The Hasidic movement was founded in the 19th century by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov (which means “master of the good name”), who was born in Ukraine and traveled in and around modern day Ukraine. He taught about God’s love for all Jewish people. Also important to his teachings was an emphasis on one’s individual connection to God through the Torah and mitzvahs (good deeds and divine commandments from the Torah). At this time, the Hasidim, Hebrew for “pious ones,” numbered in the millions in Eastern and Central Europe. A “Hasid” is an individual who studies and embodies Hasidic teachings, in the effort of being a better servant of God.
Jewish mysticism is an essential part of Hasidic teaching. Hasidic leaders strive to make Jewish mystical texts (such as the Kabbalistic writings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Isaac Luria) accessible and practical to all followers.
Hasidim live in close communities. While there are hundreds of sects of Hasidism, most American Hasidim belong to one of a handful of major sects, of which Satmar is one of the largest. Music and stories are an important part of Hasidic culture, inspiring a deeper connection between man and God. Each community follows a Rebbe, or Rabbi, a spiritual authority that transfers within the family, usually to the Rabbi’s oldest son.
Although there is no official census for Hasidim, according to Chabad.org the worldwide population was estimated at 400,000 in 2005 and continues to grow due to high birth rates in Hasidic communities. Approximately half of Hasidic Jewish people live in Israel, another 30-40% live in America, and the rest live in communities across the world, most notably in London, Antwerp, and Montreal.
Satmar Hasidism originated from the city of Szatmárnémeti, Hungary (now Satu Mare, Romania), where the sect was founded in 1905 by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum as an offshoot of the Sighet dynasty which was led by Teitelbaum’s father. When his father died, the position of Grand Rebbe passed to Teitelbaum’s older brother. A small following viewed Joel as the true heir and chose to follow him from Sighet to Satmar. ln 1928 he was appointed the chief rabbi of Szatmárnémeti (Satmar) itself. This caused major conflicts within the Jewish community, but Teitelbaum eventually accepted the position and became a prominent Hasidic leader.
In March 1944, the German Army occupied Hungary. The Jewish population was moved to the Satu Mare ghetto and then quickly deported to concentration camps. Most died in these camps. Rabbi Teitelbaum was spared by a rescue mission that sent him to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, with the knowledge that he would soon board a train for Switzerland, and then go to Palestine. In 1946, after two and a half years in Palestine, Rabbi Teitelbaum moved to the United States.
A “Closed Fortress” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Rabbi Teitelbaum set out to make a secure home for his followers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, after most of the Satmar sect was killed during the Holocaust. Thousands of Hasidic Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe whose communities were destroyed moved to Williamsburg and became loyal members of the Satmar sect during this time. Because of America’s separation of church and state, Teitelbaum was better able to establish the Satmar sect as an independent community with its own network of business and social institutions than he could in Hungary.
Although there were other Hasidic sects establishing themselves in Brooklyn, such as the Bobover Hasidim in Borough Park or the Lubavitch in Crown Heights, the Satmar chose Williamsburg because they saw it as a place separate from the material and cultural distractions of middle-class Jewish life because it wasn’t already a Jewish neighborhood. In the 1960s and 1970s the Satmar sect learned from the anti-poverty organizing of their Puerto Rican and Black neighbors and fought for public housing construction in Williamsburg, and all three groups mounted common opposition to environmental threats in the area, such as a project that would have installed a 15-story incinerator in the neighborhood.
1970s to Now - Beyond Williamsburg
Due to continued population growth and the challenges associated with living in a crowded city, the Satmar sect began constructing Kiryas Joel, a new all-Hasidic village in upstate New York. After Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum’s successor Moshe died in 2006, a divide in the sect occurred when both his sons wanted to lead the Satmars. Now, Aaron Teitelbaum leads the Satmars of Kiryas Joel, and his brother Zalman Teitelbaum leads the Satmars of Williamsburg. Kiryas Joel’s population is now over 25,000, and is estimated to become a city of 100,000 by 2040.
Satmar is one of the largest Hasidic sects with over 100,000 followers worldwide. While New York is still the home of the majority of its followers, others live in Los Angeles, Montreal, Antwerp, London, Buenos Aires, and Jerusalem.
Social Norms and Beliefs
One of the fundamental beliefs that distinguishes the Satmar sect is their opposition to the state of Israel. They believe that the Jewish people were not meant to return to Israel through exertion of physical force, but were instead meant to wait for divine intervention and messianic destiny. Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum explained “even if the members of the Knesset [Israeli parliament] were righteous and holy, it is a terrible and awful criminal iniquity to seize redemption and rule before the time has come.”
Another key tenet of Satmar beliefs is a rejection of modernity and a preservation of three things: names, language, and clothing. As leading 19th century Austro-Hungarian Rabbi Moses Sofer dictated, “all that is new is forbidden by the Torah.” This belief has continued to govern the Satmar community and other Hungarian Orthodox sects. In modern day, technically the use of TVs, computers, and other technology is discouraged, but allowances are made in order to facilitate daily life and communication. Use of the internet is heavily restricted. An essential part of this rejection of modernity is the use of Yiddish as a primary language and the wearing of clothing that honor attire worn by their ancestors and also serves to separate and distinguish followers from the rest of the world.
Religious education is a top priority for the group, and the community runs its own schools known as yeshivas. Some who have left the community have alleged that the yeshivas teach minimal, if any, secular curriculum such as courses in English or math leading to graduates unprepared to function in the economy at a basic level. Community advocates dispute this fact, arguing that study of the Talmud, a central text of Judaism, provides all the necessary training for young people’s growth.
Gender Roles and Marriage Customs
The distinctions in education practices for Satmar girls and boys is representative of broader gendered assumptions for men and women in the community. Satmar boys engage in extensive study of Talmudic and Hasidic literature, while girls receive an education more focused on Jewish laws and Hasidic traditions. Girls receive more secular education in English, social studies, and sciences, as they are expected to obtain paid employment to help out their families financially and save for their own wedding and future families. However, the pursuit of higher education for women is discouraged, as it might interfere with their ability to have and nurture a large family.
Adult Satmar women often work, though they primarily take on roles with circumscribed responsibilities like secretary, shopkeeper, or yeshiva teacher. After marriage, many men go into full time study of the Talmud at a kollel (an institute for advanced study of the Torah and other religious literature reserved for married men), for a few years. As the couple matures and has their own family, strong emphasis is placed on the man supporting his family and community institutions.
Women are required to wear shirts with high necklines and long sleeves, as well as full length skirts and full, opaque stockings. After marriage, women shave their heads and wear a wig, called a sheitel, as it is considered improper for married women to have their hair seen by others. In general, modesty is the commanding principle of female life, and mixed social events, coeducation, or performing in front of men is prohibited.
Satmar marriages are usually arranged when women are between the ages of 18-22. Economic prosperity and social standing of the parents are the main factors taken into consideration in arranging a suitable marriage. Children of famous Satmar lineages, children of famous scholars and authors, or children of rabbis or institutional leaders are the most sought-after partners.
At the wedding celebration, men and women celebrate separately with the bride and groom, and the two receptions are held simultaneously. The bride and groom are separated from the engagement until the wedding and are reunited in a ceremony in which the groom puts a veil over the bride’s face, called the bedeken. Then, the actual ceremony takes place under a chuppah, a canopy over the couple. At the end of the wedding, family members or respected individuals come to dance a “mitzvah tantz” with the bride, a dance in which they hold one end of a long cord, and the bride holds the other end.
In The Wanderers, we meet Esther and Schmuli mid-celebration, dancing separately. Then, we cut to them after their wedding. It is the audience’s first introduction not just to the couple, but to their world and culture. It immediately welcomes us to recognize the similarities shared by cultures, like wedding celebrations, and adjust to the distinct differences that are integral to the plot as the story unfolds.
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