Demystifying hasidism’s insular world

Demystifying hasidism’s insular world

Author Joe Berger says he has “always been comfortable with differences. I don’t look at anyone’s habits or traditions with contempt.”    Photo by James Estri
Author Joe Berger says he has “always been comfortable with differences. I don’t look at anyone’s habits or traditions with contempt.”    Photo by James Estri

Inevitably, Joseph Berger says, some have criticized him for being too sympathetic to the hasidic communities he portrays in a new book about their insular world.

On the other hand, members of those communities have complained that he included too many derogatory descriptions.

“Sometimes, you just can’t win,” said Berger, author of The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America, “but it really isn’t about winning; I wanted to show that they are as human as the rest of the human race.”

Berger, a longtime New York Times reporter and author of three previous books, will try to demystify the often closed world of the hasidim when he gives a talk Thursday, Feb. 19, at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains as part of its sixth annual University Lecture Series and Music Appreciation.

He will also speak at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell on Shabbat, March 7.

Berger, who lives in Westchester County and has written extensively about New York’s Jewish communities — both for the Times and for other publications — said he was driven to write about the hasidim after witnessing their growing impact in New York City and the upstate towns where various hasidic sects have established sometimes highly controversial enclaves.

“Here’s a group that’s experiencing exponential growth because of the number of children they have,” he said. Already, according to a recent study, 60 percent of the Jewish children in New York City are Orthodox. “Within 20 years, hasidic and other Orthodox Jews will make up the majority of Jews in New York. So, whether you like them or not — whether or not you regard their ways as primitive, or you object to the way they treat women — people need to know who they are.”

Asked if he felt a sense of mission in writing this new book, Berger said no. “The book where I felt a mission was the autobiographical one,” he said. Displaced Persons: Growing Up American after the Holocaust, published in 2001, is a memoir about his family’s experience as immigrants in New York in the 1950s and ’60s, and his own ambivalence as they dealt with the Holocaust and went about becoming Americanized.

Berger himself was born in Russia in 1945, and spent the postwar years in D.P. camps in Germany. He came to the United States with his Polish parents when he was five. They had grown up in Orthodox homes, although his mother and father became less observant in this country. Joe learned Yiddish from them and attended yeshiva. When he interviewed his insular, fervently religious subjects for The Pious Ones, he said, “I could speak their language.”

His curiosity was fueled by an underlying positive feeling, rooted in a simple memory from his childhood. “Perhaps you could call this my Rosebud,” he said. As a teenager Berger’s mother worked as a helper to the wife of a hasidic grand rabbi in a summer resort community outside of Warsaw. “She spoke of the people there in an affectionate manner,” he recalled.

As a journalist, he has specialized in writing about various ethnic and national groups in New York, as he did in his book The World in a City: Traveling the Globe through the Neighborhoods of the New New York.  “I’ve always been comfortable with differences,” he said. “I don’t look at anyone’s habits or traditions with contempt.”

Although familiar with Jewish observance, Berger said his hasidic subjects continued to surprise him. For example, while most Jews abide by the teaching that on Yom Kippur you should not fast if it endangers your health, some hasidic synagogues set up “virtual hospital wards,” as he put it, to administer intravenous fluids for those who insist that no sustenance pass their lips.

“That was a real eye-opener for me,” he said.

So long as he was introduced to hasidim by someone they trusted, Berger was usually warmly welcomed, and that warmth reinforced his basic empathy for them. 

His audiences, he said, have varied widely in their response to his subject.

Some focused on the ugly stories and allegations of unethical business practices among the hasidim, especially aimed at outsiders. “There is no evidence of more cheating”  among the hasidim than other communities, nor evidence of more sexual abuse or fraudulent collection of government subsidies.  

“I think what people focus on is hypocrisy,” he said, and “bad behavior by people who espouse such strict religious and moral standards.”

For the most part, the antagonism comes simply from ignorance, bred in part by the willful isolation of the hasidim. However, as one man told him, “[I]f you believe that we have to be like you to be able to interact with you, then you have a problem.”

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