Among the most important recent developments of American Jewry has been the rapid population growth among the right-wing Orthodox — particularly the Hasidim — and the extensive outreach work of Lubavitch Hasidim. These have attracted the interest of scholars and non-scholars alike, and have resulted in an outpouring of essays and books on American Hasidic history and culture, of which Joseph Berger’s The Pious Ones is the latest. Berger, a reporter for The New York Times, has been writing about the American Hasidim for decades, and, as one would expect, his book is not a work of scholarship but a lively journalistic romp through the world of American Hasidim.
True to his profession, Berger tells his story not through careful historical or sociological analysis but by relating the stories of interesting and colorful individuals. There is, for example, Yitta Schwartz, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary and member of the Satmar community of Kiryas Joel in upstate New York, who at her death in 2010 (at the age of 93) left behind two thousand descendants. Schwartz never allowed her horrific memories of Bergen-Belsen to dilute her zest for life, her charitable work, and the joy she derived from her family and religion. Berger introduces us also to Yiztchok Fleischer, a Bobover Hasid, who founded a charity offering intravenous feeding to those who cannot fast but want to observe the Yom Kippur stricture on eating; to Mendel Werdyger, a Ger Hasid, who established a successful business transforming seventy-eight recordings of famous twentieth century cantors into CDs; to Shulem Deen who left the Skver Hasidic community, divorced his wife, and founded a blog called “Hasidic Rebel: Off the Cuff Musings of a Hasid Gone Astray”; and to Shlomo Koenig, a Vizhnitz Hasid who became a deputy sheriff in Rockland County, New York, assigned to dealing with problems involving its large Hasidic population.
Contrary to the subtitle of Berger’s book, the major battles of the Hasidim have not only been with American mores and political practices. There have also been clashes within and between Hasidic communities. Berger details the bitter internecine conflict within the Satmar community following the death of its leader, Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum in 2006, as well as the split within the Lubavitch Hasidim over whether Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, was the Messiah or not.
Hasidic communities have prospered in America, and when the Skverer Hasidim established the village of New Square in upstate New York they named some of its streets after American presidents as a sign of gratitude. Some readers of Berger’s book will undoubtedly cringe at the lifestyles of “the pious ones” and fear what the explosion of the Hasidic population portends for the future of American Jewry, while other readers will admire the faithfulness of the Hasidim to what they perceive to be traditional Judaism.
Read Carol Kaufman’s interview with Joseph Berger here.
- Dynamic and Polyglot: Judaism’s (Hasidic) Revival Movement by Michael Levin
- Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up The Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn by Ayala Fader
- The Mystical Origins of Hasidism by Rachel Elior