Torn between devotion to their faith and families and a desire to explore the outside world, rebellious young ultra-Orthodox Jewish men are resigned to live secret double lives.
In a small apartment filled with his children, under the watchful eyes of a tightly knit Hasidic neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a young father says goodbye to his wife. He tells her that he will be seeing relatives across the borough, although he has no intention of going there.
The man’s peyos, or side curls, fall to his jaw below a round fur hat, called a shtreimel. His black satin jacket and white shirt—no tie—hang over a fringed prayer shawl. He is handsome, in his twenties, pale, thin and childlike, with just a hint of facial hair. I will call him Joseph; because of the consequences, his real name cannot be revealed here.
Joseph is outside, walking a familiar route, his hands thrust in his pockets and a mysterious smile playing at his lips. He walks past the kosher grocery stores on Lee and Division Streets and reaches Broadway. He examines the passing buildings with the eyes of a man who works in real estate—which he does. He crosses into Williamsburg’s other world, where Dominican and hipster cultures collide. Sometimes people stare at this young Hasid wandering at night, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He freely gives passing girls a once over, looking back as they walk past him. “I can walk for miles,” Joseph tells me, in his thick Yiddish accent. “Walking is my thing. I’m on the phone. I’m thinking. I’m looking. I like to walk alone.”
A few weeks earlier, on one of his evening strolls, I had run into Joseph on the Williamsburg waterfront, watching the Manhattan skyline. I was curious about this Hasidic guy—dressed in a black suit, modest but elegant, with his peyos below a black-rimmed hat. I told him that I was surprised to see a Hasidic man wandering in this part of town, and I wanted to learn more about him. I was a graduate student at the time and he agreed to be my subject, under certain conditions: We could never be seen together, we could only speak sporadically, and if we passed on the street, he would ignore me and I must ignore him.
Throughout several months spent documenting rebellious Hasidim in New York in 2005, and follow-up interviews since then, I was always reminded of the ground rules: No sitting near windows or walking together, no revealing names. If a pious member of their small, insular communities saw them in a cafe with a reporter—a woman!—the news would likely spread within minutes. “I am afraid,” one young Hasid from New Square, a religious village in upstate New York, told me. “You realize that we are taking a risk just by exchanging words with you.”
If the members of Joseph’s community find out about our discussions, or about his wandering, he says he would be as good as dead. His family might sit shiva, drape the mirrors with fabric and mourn his name. His children may never again know him, his wife may divorce him, and his parents may not return his phone calls. He might be pressed to leave his neighborhood and never return.
There is rarely redemption for a rebellious Hasidic Jew; Joseph believes that the likely punishment would be banishment.
So when Joseph called me that spring night in 2005, ready to talk about Hasidism and his curiosity about the secular world, I suggested that we meet at a friend’s apartment.
* * *
He pours himself a large glass of vodka—straight up—takes off his satin coat and slips off his prayer shawl. “There was a man in Williamsburg whose wife found him to be cheating,” Joseph tells me. “People hang flyers on telephone poles and in store windows saying the man’s name, and telling him to go away.”
He speaks in broken English about reading forbidden websites and sneaking off to movie theaters and bars. The life he returns to—his family, Hasidim—is a good one, he says, as long as he doesn’t think too hard about what’s outside of it. “I know that my religion is the right way. I would never leave. I love my wife and my family,” he declares. “I won’t let myself get caught.”
Joseph keeps a kosher home, sends his children to a yeshiva, or religious school, and studies the Talmud, one of the holiest texts in Judaism. He also listens to Eminem, flirts with women and watches action movies. He attends prayer two to three times a day, but goes for walks every chance he gets. “I’m too nosy!” he says. “I can’t help going out!”
At sixteen, he hid with a group of friends around a small television set in a windowless basement room to watch his first movie—a forbidden activity. Today in his late twenties, Joseph is still in hiding.
After leaving the interview, Joseph takes me to a bar he frequents on the north side of Williamsburg; less than a mile from his house, it’s in many ways another world—one filled with seemingly carefree youth, sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, as they say. Tucking his peyos behind his ears, he will smoke a joint and touch women’s hands (his religion prohibits touching any woman outside of his family). For a night, he will behave like so many non-Hasidic boys in their twenties. With one arm around a strange girl’s waist, he will whisper into her ear, and then kiss her on the lips. They will disappear into the bathroom and emerge flushed.
He will spend the next several days praying for forgiveness. Joseph’s crime is a double life of pious Hasidism and wanderlust.
Joseph is a Satmar. More than 35,000 members of this insulated, devout, and strict sect of Judaism live in Williamsburg; Satmars represent around 130,000 of nearly a million Hasidim worldwide. His section of Williamsburg (he pronounces it VILL-yamz-borg) is also known as “the neighborhood” or just “Satmar.” Most days it is a sea of men dressed exactly like Joseph, with long beards and peyos, and very modestly dressed women—in dark clothing with arms and legs covered, wigs or scarves wrapped around their heads—surrounded by dozens of children.
Satmar is a sect of Hasidism (alternately spelled Hassidism or Chasidism) composed mainly of Romanian and Hungarian Hasidim founded in the Hungarian town of Szatmar in the twentieth century. Like other ultra-Orthodox sects, it is characterized by an emphasis on strict, unwavering adherence to its interpretation of Jewish law. Most importantly, Satmar and other strict Hasidic groups strongly reject the outside world’s impurities. By and large, these Hasidim study in religious schools, speak Yiddish as their first language, dress according to a strict code, and enter arranged marriages when they are between the ages of seventeen and twenty. They are forbidden to listen to the radio, watch television, listen to non-Jewish music, or expose themselves to the ideas and people of secular society. Yet some unknowable fraction—often young and aided by the Internet they are told to avoid—are breaking the rules.
* * *
When Joseph’s grandparents emigrated from Hungary to New York in the 1950s, they were joined by hundreds of other Hasidim from Hungary and Romania fleeing post-War Europe. Only fifteen percent of all Polish Jews had survived the Holocaust, and even a smaller percentage of Hasidim had. The power centers of Hasidim—Poland and Hungary—were devastated. Some Hasidim abandoned their faiths entirely after the trauma of Hitler’s atrocities. Those whose faith remained intact pooled their limited resources and relocated to places like Williamsburg to establish religious communities.
In New York City, they found what many perceived to be a spiritual wasteland. “Hasid” literally means “pious,” and the religion’s followers worship God in every aspect of their lives. Secular influences have the power to destroy Hasidim, leaders believed then (as they do now), so they established self-sustaining communities in New York City and surrounding communities: the Satmar in Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel, in Orange County; the Vishnitzer in Monsey, in Rockland County; the Lubavitcher in Crown Heights; and eventually Bobover and Bellzer in Borough Park and Skverer in New Square, also in Rockland County. Some communities—the Lubavitchers, for instance—became proselytizers, advocating outreach and involvement with non-Orthodox Jews. The Satmar, however, turned more isolationist, living by themselves in one of the most densely populated urban centers in the world.
Williamsburg’s Satmar community, established by Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum in 1946, operates its own welfare network, insurance and pension plans, ambulance and security services, and burial society; it supports synagogues, schools, and publications. To become a community member, a newcomer must prove his piety and undergo a committee investigation into his religious and moral suitability.
The sect’s insularity is rooted in the original founder of Hasidim, Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, also known as “Besht,” who advised his followers never to admit alien ideas or perspectives. One translation of his eighteenth-century works warns that the “sins one commits are engraved on one’s bones.”
In isolationist Hasidic groups like Satmar and Bellz, teachers at yeshivas may even tear out pages of children’s books revealing drawings of a leg or an arm (which must be covered at all times in public). Members are discouraged from reading secular books, especially on science and philosophy. Although learning is paramount, it is mainly religious learning that wins approval. Too much doubt is considered heresy.
In this environment, computers are discouraged but required for business. Hasidic leaders are wary of the effects of the Internet—such a vast, unregulated wealth of information—on their congregants. They are probably right to worry.
Joseph blames the Internet—partially—for helping him fulfill his infallible curiosity. He used to read a website called “Apikoros,” which literally means “Heretic,” written in Yiddish by a Hasidic intellectual who calls himself “Acheir” and who voices his doubts about the religion and its laws. “A good Hassid is supposed to believe in God without questions,” Acheir wrote to me in an email. “But that doesn’t mean that questions don’t come to mind.”
Dr. Joshua Fogel, a behavioral studies professor at Brooklyn College and a pioneer in studying ultra-Orthodox youth, insists that those like Joseph are rare. “There are hundreds of thousands of Hasidim who adhere to the norms,” he said. “There are a minute few who deviate from the norms.
But with easier access to computers, DVDs, and cell phones, some argue that the numbers of secretly rebellious Hasidic youth are increasing. “I think there’s a quiet revolution going on,” says Shulem Deen, the founder of the “Hasidic Rebel” website, as well as a second site called “Unpious.” “There are a lot more guys going out, exploring, than ever before. Things are changing. They are morphing from within. The fabric of that society is changing. They are adapting to some degree. They are learning that these are issues that they can’t ignore. People outside the community are using smart phones, on the internet, watching movies. And these people aren’t even considering themselves rebels anymore. The line between what’s ok and what isn’t is shifting.”
But nearly all of the Hasidic rebels I spoke with are like Joseph in that they have no desire to leave their community, but are compelled to explore, experiment with drugs or alcohol, read forbidden books, or watch movies and television in secret. After many evenings of debauchery—whether drinking in a bar, watching a movie, or talking with a woman—Joseph still believes that flirtation with the secular world is a phase.
Some women also venture outside, with their husbands or individually, to experience life outside the community. I was introduced to one middle-aged Lubovitch grandmother through her secular lover—a secret affair that has since ended. But these occurrences seem to be quite rare. Motherhood may lessen the predominance of rebellious women, since there is a pressure to begin families as early as possible. (Hasidim believe there is a religious duty to bring as many Jews as they can into the world, and family sizes vary, but often reach up to and over a dozen children. By the time Joseph and his wife were twenty-three years old, they had already had their third child.)
On occasion, Hasidim leave solely for sexual fulfillment. “A lot of times one of the officers will see a car pulled over, and sees a Hasidic guy with a prostitute,” says former NYPD Detective Tom Fox, who worked in Hasidic Williamsburg for three years. “That’s common. Years ago it was even more common, when there were more prostitutes out. The need is still there, that desire.”
A Brooklyn-based prostitute who goes by the name “Mallory Knoxxx” told me she has had three different Hasidic clients from Williamsburg who have arranged to come to her apartment in the industrial section of East Williamsburg. “They wear their apron, and their over-apron, and the curls, and some don’t even have sex,” says Knoxxx. “They seem very foreign about what real making love is. They seem aggressive. One man was worried that he would get spotted. When they’re done, they leave like they’re embarrassed.”
Detective Maureen Sheehan, who has worked with the Williamsburg Hasidic community for over fifteen years, says Hasidim “like to have fun like anybody. Could you imagine being twenty-five-years old with six kids?”
“There is a small percentage that does this stuff—usually from nineteen to twenty-five years old,” she adds from behind her desk in the 90th Precinct.
A particular strip club on Manhattan’s West Side, for instance, is far enough removed from Brooklyn’s watchful eye that it was once known as a hangout for Hasidim. “The Carousel is like a fucking Synagogue,” one twenty-five-year-old Williamsburg Satmar told me.
Such visits are, of course, forbidden under Hasidic law, which forbids touching or kissing before marriage. Some men and women meet only minutes, if at all, before their wedding ceremony. Whether parents, matchmakers, or religious leaders arrange the marriage, it is inevitably viewed as being arranged by God. A Hasidic marriage rarely ends in divorce.
A small minority of rebels renounce Hasidim—and even belief in God—but remain stranded in their communities by their obligations or fears. “Once there is no God, there are no morals,” Shtreimel, the publisher of A Hasid and a Heretic, told me. “What can we do? We can run away, we can give up, or we can make the most of it. I make the most of it. I can’t sit around and be sad, and I can’t desert my family. I daven—I pray—I shake myself up and down like I’m one of the best guys in town. I’m torn between Hasidim and the outside world.”
Recently, the insular Satmar community burst into the news during the trial of Nechemya Weberman, a Hasidic unlicensed therapist who was found guilty on December 10 of sexually abusing a young Hasidic girl. After thousands of Satmars rallied around him, holding a fundraiser to collect half a million dollars for his defense, the community has been forced to reckon with an uncomfortable truth: There are members of their community who are engaging in heinous criminal behavior. Twice in 2012, dozens of rebellious and former Hasidim protested in Williamsburg against the community’s blind support of an accused child molester.
Others, however, saw the accusations as a calculated attack on the community by outsiders in law enforcement and government.
A decade ago, the idea of rebellious and former Hasidim protesting within the Williamsburg shtetl, or Jewish village, would have been “impossible,” said Deen, the 38-year-old former blogger behind “The Hasidic Rebel.” “Social media has played a tremendous role. People whose viewpoints go against the grain are finding each other, coming together, and creating an opposition to their former communities.”
Deen’s Hasidic Rebel was probably the first widely read website by a practicing Hasid casting doubt on his religion. It was an exercise in combating his desperate isolation, in acknowledging the conflict he felt between being Hasidic and, he says, living a “normal” life.
“I saw regular people writing websites,” says Deen. “And I just thought, I could do this.”
Readers in a Jewish blogging network were directed to his site, which was an almost immediate success, garnering thousands of daily views by Hasidic and non-Hasidic readers, who joined heated debates in the comments section.
Deen has always been interested not only in the Talmud and Torah, but in the philosophy and science of the larger world. As a young boy, he liked to sneak into a Brooklyn bookstore on his way home from school and devour Hardy Boys adventures and mystery novels. His curiosity never went much further than that until, in his late twenties, his job in New York’s diamond district allowed him access to a computer and, in turn, to the Internet. Unlike Joseph, Deen had always yearned to escape from his small, insular community. Like Joseph, however, the fear of losing his family—and everything else he coveted—prevented him from actually leaving.
In a post in June 2003, he wrote, “My two daughters and I share a secret. No one outside our family knows about it…The secret is that I take them to our local public library every now and then. Why the secrecy? Well, I’m not sure about my children’s school, but I know that other Chasidic schools in the area forbid the students to visit the library. Violators risk expulsion.”
An anonymous reader logged a typical response: “I see that I’m not alone in this web of frustration that is called chasidos [Hasidim],” the responder wrote, a bit awkwardly. “I got married when I didn’t yet fully developed, like yourself I used to read a lot but only Yiddish stuff, only after my marriage did I start reading some English books and magazines (with a dictionary close by) and I cant stop reading…”
One responder who called herself Chaya wrote that she worried about the consequences of Deen’s daughters being seen entering the library: “You are putting your children in the position of someday—maybe—having to lie.”
Lies, however, are common in these double lives; indeed, they make them possible. Shtreimel—the twenty-eight-year-old Brooklyn Hasid who published “A Hasid and a Heretic”—said that in an attempt to keep his family together and protect himself, he has had to change facts on his website and offer his family excuses about where he goes some nights. “I’m lying now, I’m lying at home, my whole life is a lie,” he said one evening, sitting in the corner of a Manhattan bar, rubbing the strings of his prayer shawl, a Bud Light cradled on his lap. “Living like a Hasid and thinking like a heretic—it’s like being a secret agent.” On the blog, he described “a conflicted soul torn between two worlds, the world of Hasidim and the world of reason.”
Many Hasidic rabbis tell their congregations to abstain from the Internet, or if that’s not possible, to voluntarily use filters. (The most popular filter is called JNet.) The manager of a prayer center in Williamsburg says he is hesitant to discuss such a sensitive subject as Internet use among Hasidim. “There are guidelines that we are trying to protect; not to have Internet in the house, not to have a TV, not to have a radio,” he told me. “It’s for prevention that the Rabbi has asked everyone to use JNet to filter the Internet.”
“My rabbi asked me if I had JNet,” says Joseph. “When I told him ‘no,’ he said, ‘Why? Are you not responsible?’”
JNet co-founder Alec Rosenthal says that the program’s users are predominantly Orthodox and Hasidic. The system blocks all chat rooms, entertainment sites, pornography, and ‘free-floating’ web sites, including blogs. He sees JNet as a safeguard shielding the ultra-Orthodox, their businesses and families from the outside world and its influence. The site is freely recommended by many rabbis and religious community leaders, but also criticized by those who believe it encourages Hasidim to use the Internet in the first place.
“It’s one thing to fight temptation,” Rosenthal says. “It’s another thing not to have it.”
* * *
My Grandmother Ida was the third of twelve children in a poor, Orthodox family in a former Czechoslovakian shtetl. The community was similar to Joseph’s area in Brooklyn—insular and self-sufficient, virtually free of outside influence, built around synagogues, kosher food production, security, and extended families. After the Holocaust took all but two of her siblings, Ida surfaced in Brussels. “Anything in this life can be taken away from you at any moment—your family, your house, your money,” she told my mother, often. “All you have is your education.”
Thus, the invisible obligation each generation owes its predecessor remains strong among all branches of Judaism: To maintain the tradition, culture and history of the Jewish struggle, to drop saltwater on your tongue and remember tears. The Hasidim, in particular, are compelled to preserve their sacred, virtually unchanged lifestyle and language, and they are particularly successful at it in their self-created communities outside the city.
After World War II, some members of Williamsburg’s Satmar community founded the town of Kiryas Joel, about an hour northwest of Manhattan. Nearby, Skver Hasidim founded New Square, and other groups flocked to Monsey and Monroe, erecting synagogues, homes, and schools—all in an effort, seemingly, to recreate the shtetl life. David Landau describes the Hasidic villages of Rockland and Orange counties in his 1993 study, “Piety and Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism”: “Amid rolling forest and farm land these groups have created to near perfection the ambience of the European Jewish shtetl, but set in American suburbia, with its shopping malls, gas stations and highways as part of the pastoral scenery.”
When I told Joseph that there were also rebellious Hasidim living in New Square, he looked skeptical. Orthodox Williamsburg, despite its insularity, is still surrounded by a metropolis. Despite efforts to avoid contamination, people encounter billboards on the street and music blasting from car stereos, and can make easy trips to Manhattan. But New Square?
Set within the sprawling suburb of Spring Valley, New York, thousands of Skver Hasidim live in the half-square mile of the incorporated village of New Square. Off a country road about half an hour northwest of Westchester, the modern, constantly expanding shtetl is filled with older homes on one side, newer condominiums on the other, and acreage set for future construction. A sign at its entrance proclaims a ban on “bathing suits, swimming attire, short pants, shirts, sweaters, or other attire of like nature which fails to conceal wearer’s body, thighs, or legs.”
Years ago, I visited the Hasidic Rebel, Deen, at his home in New Square. Deen recalled the previous Skver Rebbe’s proclamation to the congregation about rebellion within the community’s ranks: “The Evil Inclination doesn’t need a passport here, either.
“They made Skver [New Square] like this so the temptation doesn’t get in,” said Deen. “It’s a contradiction. It’s modeled after the European shtetl but it can’t be—not in the U.S. Maybe for an outsider, it seems to work, but not for an insider.”
We sat in Deen’s kitchen—with two sinks, one for meat and one for dairy, a typical kosher set-up—as his wife prepared a lunch of salads, bread and hummus.
Deen had been honest with his wife about his outside interests. He asked her several times to move away from New Square with him. He believed they could live away from prying eyes and he could send their children to college. It is a dream, he has said, to let his children decide how they wish to live their own lives, but his wife is a strong believer, and will not leave the community. For a time, Deen had given up asking, and since he would not leave his family, he said, “What can I do?” like a mantra, his palms open toward the sky.
Soon after my visit, Deen was quite dramatically kicked out of New Square. “Word had gotten around that I was a heretic,” he said. “They summoned a Rabbinical Court—a Tribunal. I wasn’t even allowed to put up a defense.” Deen, then in his mid-thirties, after being married for fifteen years and fathering five children, was kicked out of the community for heresy, had a painful divorce and custody battle with his wife, and has been estranged from his children ever since. He moved to Brooklyn and now lives a secular life. “The way that religious Jews hope for a messiah, I hope for my children to reach out to me some day and establish a connection.”
* * *
Jewish teachers offer lessons in the form of stories—sometimes folk tales, sometimes accounts from the Torah—told among friends on synagogue steps, to children before bed, around the Sabbath table. These stories often tell of the consequences of deceit and of the benefits of study. One tale of piety and restlessness is a Torah passage, Deuteronomy 21:18, about a rebellious son. A troubled father brings his son to the elders and complains, “This son of ours is stubborn and will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard.” The elders direct that the son be stoned to death.
“Have you ever heard that story?” I ask Joseph.
“Yes, of course,” he says. “This type of thing doesn’t happen anymore.”
“What will happen if you are caught having a drink at a bar?”
“I won’t get caught,” he says.
Joseph is passionate about Hasidism—the tradition, community, and faith—but not the lifestyle. If his walks can remain a secret, then he believes he can live his life to the fullest. He reads Shtreimel’s website, “A Hasid and a Heretic,” and can understand both sides of the arguments in the comments section.
“I believe in Hashem, Chasidus, and Satmar (God, Hasidim, and Satmar) simply because as a good Jew I believe without proof,” one reader wrote. “You have zero pride in being a Jew. So explain to me then why you continue living a lie? Aren’t you doing a disservice to yourself and your family?”
Shtreimel responded, “The only reason that I’m still around is my share of responsibility that I have for my family. That’s reason enough for me to stick around and hope for the best.”
In January of 2005, Shtreimel published a list of his options. First on the list was to continue living as he has, outwardly a Feiner Yungerman—a Good Hasid—while cynically continuing to venture out to watch movies, go to bars, even find a lover. “I’ll leave my sheltered house and community and go on a ‘business trip’ for a few days and come back even more depressed,” he reasoned. But he thinks that the consequences are not worth it. He thinks it is inevitable that he will get caught one day, devastating his wife; he might have a nervous breakdown; eventually his children might find out and resent him.
His second option is to become pious again. To never look at another girl or watch a movie; to become the Jew—the Tzadik (righteous person)—that he is supposed to be. Yet, this choice, he wrote, would likely result in a mental breakdown. “Impossible,” he tells me.
Shtreimel’s third option is to abandon his family and his community. That would hurt everyone; the guilt would destroy him.
“Day and night I’ll think about how mean and vicious I am for running away from my responsibilities,” he admitted in the blog post. “Even if my kids will find it in themselves to forgive me I won’t forgive myself. Plus, I’ll miss them. I’ll miss their cute smiles, the kiss before they go to sleep when they are all freshened up from the bath, the nagging for a gitte zach (a good thing, a treat) from the little one, I’ll miss even the crying and fighting which sometimes makes me so mad. I’ll just miss them terribly.”
Some rebels do leave the religion entirely, though. Footsteps, a non-profit organization started by ex-Hasid Malkie Schwartz (of which Deen is now a board member), assists people seeking to explore the world outside of their ultra-Orthodox communities. It offers support group meetings, language and career courses, and connects its members with job and housing resources. “It’s a very difficult situation,” Schwartz admits. “There are huge losses that come with leaving.”
Shtreimel’s fourth and most frightening option, he concedes, is suicide. “The dead don’t have toothaches or guilt pangs,” he wrote. “Only I know it won’t happen. The will to live is too strong.”
As such ideas constantly circle his mind, Shtreimel has ventured many times into Manhattan. On a few occasions, he has driven to meet me for coffee or a drink, during which he reviews his choices and prospects time and again. Our conversations tend to end the way his post ended: with no solution.
“That’s my life, friends,” he concludes, “and I better make the most of it.”
Joseph, for his part, has vowed many times to live more of a “straight” life. His wife, meanwhile, has become more of an accomplice than someone he needs to hide from. They go to movies and plays together, disguising themselves as a secular couple and spending romantic evenings strolling around Manhattan. He loves her and she loves him, and he thinks this will work if they can lead a double life together.
Despite the newfound openness between them, though, Joseph will never say anything to his wife about the girl and the bar bathroom, or the reporter he met along the East River waterfront. And sometimes, after his evening prayer, he still strolls down the front steps of his Williamsburg synagogue before the formal discussion group begins. He tells his wife that he is speaking with friends, tells his friends that he is going home—and he wanders the neighborhood.
Joseph still walks like a man with a destination; his suit and shiny shoes always immaculate, his hat straight, his stride quick. As he wanders, he curls his peyos with his index finger, daydreaming of what the future might hold.
“I’m not a rebel,” he says. “I just like to go for walks.”
* * *
Pearl Gabel is a photographer and multimedia reporter based in Brooklyn. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.