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Escape From the Holy Shtetl

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Transferring her daughter to her ex-husband.  

“I wanted to make our marriage something special. But in KJ, everything is tradition. You walk in the footsteps of your parents. So we never solved a problem between us. Yoely called his mother.”

Eventually, Gitty pushed back. “I started slow. I really believed if I broke the rules, G-d would punish me. I wore stockings without seams up the back, then a denim skirt. In KJ, what really matters is what people say. Do something wrong, everyone is talking about it. That’s how they keep you in line. When Yoely heard someone saw me with my hair showing, he said, ‘You’re making me look bad, you’re making my whole family look bad.’ ”

The critical battleground in the War Between the Grunwalds would prove to be niddah, or “separation,” i.e., when the menstruating female is considered “impure” and kept apart from her husband. “It isn’t just your period,” Gitty says. After a woman stops bleeding, she has to wear white underwear for seven days, checking constantly to see if there’s any discharge. Should spotting occur, the woman takes her underwear to a special rabbi who examines the color, shape, and density of the stain. It is he who divines when it is safe for the woman to immerse herself in the mikvah (ritual bath) and be reunited with her husband.

“Great, huh? Some old rabbi looking at your panties with a magnifying glass?” Gitty asks. “This was so embarrassing to me. In KJ, everything is about sex—this idea of sex made up by men from 300 years ago.”

“I wouldn’t do it anymore. I stopped counting, wore black underwear. I walked around the house in shorts, because when you’re impure, your husband can’t touch you or even look at your arm. Yoely would hide his eyes and start crying, ‘Put on your turban, please put on your turban.’ ”

Asked if she was torturing Yoely by showing him her body, Gitty says, “Maybe. But he was torturing me. He saw me hug my grandfather and started yelling how it was a sexual hug. We tortured each other.”

Yoely made some compromises. He miscalculated, however, when he wired his home with Internet access. “He thought, If I give her this, then she’ll shut up and be satisfied,” Gitty says.

“Once I read blogs from people who had gotten out of places like KJ, there was no turning back. Yoely begged me to stay. It is humiliating for a Satmar man to have his wife leave him. But it was too late,” says Gitty, who would start her own blog, 1 Beautiful Stranger, where she wrote about her misplaced life in Kiryas Joel.

It is another mid-spring Friday afternoon in Kiryas Joel. Gitty drove up hoping to see Esther Miriam, but when she arrived, Yoely had changed the plan. Now if Gitty wanted to see Esther Miriam before Shabbos, she would have to ask, in writing, by Wednesday. “He can’t say that … on Friday!” Gitty fumed.

Gitty called Yoely at the car dealership, but he wouldn’t come to the phone. Gitty knew the game. Yoely would stall her until the Shabbos siren, and then there would be nothing she could do.

Gitty said it would be interesting to see the men go to Friday-night services, so a couple of hours later we were parked across from the huge, fortresslike building that serves as KJ’s main shul. Not wishing to be seen, Gitty secreted herself under a jacket in the passenger seat, peeking out to offer an often irreverent Who’s Who on the passing worshippers.

On Friday nights in Jerusalem, the black hats surge dancing toward the Western Wall. In KJ, the procession is a quieter, more stately affair. With the full moon rising above the roof of the shul, grandfathers came accompanied by sons, who in turn brought their sons, some as young as 3 and 4, peyos dangling from the sides of their heads. As I watched the generations climb the synagogue’s heavy stone steps, it was easy to think this was what the Baal Shem Tov meant when he compared his followers to a vast and deathless tree with every Jew “a limb of the Divine Presence.”

Then, with a start, Gitty ducked down below the dashboard. “Shit. It’s Aaron Teitelbaum.”

And there he was, no more than twenty feet away: the rebbe and spiritual leader of Kiryas Joel. In a full-length black satin overcoat, walking with a silver-handled cane, the 60-year-old Teitelbaum was accompanied by a dozen followers, several sporting shtreimels, the layer-cake-size sable-fur hats often worn by Satmar men.

“Know how much they cost, those shtreimels?” Gitty spat. “Five thousand dollars … maybe $6,000. Families go bankrupt buying those hats.”


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