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Escape From the Holy Shtetl

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On the bus from Brooklyn to Kiryas Joel (men and women are separated by a curtain).   

Now, however, with their real-estate wealth, bloc-voting political power, and sheer numbers, the Hasidic expansion suggests a question. With the fracture of the old-time-liberal, Democratic-voting, Chinese-food-eating, Alfred Kazin–Norman Mailer–Woody Allen–style intellectual, pre-Seinfeld New York Jew—you don’t really suppose Mike Bloomberg falls in the same category as Ed Koch or Abe Beame, do you?—could the black hats be the new face of the tribe?

The new New York Jew?

“Over my dead body!” declares Matty Feinman, who wonders if, for all their endless Halacha, the people in Kiryas Joel are even Jews at all, much less from New York. “They’re a cult! They don’t believe in science. They hate art. They hate literature. They don’t pay taxes. For me, to be a Jew is to be curious, compassionate with others. These guys only care about themselves.”

This was something Matty knew from “personal experience.” The Feinmans have three children. Their son is openly gay. The Feinmans are very proud of him. One of their daughters adopted two children of color. The Feinmans love the kids to death. Their other daughter, Gitty’s mother, the former Deborah Feinman, joined the Hasidic movement. This has been no end of trouble.

“Deborah is the last person I thought would get involved in this,” says Carol Feinman. “She had such an artistic spirit … but she’s someone who needs structure. When she first went with the Hasidim, I thought, well, at least they’re Jewish.”

Things went off the track when Deborah brought home Chaim Kalfa, the Lubavitcher who would become Gitty’s father.

“A real beauty, that one. Once, he came in, walked right to the refrigerator, and started throwing things out. I said, ‘What are doing? I just bought that.’ They said it wasn’t kosher. Matty had painted this picture of his friend, a black man, in an undershirt. They wanted us to turn the picture to the wall, that it wasn’t modest. Matty said, ‘Wait a minute, that’s my friend!’ ”

Matty Feinman picks up the story: “One night, Chaim says to meet him at Columbus Circle so we can settle this once and for all. I went on the subway with a chinning bar stuck into my pants. The cops had to come. The guy was crazy. Violent. Abusive. Last I heard, he was in Israel riding a donkey, yelling about Rebbe Schneerson being Jesus Christ.”

Following the dissolution of her marriage to Chaim, Deborah left the Lubavitchers, taking Gitty and her two siblings to join the austere Satmars in Kiryas Joel, where she married Avrum Schwartz and had three more children.

While thankful the Satmars took Deborah in, Matty saw little improvement. “The Lubavitchers, they have a joy about them. The Satmars are nuts. They tell you the State of Israel shouldn’t exist because the Messiah hasn’t come yet, that the Holocaust was God’s way of punishing Jews for Zionism. It makes you sick.”

Matty and Carol visited their grandchildren in KJ, but it was always an unsettling experience. “Once I got up in the night and turned on the light. I forgot it was Shabbos,” says Carol. “They’re yelling, ‘You turned on the light!’ ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘I’ll turn it off.’ ‘No! Don’t turn it off!’ they screamed. I had to go outside in the dead of winter to flag down one of the cops they hire to do things on Shabbos.”

Carol and Matty were eventually banned from Deborah’s house. On one of their last visits, Matty saw one of Gitty’s young stepbrothers regarding him warily. “The kid says, ‘Dis is a Yid?’ I felt like screaming, ‘Yeah, for 70 goddamn years!’ But it wouldn’t have done any good.”

Gitty’s situation with Esther Miriam has brought back much of Matty’s rage. “They want such big families, but their way of being a Jew has ripped this family apart,” he says. “Deborah has gotten the worst of it.” In the past few years, Gitty’s brother and sister—Chaim’s other two children—have also left KJ. “She’s lost three children because of this.” Now the pain had extended to another generation.

Carol and Matty sigh. No one really wants to go over these sad memories again. Carol Feinman has one last thing to say.

“There was this one Hanukkah,” she says evenly. “We were going to have a party and invited Deborah. I didn’t think she’d come, but she sounded excited about it. I was really hopeful. Then she calls back with a lot of questions about who’s going to be there, if there were going to be any non-Jews. I said, ‘Probably.’ She comes, and everyone is happy to see her … but at dinner, she doesn’t join us at the table. She’s got her face to the wall, and she’s praying. This is what the Satmar rebbe told her to do if she had to sit down with non-Jews: Face the wall and pray.


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