Amer­i­can Shtetl: The Mak­ing of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Vil­lage in Upstate New York

By – February 7, 2022

Nomi M. Stolzen­berg and David N. Myers have writ­ten a heav­i­ly researched, read­able, and exceed­ing­ly inter­est­ing his­to­ry of Kiryas Joel, the Sat­mar Hasidic com­mu­ni­ty estab­lished in 1977 with­in the bound­aries of upstate Mon­roe, New York. It was named for Joel Teit­el­baum, its beloved leader, who sought to estab­lish a com­mu­ni­ty of true believ­ers who would live, study, pray, and pro­cre­ate in a Torah-true envi­ron­ment bereft of mod­ern temptations.

Teit­el­baum died in 1979, and Kiryas Joel has flour­ished beyond even his most fer­vent expec­ta­tions, but not, as Amer­i­can Shtetl argues, in a man­ner that he would have always wel­comed. KJ has grown from a few hun­dred res­i­dents to near­ly twen­ty-five thou­sand today, and town author­i­ties antic­i­pate its pop­u­la­tion will increase to near­ly sev­en­ty-five thou­sand by 2035. This phe­nom­e­nal growth is due to an excep­tion­al­ly high birth rate, com­bined with the migra­tion of Sat­mar devo­tees attract­ed by its exces­sive­ly insu­lar and rig­or­ous reli­gious lifestyle. Although not the first, KJ is unques­tion­ably the most sig­nif­i­cant Jew­ish utopi­an com­mu­ni­ty in Amer­i­ca, and it is, as the title of this book implies, not mere­ly a shtetl but an Amer­i­can shtetl, and its his­to­ry is an espe­cial­ly fas­ci­nat­ing man­i­fes­ta­tion of Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty politics.”

Amer­i­can Shtetl also pro­vides a detailed analy­sis of the var­i­ous legal bat­tles that accom­pa­nied the growth of KJ and often led to vio­lent con­fronta­tions. These instances most­ly involved church-state issues and con­trol over the town’s reli­gious insti­tu­tions. Some town res­i­dents feared that involve­ment in the sec­u­lar legal sys­tem would under­mine Teitelbaum’s hal­lowed goal of iso­lat­ing the town’s res­i­dents from the non-Jew­ish world. Oth­er dis­si­dents in the town took an oppo­site approach. They accused the town’s lead­er­ship of seek­ing to cre­ate a theoc­ra­cy.” This legal his­to­ry of KJ is fas­ci­nat­ing and thought-provoking.

Amer­i­can Shtetl is the sec­ond book on Sat­mar Hasidim in Amer­i­ca recent­ly pub­lished by a dis­tin­guished uni­ver­si­ty press; the oth­er is Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper’s superb A Fortress in Brook­lyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Mak­ing of Hasidic Williams­burg (Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2021). These two vol­umes are part of a pop­u­lar and schol­ar­ly fas­ci­na­tion with Hasidic Jews in gen­er­al and the Sat­mar com­mu­ni­ty in par­tic­u­lar. A pletho­ra of tele­vi­sion shows, movies, and books have appeared ana­lyz­ing Hasidic drop-outs, as well as the abil­i­ty of Hasidic groups to flour­ish despite the social, eco­nom­ic, and cul­tur­al threats to their way of life that they con­front dai­ly. How, one might ask, have the Sat­mar Hasidim and oth­er such groups not suc­cumbed to assim­i­la­tion? Amer­i­can Shtetl pro­vides many thought-pro­vok­ing answers to this question.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

Discussion Questions

The out­stand­ing legal schol­ar Nomi M. Stolzen­berg and the emi­nent his­to­ri­an David N. Myers spent fif­teen years study­ing Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Sat­mar vil­lage in New York State. The result, Amer­i­can Shtetl, is a riv­et­ing account of how a shtetl arose six­ty miles out­side of New York City. 

Sur­viv­ing Bergen-Belsen and land­ing in post­war Brook­lyn, Satmar’s charis­mat­ic Rebbe Joel Teit­el­baum dreamed of repli­cat­ing in this new land the East Euro­pean shtetl that had been destroyed. This bril­liant study shows the Sat­mar Hasidim embed­ded in a process of unwit­ting assim­i­la­tion” of con­tem­po­rary norms and acquir­ing land to build hous­es, schools, syn­a­gogues, and the infra­struc­ture of a new com­mu­ni­ty. Their endeav­ors sparked a dozen lawsuits.

A tale of real estate and pol­i­tics, this his­to­ry, in the mas­ter­ful hands of this mar­ried cou­ple, con­cludes that these Hasidim did not repli­cate the Old World shtetl. What the Sat­mars cre­at­ed instead is one of the most vibrant reli­gious, self-seg­re­gat­ed com­mu­ni­ties in the Unit­ed States.