Thursday, July 24, 2008

Escape from Satmar

New York Magazine has an article, Escape From the Holy Shtetl, about a woman who abandoned the Satmar community of Kiryas Joel. It is an interesting counter-kiruv story; Gitty Grunwald grew up in Kiryas Joel, the daughter of a baalas teshuva, who rejected the lifestyle of her secular parents. Gitty, in turn, turned her back on her mother and now embraces the secular values of her grandparents, thus completing the circle.

I find myself in difficult position in regards to this article. This was an excellent piece of journalism and it is not as if I disagree with the essential points that it was trying to make. I oppose Satmar and its insular vision of Judaism. I agree with Rabbi Moshe Tendler that they are not in fact Jews, but members of their own religion. This article is an exhibition on why closing people off from the world does not work and can backfire and should be required reading for all Haredi parents and educators. With all this being said, I still found the article problematic in that the author, Mark Jacobson, failed to handle his source material in a critical manner.

To Jacobson’s credit, he did not write a polemic against Satmar, Haredim or Orthodox Jewry; he could have written a much more polemical piece. That being said, he is too willing to go along with Gitty’s narrative and fails to ask the sort of tough questions that a journalist should. For example, a major focus of the article is on Gitty’s struggle to gain custodial rights over her daughter, who remains in Kiryas Joel with Gitty’s ex-husband. Early in the article we are told how Gitty’s daughter was snatched from her by masked men soon after she left Kiryas Joel. Toward the end of the article, though, it is mentioned in passing that Gitty failed a drug test and because of this failed, in a secular court, to win back her daughter. This fact is pushed aside as part of the husband’s “plan” to keep control over his daughter.

For some strange reason, Jacobson remains on Gitty’s side despite the fact that she is a confirmed drug user. Her history of drug use should have brought down the very foundation of her case. No one “robbed” her of her daughter. Religious or non-religious, since her ex-husband is not a known drug user he should have custody over his daughter. For that matter those who snatched the daughter, in the first place, were justified; they were taking a girl away from a mother who used drugs. They did a good thing, which benefited both the girl and society.

That Gitty has used drugs is not allowed to interfere with the important storyline here, that Gitty is a brave soul, who freed herself from an oppressive society that demanded total obedience to a group of bearded old men and did not allow her to think for herself. The article is a bit vague on what Gitty has actually accomplished with her new found intellectual freedom. She now wears jeans and knows that Billie Holiday was a woman.

To be fair to Jacobson, the problems we are dealing with here are inherent in the very nature of human interest stories. He wrote about Gitty and her point of view and, for what it is worth, he has given us an insightful portrayal into the mindset of someone leaving Haredi Judaism. It would be nice, though, if he could, as a balancing act, do a story on Gitty’s baalas teshuva mother and why she joined Satmar. It might be beneficial to New York’s readership to get the other side of the story.


Anonymous said...

Rabbi Moshe Tendler said that Satmar aren't Jews?! That's a new one. I'll assume you're exaggerating, or that he was exaggerating. He can disagree with the way they interpret Halacha and how they apply Jewish ideals, but saying that they're not Jews, or even that what they're practicing is not Judaism is fanatical.

Izgad said...

To the best of my understanding, Rabbi Tendler acknowledges that Satmar Chasidim are Jewish according to halacha since, by and large, they have Jewish mothers. That being said he sees them as practitioners of a different religion. Rabbi Tendler is a strong Zionist, who believes that the modern State of Israel is an important part of the ongoing story of the Jewish people. Since Satmar Chasidim do not recognize the State of Israel and even work against it, Rabbi Tendler sees them as having broken away from the Jewish people to form their own group. Rabbi Tendler has been the victim of acts of vandalism committed, so it would seem, by Satmar Chasidim; he views these actions as hate crimes and has reported them as such to the police.

Shlomy said...

Interesting blog.
obviously as a Satmar Chossid I totally disagree with you, I also NEVER heard that Rabbi Tendler ever said that. and if he did, Well he is Wrong! (we can discuss this for hours and hours and still not finish.

I would like to point out that, you make a very good point about not mentioning much about the drug use which is a main point in the child custody battle.

You make A very good point that it would have been nice to see a story of why her Mother, a child from 2 secular hipsters would join such a terrible "cult" like the Ultra Satmars.

However, back to Gitty, the story makes an interesting read, and very hurtful when someone goes of the "Derech", However this is a story of poor confused girl living in a broken home, a BT mother, divorced parents, step siblings, etc etc, this has nothing to do with the "Va'ad Hatznius" or the way we live (happily) it's simply about a poor girl who had so many confusing issues in her life.