Book Review | Waiting for the Messiah in Williamsburg

satmar hasidim, cover photo

A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg
By Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper
Yale University Press, 408 pp., $30

How did the Satmar Hasidim come to dominate the Brooklyn neighborhood known as Williamsburg? And why there? In this meticulously researched new book, Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper offer a revealing and nuanced portrait of the place where the Satmars, who are today the largest American-based Hasidic group, reconstituted themselves after the Holocaust.

From a small “surviving remnant,” as these Holocaust refugees called themselves, they reimagined Williamsburg as a staging area where they would renew and fortify themselves while preparing for the coming of the Messiah.

Founded by Yoelish Teitelbaum in the city of Satu Mare, located in what was then known as the Hungarian “Unterland,” in the years following World War I, Satmar Hasidism was an outgrowth of the more-famous Sigheter dynasty, into which Teitelbaum had been born as the youngest son with few prospects. After the Holocaust, the remaining community found itself having to relocate to a place that it and many other Hasidic groups had resisted for years—America, the land of promise to many, but to them a trefene medina, an unholy place where Jews might survive but where they were certain Judaism would not.

The authors of this elegantly written book explain how the group ended up making its new home in a “neighborhood named in honor of Jonathan Williams, a grandnephew of Benjamin Franklin who first surveyed its territory in the early 1800s, with streets named after members of the Second Continental Congress” and turned it into their own “Jerusalem of America.” There, they developed a way of life unimaginable to those earlier Puritans, who also had hoped to find a place to worship as they pleased because their home in Europe proved inhospitable to them.

They remained separated by what they believed was their Hasidic wall of virtues.

Teitelbaum rejected Zionism, which some considered salvation, as being instead a heretical creation by unbelievers and Jewish rebels. He blamed it for the Holocaust, which he argued was God’s retribution for the sin that the Zionists had placed on the heads of Jewry. Leaving Israel—where he had found safety but no success in rebuilding his movement after Zionist agents helped him escape from Europe—he ended up in Brooklyn, a place he called a province in the “kingdom of grace,” which he now claimed America had become. There, he began to reconstruct his following and wait for the Messiah to bring the redemption and a return to the Holy Land, but only when God saw fit.

Although he believed he could adapt to America without changing the traditional ways that he championed—and although he would do so by creating a cultural “fortress” nonetheless, as Deutsch and Casper demonstrate beautifully, Satmar Hasidim did in fact change. They learned to make use of government help to sustain their way of life, managing, for example, to get “Hasidim—but not other Jews—added to an official list of ‘disadvantaged minority groups’ that were eligible for federal assistance programs.” They learned to work with other local ethnic groups politically, even as they stayed separate from them culturally.

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While other American Jews moved out of inner-city places such as Williamsburg in the 1960s and 1970s and “became white folks,” as one anthropologist put it, Satmar Hasidim at first rejected key socioeconomic markers associated with whiteness that other Jews had attained—higher education, higher incomes, professionalization, small families, migration to the suburbs. Instead, they had large families, no college, poverty and little if any professionalization. Unlike other Jews, Satmar Hasidim moved into public housing and signed up for welfare. In a wonderful reference, the authors attest to this by quoting the rapper Jay-Z, who, in his memoir Decoded, describes growing up in the housing projects near Williamsburg where there were “strictly blacks and Puerto Ricans, maybe some Dominicans, rough Arabs…[and] pockets of Hasidim.”

For the Satmar Hasidim, Williamsburg at the time was perfect for their needs. They did not want to assimilate to the America around them as their “white” Jewish brothers and sisters had. Living in “pockets” surrounded by inner-city minorities, they believed there was no risk that their members would want to become like the neighbors (even if they learned from them to defend their turf and get government help). They remained separated by what they believed was their Hasidic wall of virtues, their customs, their Yiddish language and their sense of community.

They were correct, at least for a while. What they did not count on was the gentrification of the area, or the things “in the air” that got past those walls. As Williamsburg attracted creative types and others drawn to its low rents, large lofts, proximity to Manhattan, public transport and (though the authors don’t mention it) the safety of the streets in the nearby Hasidic enclave, it absorbed the culture these “artists,” as the Hasidim called them, carried with them. Along with the cultural threat, the newcomers also offered opportunity—for commercial and residential real estate development. Hasidim who had purchased many of those properties for their own residential expansion were able to take advantage of rising real estate values; although the higher prices made the neighborhood expansion of Hasidic housing too expensive, as they had for other minority groups, they also made many Hasidic landlords and developers quite wealthy. The Satmars had to decide between this substantial new income stream and the dangers of letting a foreign culture infiltrate the literal walls of their self-imposed ghettos. Meanwhile, their other sources of income, the diamond business and the apparel trade, were in decline and moving elsewhere.

This admirable book details each step in these and other events that shaped Satmar life in Williamsburg, carefully describing the ambivalence these changes brought about. Of course, the effort to remain unchanged—an ideological hope—was always doomed. Change, like time and tide, is unstoppable. What gentrification did not bring, and what the Satmar managed to hold at arm’s length—through efforts to keep out television and movies, create their own press, insist on private education and use Yiddish as the lingua franca—ultimately crept in anyway as a result of the internet, smartphones and the Satmars’ need to support their way of life and growing families.

Moreover, the split in the Satmar world over succession (which I wrote about in my book Who Will Lead Us?) has also had a profound impact, creating two parallel and separate sects that follow two rival Satmar leaders. The ongoing spread of Satmars to build new communities in other places has likewise been transformative. Finally, the last year of the pandemic brought a flood of changes in everything from community institutions and collective life to the authority structures within the Hasidic world.

This book is a marvelous way to catch up on what the Satmar Hasidim created in Williamsburg and to better comprehend what is likely to come in the days ahead. There are many fine insights here, intelligent analyses and well-crafted descriptions. The book shows us “how far Hasidic Williamsburg had come from its early days,” as the authors say in their conclusion. While they were waiting for the Messiah, these seekers of a fortress in Brooklyn became increasingly changed. If the Messiah ever gets to Brooklyn, who knows whether he will recognize them after all.

Samuel Heilman is emeritus professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). His many books include Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America. 

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