and encouraged me, and truly made me a better writer. To this day, I can’t write anything without thinking “What would Suzanne think about this?” She impacted my life more than she will ever realize. The following is the final project that I wrote for her class: an investigative article about modesty and conformity within the Satmar Hasidic community in Brooklyn, New York. In an email, Suzanne said “it [was] a superb piece of investigative journalism that kept [her] fascinated throughout.” I hope you all like it, too.
In a city that is famous for innovation and daring fashion trends, they are hard to miss. Men dressed in long black coats and black brimmed hats. Women with their hair completely covered. Walking against the backdrop of this sprawling metropolis, they look like relics of The Old Country that is so often referred to by the older Ashkenazi Jewish generations. During the holiday of Chanukah, they stand in populous sidewalks and approach passersby with the same language: “Are you Jewish? Do you have a Hanukiah for the holiday? Baruch Hashem.” They are the Hasidim of New York, an ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism. This past January, The New York Times ran an article that brought to light a disturbing new insight about the exclusionary Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Joseph Berger reported on a self-instated “Modesty Committee”, which allegedly threatens store owners who display ‘immodest’ mannequins, as well as families where their husbands have committed adultery, and whose children are not following the strict social guidelines of the community. According to the article, these committees have existed for a long time in Hasidic neighborhoods, but were only being discovered by the secular world because of a sexual abuse scandal perpetrated by Nechemya Weberman. Allegedly, the modesty committee often referred immodest and inappropriate Hasidic youths to Weberman for counseling, although Weberman has never been licensed as a therapist. Of the Modesty Committee, Rabbi Allan Nadler, who is the director of Jewish studies program at Drew University, asserts that “they operate like the Mafia.” When reading a story like this, one wonders: just how deeply ingrained is the sense of modesty within the Hasidic community? And how have societal factors and pressures contributed to a cult-like need for modesty, to the point where individuals bands together to use threats and intimidation to enforce it? To investigate these questions, I abandoned my modern attire and individualistic attitude, donned a knee-length skirt, and travelled to the main Hasidic commercial and social strip in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: Lee Avenue.
Hasidism originated in Poland in the Eighteenth Century, and was founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, commonly known as Baal-Shem-Tov, Hebrew for “Master of the Good Name” (the “Good Name” meaning The Name of God). As the lore surrounded Hasidism goes, Eliezer developed a reputation for being an exceptionally pious man in his community, as well as a miracle healer. He gained a huge following to whom he preached worship to God in all activities and occurrences in daily life, not merely religious observance. Hasidism spread to Western Europe and the United States during significant waves of Jewish emigration in the 1880’s. Many Hasidic communities in Eastern Europe were dislocated, disintegrated, and destroyed first by the rise of Communism in Russia, and then by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Those who survived the genocide moved to either Palestine, the newly created State of Israel, or the United States, where the Hasidic communities largely resembled the shtetls, or small Jewish villages, in Eastern and Central Europe.
In the media, the Hasidim are almost always portrayed as sequestered, religious zealots, who, in between prayer sessions in the synagogues and yeshivas, display misogynist and xenophobic attitudes and discourage contact with the secular world, all while enforcing religious, spiritual, and sexual purity. This is reflected in Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev, when the protagonist is exiled from his Hasidic community for the transgression of neglecting his study of Judaism in favor of painting nudes and scenes of crucifixion. In the 2010 film “Holy Rollers,” based on the true story of Sam Gold, a twenty-year-old Hasidic man is disowned by his family when their community learns that he has been smuggling Ecstasy from Holland to the United States.
When I went to Williamsburg, I saw flocks of men with long beards and curled peyos, or sidelocks, wearing long black coats over button-down shirts and dark trousers, white tzitzis, the knotted fringes on a tallis, or prayer shawl, hanging out from under the shirts. I observed women with long skirts and dresses, and among the married women, hair covered by tichels (head scarves) and sheitels (wigs). Everyone on the street seemed to know each other, either by face or by name. I walked past a dozen groups of two or more women chatting while collectively watching their gaggle of playing children. When three o’clock rolled around, I saw teenagers walking their younger siblings home from school. Old and young generations alike were conversing entirely in Yiddish. I felt as if I had stepped into a Chaim Potok novel. I also couldn’t help but notice that, although I had tried my hardest to blend in, when people passed me, whether young or old, they looked at me longer than necessary. I pretended to read a street map as women scrutinized my conservative, but not Orthodox, outfit, completely aware that I didn’t live there, and I was not Hasidic. As I walked down Lee Avenue, for the first time in my life, I felt like a shiksa.
I was raised Jewish by two Jewish-born parents. Growing up, I attended the day-care, pre-school, and kindergarten of the Conservative/ Orthodox synagogue Temple Beth Shalom, where my older brother was Bar Mitzvah’ed. We later switched over to the Upper Reform/ Lower Conservative synagogue Congregation M’kor Shalom, where I was both Bat Mitzvah’ed and confirmed. We were never very religious, only attending Shabbat services occasionally and during the High Holy Days, and we did not keep a Kosher home. We only really observed Shabbat at home (by saying the prayers and consuming Challah and wine) when I attended a religious kindergarten. My parents never really taught me anything religious, except for cultural practices, such as keeping Shabbat, and the ritualistic Seder and Rosh Hashanah celebrations with my mother’s family, and fasting during Yom Kippur. In fact, none of my family members were religiously Jewish, only culturally Jewish, which manifested itself during holidays, as well as through cultural nuances; my grandparents, mother, aunts, and uncle tend to describe things in Yiddish, especially distasteful matters and people (“A shanda fur die Goyim” “Alter kaker” “Shmatta” “Schmuck” and “meshugineh meeskait”), but also favorable things (“Shayna punim” “Mensch” and “Kvell”). My grandmother always tells us how her parents never kept a Kosher home, even though her grandfather, my great-great-grandfather was the German Orthodox Rabbi David Ginsburgh. Two summers ago, I spent Friday evening in a Chabad house. Other than that, I have had no interaction with the Ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic. I understood the basic rules though: no eye contact with members of the opposite sex, no mention of anything that would be perceived as radical, and absolutely no physical contact of any kind.
My first interview was with an older man named Viesel Muller, who works in a store called “Judaica Books and Gifts”, on Lee Avenue. The shop is small and crowded, not with people, but with the hundreds of books lining the walls. Some books are leather-bound and printed entirely in the Hebrew alphabet, while others I recognized as updated, more conservative editions of the picture books that I had used when I attended Hebrew school. When I asked Muller if I could conduct the interview, his first response, in a heavy accent, was “Do you speak Yiddish?” Being raised in a secular environment, my Yiddish vocabulary is sparse and definitely not at the level of fluency it needed to be to actually speak to someone who evidently grew up with it as their first language. He agreed to speak to me, warning me in advance that his English was “not good.” I asked him directly about the Modesty Committee. He claimed to be completely ignorant of anything like that. I asked about the issue of modesty, in a general sense.
“This [is a] Jewish store, all Jewish articles,” he said, “We [are] not abusing nobody [sic]. This [is a] Jewish store, people respect [the customs]. [Is] this about the sign?”
I had not noticed any sign. He pointed out the laminated notice taped to the window next to the door: “DRESS CODE FOR STORE- NO: SHORTS, SLEEVELESS, BAREFOOT, LOW CUT NECKLINE” it read, in both English and Spanish. These signs, I noticed as my day continued, are as commonplace as the ones in eating establishments that read “No Shirts, No Shoes, No Service.”
“We have things to cover up,” he said, motioning behind the counter and pantomiming putting on a shawl, “[There is a] sign outside. Only Jewish people come in. We [are] not abusing nobody,” he insisted again.
I went down the street to Lefkowitz Grocery. There, I asked a young man who introduced himself as “Mike” about the issue of modesty in Williamsburg. “Mike”, in the same thick accent as Muller, answered, “There [is] no modesty problem here. [We have the] best modesty. You want [to] see [a] problem [with modesty], go to Flatbush.” “Mike” then continued in a mix of Yiddish and English, his praise of the uniform sense of modesty in Williamsburg, among the Hasidim. He kept repeating the phrase, “Everyone [is] the same, everyone [is] modest.”
In small, tight-knit communities, like the Hasidic community, conformity is undeniably prevalent. The pressure to be unified in dress, behavior, and religious observance is almost impossible to escape, especially for those who have been raised in that particular community and environment. Conformity is also heavily associated with cults. According to Dantalion Jones’ book Cult Control, “Conformity is…maintained by mandating smaller details of daily living including sleeping and eating schedules and dietary mandates…Group rituals can only be done in unity and conformity. Rituals can be anything from elaborate ceremonies to simple rituals that each person must do as a part of their mundane activities like eating (like saying grace), sleeping, awakening or going to the bathroom. Detail is EVERYTHING when it comes to conformity.” This passage seems to echo certain aspects of the Hasidic and Orthodox lifestyle, such as ritual prayer before and after eating, sleeping, and waking up. Similar to many cults, if someone does not conform with the rest of the group, or chooses to abandon the Hasidic lifestyle, they will be shunned by their friends and family who remain within the community. In a New York Post interview about her memoir Unorthodox, ex-Hasidic author Deborah Feldman reveals being ostracized by her family and friends after leaving the Hasidic community and divorcing her husband following a serious car accident. Feldman even said that when her family learned that she was publishing a book about her life and experiences of living within the Hasidic community, “[they] started sending [her] hate mail, really bad. They want [her] to commit suicide. They’ve got [her] grave ready.”
My last interview with a Hasidic person, was with Silky S., a thoughtful twenty-one year old woman who was working in a hardware store with two or three Hasidic men. Silky was the youngest person I spoke to, the only woman, and the only one without an accent. I asked if I could interview her.
“Ich bin tr’chtn (I’m thinking),” she murmured.
She agreed to be interviewed. When asked about the modesty committee, she seemed surprised: “I don’t think so, not in Brooklyn.” I asked her if the expectation and pressure to dress modestly was completely societal.
“I think a lot of it is social pressure to be modest,” she said, “That’s where peer pressure is very good.”
I asked her what would happen if she were to dress immodestly. Would her friends say something to her?
“Oh definitely,” Silky nodded, “They would say something to me, nothing mean, but they would say something. Friends pressure you to be modest for sure.” I asked her what her personal feelings were toward modesty.
“I think it’s a nice thing to be modest,” she said, “I think a Jewish woman is very precious, like a diamond, you know? A diamond is precious, so it goes in the back. So women, we should cover ourselves, you know?” She looked over the counter at my outfit, smiled and said, “You’re very modest, I can tell.”
Silky told me she was born and raised in Williamsburg, in this Hasidic community. We talked for a bit about being raised Jewish. I shared with her that my mother always made sure my arms were covered in shul.
“Oh in shul, definitely there,” Silky nodded in agreement, “I can tell, your mother raised you right, to be modest.”
Although my mind instantly replayed all the times that my mother had encouraged socially transgressive behavior, I nodded and said, “Oh, yes. Definitely.”
Taking the train back to Manhattan from Williamsburg, I had an overwhelming sense of relief. I could go home, slip into a pair of torn up jeans and a ratty tee shirt, and I would not be considered immodest or impure. I would not be held to any sort of standard of decency, other than actually being dressed. I thought about Silky and felt a pang of sympathy for her. As long as she remains in the Hasidic community, she will always be held to a rigid standard. But then again, Silky grew up within the confines of that community. Presumably, that is the only lifestyle she knows. She seemed happy with her life, as far as I could tell from our conversation. She did not appear to be in any distress. Then again, when people are born into a community like the Hasidim, small group dynamics play a huge role in social pressure to conform. It could be that Silky suppresses any issues that she has with her community’s practices in order to be accepted by her family and peers. But of course, striving to be accepted within one’s own community is a universal experience.