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Hats On, Gloves Off

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The chatter on Lee Avenue, where the Satmar women in head scarves and long spring coats load up on veal at the Satmar Meat Market, is of Aaron’s return and Zalmen’s stand. Next week, Aaron will haul in dignitaries from every corner of the Satmar world, from England and Israel, Belgium and Canada, to declare himself the grand rebbe.

The prize is Williamsburg, but if the battle between the brothers Teitelbaum is long and distracting enough, the neighborhood could turn into a poisoned chalice. Aaron is not the only problem: Gilt-edged gentrification presses at every edge. Once Satmar developers could fill suitcases with cash and persuade poor Latino families to vacate their rowhouses. Now Jewish builders struggle to outbid luxury developers for land upon which to put apartments with five and six bedrooms. Procreation may be a Satmar imperative, but it could create a demographic crisis. The average Satmar family has eight children, and to walk into Satmar tenements is to find poorer parents setting up cots in the kitchen and laying down bedding in the bathtub.

Gentrification’s cultural gravity is no less threatening. The Satmars are insistently hermetic. Rabbis proscribe television and the Internet as sin. In recent weeks, Satmar boys, side-locks—known as payes—bouncing as they ran, pasted up the Yiddish wall posters that functioned as breaking-news bulletins on the fate of the grand rebbe.

Schism is not the only threat: Some ultra-ultra-Orthodox confess a love for Notorious B.I.G., Eminem, and Wilco.

Aaron sometimes bows to the imperatives of the modern world. Zalmen, by contrast, is a proud kanoi—a zealot. He would not allow the construction of an eruv in Williamsburg, the wire enclosure that permits mothers and fathers to lift children and push strollers on the Sabbath. Aaron has an eruv in Kiryas Joel. The theological differences between the brothers are thin as a page in the Talmud.

Each brother inveighs against such sins as masturbation and women talking on cell phones in public. Ari Zupnick, a well-to-do importer and Aaron man, insists every Satmar—every one—likes it this way. “No one is interested in modern culture. We have a saying . . . ” he pauses and wags a forefinger in the air. “ ‘Don’t be smarter than your father.’ ”

That’s fine bluster, but in reality, trying to double-lock the door against modernity is a chancy business. What is to be done about the thousands of Satmar men who carry fancy cell phones and BlackBerrys and keep a computer jack in their cars? How to account for the Zalmen supporter who in the midst of talking about how ultra-ultra-Orthodox the Satmars are, confesses a love of Notorious B.I.G., Eminem, and Wilco?

“The artists,” the Satmar term of derision that encompasses hipsters, trustafarians, and even vaguely trendy yuppies, are a fatter apple of temptation than most Satmars acknowledge. Mothers who live near the hipper side of Williamsburg constantly complain about artists canoodling in front of their children.

“My friends who live near Broadway, they talk of the stress,” says Chaya Kurz, an attractive 22-year-old mother of a 10-month-old. She wears the required wig—all married women shave their hair on the wedding night—that proclaims her modesty. “Where we live, in the middle of our neighborhood, it is easy. On the edges, it is harder.”

An air of apprehension is palpable, not least for Zalis who face invasion from all sides. A few fathers described stopping by Zalmen’s modest home on a recent Friday evening. They put questions to their rabbi: What should we do with our teenage girls who peer covertly at these artists? Why do these artists never put curtains on their windows? Can we force them out?

Zalmen, they reported, meditated a moment. “You must close your curtains and pray and remember what it is to be Satmar,” he said. “This is our shtetl, and our walls must go high.”


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