December 3, 2008, Wednesday
Villa la Fonte, Conference Room
David Myers, Department of History, UCLA
- An American Shtetl: Politics and Piety in Kiryas Joel, New York
This presentation will discuss the birth and rise of Kiryas Joel, New York, a legally recognized municipality in upstate New York comprised almost entirely of Satmar Hasidic Jews.
The rise of the community over the past 35 years has occasioned much controversy, especially regarding the vaunted separation of church and state that stands at the heart of the American constitutional system.
In particular, the attempt to create a state-sponsored public school district in Kiryas Joel prompted nearly fifteen years of litigation that made its way to the United States Supreme Court.
How and why does the American political system tolerate Kiryas Joel? Could such a community arise in today’s Europe? And what does Kiryas Joel teach us about the idea of the secular at this point in history? These questions stand at the core of the presentation.
Named after the Hungarian-born Satmar Grand Rabbi, Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979), Kiryas Joel (Village of Joel) has a degree of homogeneity that few, if any, Jewish communities in the Diaspora ever possessed.
Rabbi Teitelbaum’s impulse in encouraging supporters to buy land in upstate New York was to leave behind the seductions and allures of urban life in Brooklyn, to which the remnants of the Satmar community moved after the Holocaust.
And yet, in creating this distinctive ethnic enclave, the community has displayed a degree of political sagacity and a willingness to engage state authorities that belie its insularity.
In fact, this sagacity and willingness can be traced back to the community’s early years in Romania (formerly Hungary), when the Satmars foreswore contact with fellow Jews (and especially Zionists), but were willing to engage gentile political authorities.
Historians remind us that traditionalist, and even separatist, religious groups such as the Satmar Hasidim are “children of the Enlightenment” no less than the avowedly secular.
The Satmar’s utilization of modern political, rhetorical, and communications methods to create an insular community suggests a willing embrace of the tools of the surrounding milieu.
At what point, does the tactical employment of such tools expose the group to values and principles that are seen as “foreign?” At what point do those values and principles come to define the community?
In the midst of substantial critiques of the entire notion of secularization, Kiryas Joel offers an interesting, rich, and counterintuitive complication to the story, affirming, it would seem, the way in which the secular and religious are inextricably entwined.