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O My America: Khasidic Rebbes as Mafia Bosses

Lawrence Bush
July 23, 2017

by Lawrence Bush

Discussed in this essay: Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America, by Samuel C. Heilman (University of California Press, 2017, 269 pages).

AS MY WIFE AND I were driving this week on the New York State Thruway, a magnificent double rainbow with a full 180º arc pushed through the clouds and diverted us to the Sloatsburg rest stop for a good look. We parked on the roof deck, hopped out of our car, and found ourselves in the company of some twenty or thirty khasidic men gathering in a corner of the parking lot for evening prayers before heading to their homes in Kiryas Joel, New Square and other ultra-Orthodox enclaves in Orange and Sullivan counties.

Susan and I had our smiling faces turned upwards towards one of the best displays of water-and-light refraction that we’ve ever seen, but the men in black barely glanced skywards as they hurried over to where their fellows were reading and rocking. (There were no women; among Skver khasidim of New Square, women are not allowed to drive.) I wondered how many of them had ever in their lives taken the opportunity to recite the Jewish blessing for seeing a rainbow: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheynu melekh ha’olam zokher ha’brit v’ne’eman bivrito v’kayam b’ma’amaro (blessed is God, etcetera, for remembering the covenant -- the rainbow being the sign of the renewed covenant in the Biblical story of Noah). Surely all of them knew it, but they seemed intent on practicing that ultra-Orthodox thing of being indifferent to the aesthetics of the natural world.

Poor stooges: leading lives of strict sex segregation, ridiculously prohibitive rules of female modesty, absurdly large families, a 65 percent poverty rate (within a community that is rich in real estate and other resources), fealty to mystical, messianic nonsense, and utter obsession with their rebbe. Am I being biased or uncharitable in this assessment? Having just read Samuel C. Heilman’s Who Will Lead Us?, I would say no, not at all. Although Heilman, America’s most prolific portraitist of Orthodox Jewish life, refuses to “judge” or even dig underneath the surface of the stories he tells (“[T]his book,” he writes in his prologue, “is not a consideration of the writings, ideological arguments, and teachings of Hasidic rebbes or the spirituality that animates followers’ attachment to them”), Who Will Lead Us? authenticates every negative feeling I’ve ever carried about the cultish Jewish fundamentalism of khasidism.

HEILMAN’S BOOK traces the history of the dynasties of Hungary’s Munkacs khasidim, Vienna’s Boyan and Kopyczynitz sects, the Bobovers of Poland and Brooklyn, the Satmarers of Hungary, Brooklyn, and upstate New York, and the Lubavitchers, who are the most well-known and worldly of khasidic groupings. In each instance, a late-18th-century democratizing movement that sought to move Judaism out of the hands of “learned” and legalistic rabbis and into the hearts of the common folk via joyous worship devolved within a generation or two into a cult movement, religiously inflexible, dead-set against modernity (and, in most cases, against one another), and utterly in thrall to a rabbinical “court” consisting of the rebbe, his family, his lieutenants, and his enforcers.

“Ultimately, Hasidim viewed their leaders as model individuals to be emulated and embraced with devotion (dvekut),” Heilman writes. “In return, the rebbes would (sometimes miraculously) provide for their followers the blessings of children (bonei), health (chayei), and livelihood (mzonei). Hasidism held that the material and spiritual well-being of the entire community was part of the rebbe’s responsibility.” He continues:

In some cases, even the rebbe’s smallest gestures were judged as having cosmic significance, and his Hasidim dwelt endlessly on the meaning of them. . . . Every detail mattered in this drama, in which both the observers and the observed were certain heaven was involved because the [rebbe] was after all able to ascend spiritually to the highest regions and powers. . . The longing to be near him even competed with the Hasid’s attachments to his own family, so that men left home, wife, and children to spend extended time near their master.

The chief building blocks of this relationship are notes of supplication (kvittels), accompanied by monetary gifts (pidyon nefesh) and ongoing donations of a portion of each household income (ma’amad); attendance at the rebbe’s weekly table (tish) and any and all other opportunities for “face time” with the holy man; constant testimonials about his magnificence and miracle-making power; and bonding around ideologies that include a rigid anti-Zionism (Israel is a form of humanistic idolatry, a human interference with God’s plan for bringing the messiah), a belief in the imminence of messianic salvation, and a loathing for, and paranoid fear of, the temptations and corruptions of the modern world.

ULTIMATELY, these movements resemble nothing so much as mafia families minus the guns (though enforcers, shtarkers, often have a role to play in enforcing the rebbe’s will and enforcing conformity among the khasidim). In Heilman’s book, the essential corruption and powermongering of khasidic sects are implicit in his narratives of succession, in which sons and son-in-laws compete for control over the multi-million-dollar properties and institutions of aging, failing rebbes — wealth established through the contributions of followers, control over the resources of their Orthodox Jewish lives (school tuitions, kosher butchers, etc.), and fundraising from outside sources who view khasidism as uniquely authentic Judaism.

Mixed in with the gang wars of succession are also moving episodes of coping with Nazism and the Holocaust. Some of the escape stories of rebbes and their courts are just short of miraculous (usually entailing multiple acts of bribery more than derring-do) -- and the khasidic retelling has eliminated the “just short of.” Ironically for movements that made a demon of Zionism, Palestine loomed large, right alongside America, as their sanctuary.

Few such ironies or critical interpretations are explored in Heilman’s narrative, however. Who Will Lead Us? acknowledges bloc voting and its influence among the khasidim, but fails to identify the quid pro quibus demanded by them for their votes. Heilman notes the “conspicuous wealth and consumption of the rebbe as well as his stable of philanthropists who pay him tribute,” but never discusses how that wealth interacts with the endemic poverty of khasidic households as well as the “millions of public dollars” finagled “for health, welfare, food stamps, and public housing” -- nor how khasidic wealth and power can dominate in communities that are non-khasidic and subject people outside the community to shoddy housing, reduced school budgets, and suspicion and hostility.

Heilman also identifies the confining rules faced by khasidic followers, especially women and girls, without exploring the crippling effect of these rules, particularly regarding education, on those who seek escape from their cults. In this regard, Heilman’s own son, journalist Uriel Heilman, does a far better job: In a recent portrait of several refugees from khasidism in Hadassah magazine, the younger Heilman describes “cloistered, Yiddish-speaking enclaves” in which people “frequently find themselves ill-equipped for life in the wider world: Their English may be substandard, they have little secular education and few marketable skills.” “It’s like being an immigrant from . . . North Korea,” says one of his contacts.

Says another, who grew up as a Belzer, prayed two doors down from his home at the Vishnitz shul and studied in the Sanz yeshiva in Brooklyn: “ ‘I grew up with all these flavors, different extreme versions of the same bullshit.’ ”

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.