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Interview: Joseph Berger

Monday, September 08, 2014 | Permalink

by Carol Kaufman

Jewish Book Council's Carol Kaufman recently spoke with Joseph Berger about his new book, The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America, which was published in September, 2014 by Harper Perennial.

Carol Kaufman: Why did you decide to write a book about the Hasidim, and why now?

Joseph Berger: I had been writing many articles about Hasidim and thought I had learned enough to write a book explaining what many outsiders consider a curious, esoteric group. The fact that my mother grew up in a Hasidic summer resort outside Warsaw and filled me with Hasidic tales may have been a subconscious motivation.

CK: In the book you write about a sleep-away summer camp in the Catskills for Satmar boys ages 9-13, where the boys get up each morning at 6:45 and eagerly study Torah and Talmud for six hours a day. Your book is filled with examples of what some might call extreme behavior. Why do you think some Hasidic sects have become more austere, punctilious, and zealous than their Eastern European forebears ever were?

JB: The Baal Shem Tov and other founders of Hasidism emphasized fervor in prayer and fulfillment of the mitzvot, and that zeal practically defines Hasidim. How else would you have frail Hasidim hooking themselves up to IV’s in synagogue basements on Yom Kippur so they can gain nourishment without actually eating?

CK: You've reported on New York, including its Hasidim, for about 30 years. What else did you learn about them that surprised you?

JB: The ways in which Hasidic zeal is expressed astonished me. Take shopping for Passover. A Hasidic market will have two rows of root vegetables—washed and unwashed. Wholehearted Hasidim prefer to see granules of earth on their vegetables and clean them off themselves so they can be sure no hametz contaminated the washing. I was also surprised by how often the Hasidic approach conflicted with the democratic American approach, like the Monsey Hasidim who string a curtain down the aisle of a publicly-financed bus so they can have separate seating for prayer.

CK: Crystal ball-gazing, where do you see the Hasidim ten years on? Do you think they will be thriving? What do you think about the defects&mdash ex-Hasidim, mostly young women? Will their ranks continue to grow?

JB: With their large families, Hasidim are growing at a breathtaking rate and as a result Orthodox Jews could become a majority of Jews in New York in twenty years, changing the community’s liberal, cosmopolitan profile. Despite the attention they get, defectors are still a tiny slice of the Hasidic population. The way of life is so all-encompassing that it is difficult for skeptics to leave. The Internet’s subversive impact, however, may upset such calculations. Politicians have long woken up to muscular Hasidic growth and are eager to gain their bloc votes, so controversies like the one over circumcision practices often end in the Hasidic favor.

CK: Are you thinking about the next book you might like to write?

JB: I’m taking a breather and enjoying some of the responses I’ve received to The Pious Ones. Then perhaps I’ll think about my next project.

Carol Kaufman is the editor of Jewish Book World.

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