Jay Michaelson at RNS reports on a Hasidic enclave in upstate New York.
Hasidism — literally, the way of the pious — began in 18th-century Europe as a movement of Jewish spiritual revival. Although shunned by the religious authorities of the time, it became enormously popular, sweeping throughout Eastern Europe. Centered on personal spiritual experience, devout prayer (think Pentecostals in Jewish garb) and charismatic leaders (known as rebbes), Hasidism revolutionized Jewish life, especially among less-educated, less-urban populations.
But it quickly changed its character. With the threats of emancipation and assimilation looming, Hasidism turned sharply conservative in the 19th century. Practices ossified, authority was centralized, innovations were prohibited, and any accommodation to modern life was rejected. Today, Hasidim dress like 18th-century Poles.
Unlike far-right Christian or Muslim fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists are often depicted as cuddly, harmless and quaint. “Fiddler on the Roof,” which in its original serialized novel form was a sharp satire of religious life, is a good example.
Wait a second! Unlike far-right Christians? Oh really? Never seen 19 and counting then? Or Witness? And then there’s Little Mosque on the Prairie – which presented some pretty conservative Muslims as totes mainstream.
Anyway, back to the Skver Hasidim.
The shocking details emerge almost as asides: a rabbi teaching 18-year-olds* to “be vigilant” lest their wives lead them into hell (and telling them not to call their wives by their names, but only say “Um” or “You hear”); witch hunts for people suspected of smuggling a radio or portable television into the Skver community; and widespread corporal punishment, both when Deen was a student and, later, as a teacher in yeshiva.
I have to say, the fear and loathing of women is a lot more serious than the banning of radios and tvs.
And the contempt for non-Jews. “The kindness of the goyim (non-Jews) is for sin,” Deen quotes the Skverer rebbe as teaching. Even when a non-Jew does a good deed, his real purpose is evil.
Or her. But anyway – it’s the kuffar all over again. It’s odious and dangerous. It’s one of the foulest things about religious zealotry.
Then there’s the poverty. Most Hasidic men (and nearly all women) are uneducated; they speak Yiddish and disparage the teaching of English. They don’t know math or history; they have no employment skills.
Deen falls behind on rent, has trouble feeding his children, can’t hold a job. Indeed, holding a job is beneath the dignity of a Hasidic man, who, if he is fortunate, should be able to study all his life — while collecting unemployment, food stamps and welfare benefits.
The FLDS do the same thing.
Deen finally finds work as a teacher, where his duties involve fraudulently completing progress reports for New York state while not teaching any of the subjects he is reporting on, and collecting government subsidies.
Where’s Rush Limbaugh?! Where’s Fox News? Where’s everyone who yips and bellows about welfare queens?
Deen starts reading books, and ends up leaving, at the price of losing his children and everything else he’s known. Zealous puritanical religion will chew you up and spit you out. Don’t go there.
*Not “18-year-olds” but 18-year-old boys.