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Escape From the Holy Shtetl

Gitty Grunwald fled the pious world of her mother to return to the secular city of her grandparents. There’s only one problem: The Satmars kept her daughter. A family saga of four generations of American Jews.


Gitty and Esther Miriam eating a meal—tuna salad and toast—at Gitty's mother's house.   

A more typical American scene would be hard to imagine: a young mother and her daughter in Wal-Mart. Yet as she pushed the shopping cart with the 4-year-old Esther Miriam sitting, princesslike, in the child’s seat, Sterna Gittel Grunwald (call her Gitty), her five-one frame nicely defined in snug black jeans and white cotton shirt, kept an eye out for spies.

The Satmar Hasidim from Kiryas Joel, the Catskill village where the now-23-year-old Gitty grew up, only came to Wal-Mart for the big sales. There was something about the store’s dizzying display of cheesy American choice that made the townspeople nervous, Gitty thought. But still, in KJ, you could never be too paranoid.

Once, when Esther Miriam was a baby, Gitty took her for a walk. “A guy looked into the carriage,” Gitty recalls. “He said how cute Esther Miriam was and went on his way.

“It was nice. But then these three minivans come tearing down the street. Hasids jump out and surround me, screaming, ‘Who was that guy? What did he want?’ ”

It was the Vaad Hatznius, Kiryas Joel’s “moral police,” whom Gitty refers to as “those stupid Talibans.” Mostly, the Vaads write down the license plates of people who drive on Shabbos and note which women enter the Landau supermarket with their legs insufficiently covered. But if someone ratted on you, the Vaads might come to your house to see if you were watching porn on that DVD hidden under the bed. In Kiryas Joel, Gitty says, they think there’s no reason to have a DVD except to watch porn.

“They call it the holy shtetl,” Gitty said, rolling her matchless pale-green eyes as she talks about her former hometown, where the streets are named for famous rabbis and European Hasidic settlements. When KJ was founded in 1977 by the Satmar grand rebbe Joel Teitelbaum—Kiryas Joel means Joel’s Village in Yiddish—holiness was the goal. Like Moses before him, Rebbe Teitelbaum had led the Satmars from the shadow of Auschwitz to the Williamsburg promised land, where they thrived, becoming the largest Hasidic sect in the world.

But Williamsburg could be noisy and cruel, with the thrum of the BQE and Puerto Ricans on the street. Kiryas Joel, an incorporated village within the town of Monroe 50 miles up the Thruway, would be a sanctuary. In Kiryas Joel, a Jew could live as he did in eighteenth-century Europe, where the great sage the Baal Shem Tov first articulated the mystic, ecstatic path to G-d that would evolve into modern-day Hasidism. Here, a scholar could think of nothing but Torah amid the bounty of Creation.

Only 3 when her mother, Deborah, a former hippie and the child of secular New York Jews, first came to KJ as a bal tshuva, or Jew returning to orthodoxy, Gitty would reach her late teens before she realized she was living in perhaps the most religiously conservative community in America. “In my parents’ house, there’s no TV, no radio, no newspapers not in Yiddish, no Internet,” Gitty says. “We weren’t supposed to pay any attention to the outside world.” Indeed, even today, a year and a half after fleeing KJ, in one short conversation, Gitty evidenced unfamiliarity with Che Guevara, Michael Jordan, Mike Tyson, Dolly Parton, and Keith Richards.

It was only after her arranged marriage, at age 17, to Joel—nicknamed Yoely—Grunwald, another Kiryas Joel teenager, who would become Esther Miriam’s father, that Gitty knew “I couldn’t live in KJ anymore, that I didn’t want to be one of those women who pop out babies every eighteen months and think whatever their husbands tell them to … When Esther Miriam was born, that raised the stakes, because now there were two of us. Two KJ girls.”

In early 2007, Gitty fled Kiryas Joel for good, taking Esther Miriam with her. At first, they lived in the relatively relaxed frum (Orthodox) community of Monsey, New York, then moved to Brooklyn. “It was just the two of us. I loved it,” Gitty says. Then in January of this year, as Esther Miriam was walked with her class to a Flatbush playground, she was taken, says Gitty, who believes her husband was behind the act.

“Some KJ guys snatched her off the street. Esther Miriam said they were wearing masks. All she remembers was crying, crying so hard,” Gitty says, calling it the worst day of her life. “When they told me what happened, I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was being suffocated. I still do.”

Since then, Esther Miriam has been in KJ, at times in the house of Yoely’s parents, as Gitty works through the courts, both secular and rabbinical, to try to regain custody of her daughter. For the time being, Gitty says, “Yoely calls the shots, when I can see my daughter and where.” That’s why Gitty was nervous taking Esther Miriam to Wal-Mart. Yoely had decreed the store off-limits.


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