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Escape From the Holy Shtetl

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Man entering the synagogue in Kiryas Joel.   

It was assumed that Aaron, oldest son of the Satmar rebbe Moses Teitelbaum, would become the group’s leader. In 1999, however, the elder Teitelbaum split the realm between Aaron and his younger brother, Zalmen. In the biblical-style birthright schism that followed—which many said was more about real-estate money and power than religious piety—Zalmen wound up with Williamsburg, the crown jewel, leaving Kiryas Joel to Aaron.

Gitty peered through the yellowed glass of the shul windows. Men were starting to pray in there, their heads lurching back and forth, looking like silhouettes in their black coats. “I envy them sometimes,” Gitty said. “They never have to make another decision in their whole lives.”

After she left Kiryas Joel, Gitty fell in with the crowd of Hasidic “dropouts” and “rebels,” people who, like her, had fled places like Kiryas Joel or been kicked out. “In KJ, I was a freak,” Gitty says. “The rebels told me I was cool. I felt like I’d just gotten out of prison. If there was a party that night, I might think about going.”

This was the beginning of the wild times, making the rounds of pads in Monsey and the Lower East Side, hanging out with artists, people trying to make something beautiful, not ugly. When Esther Miriam was snatched, Gitty became a scene celebrity. Everyone knew the story of Gitty and her baby.

In the end, however, Gitty decided the scene had too much “damage” for her. Here were these brilliant, ruined people, floating from place to place, homeless, stoned out of their minds half the time. Last Purim, one of the rebels OD’d on coke and ground-up Xanax, a typical ex-Hasid drug concoction. The rebels were stuck between two worlds, Gitty thought, a dangerous place to be.

“First I loved it, then it scared me, now it makes me sad,” said Gitty one early spring afternoon, standing on the edge of a pond near South Fallsburg, not far from the now-shuttered Pines Hotel, once a Borscht Belt standby. The rebels had gotten hold of a country campsite, a wild A-frame house heated only by a wooden stove. Everyone was hanging out, some on acid, playing Hasidic songs, wrapping each other in prayer shawls, shouting praises of the Baal Shem Tov, and screaming they were “the new hippies.”

There was a fine, doomed romance in the moment, but Gitty was unimpressed. Watching stoned rebels paddle across the half-frozen lake, she said, “Don’t they know if they fall in they’ll freeze to death?”

Driving back that night, Gitty asked me my impressions of KJ. It was a vexing question because how can you really know about a place without living there? Still, we were dealing with impressions, and even if the Satmars were famous for their chesed, or charity, KJ did not strike this traveler as a very haymishe place. On Lee Avenue in Williamsburg it was no big deal to get a smile and a hearty “zeit gezunt” from a shtreimel-wearing Satmar. These were city people, Americans; they lived in the world. In the KJ boondocks, among these Hebrew hillbillies and their fundamentalist idea of chosen-peopleness, ask someone “Which way to Route 17?” and they’d often just turn their backs on you. The message was clear: Here, you are Other.

The results of most beth din arbitrations are accepted in civil court, but judgments in child-custody cases are not binding. What it comes down to, one matrimonial lawyer says, is “the interpretation of the term ‘in the best interests of the child.’ In rabbinical court, that means in best spiritual interests of the child.” Such was the case in her hearing, contends Gitty. “They told me if I gave Yoely a get, a Jewish divorce, they’d help me get custody, but it was all lies. They said Esther Miriam should stay with my ex until I settled down. I thought I had settled down. I had an apartment, a job. For them, that meant I had to be religious again.”

Gitty’s subsequent civil-custody case did not begin more auspiciously. Attired in a fanny-hugging skirt, spike-heel boots, hair slicked down like a post-punk flapper, Gitty was optimistic as she entered the Orange County courthouse in Goshen for her first hearing. These hopes were soon dashed, however, when Yoely’s lawyer demanded Gitty take an immediate “hair follicle” drug test.

A hair-follicle test can detect drug use over several months. Obviously, this was Yoely’s plan from the start, Gitty said. He knew about the rebels, that Gitty had hung out with them. Gitty’s lawyer, Daniel Schwartz, offered his client only cold comfort. “You fail that test, and you can kiss custody good-bye,” he told her. “You’re sunk.”


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