Non­fic­tion

The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Bat­tles with America

  • Review
By – May 22, 2014

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.

Inter­view

Read Car­ol Kaufman’s inter­view with Joseph Berg­er here.

Relat­ed content:

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