By Dr. Mahmoud Sadri
On Sunday June 9, 2013 a massive rally organized by The Satmar, a Chassidic Jewish community, brought more than 20.000 believers to the Federal Plaza in New York City. For me, the colorful gathering invoked distant fond memories: there they were, my erstwhile neighbors, in their 17th century garbs, listening to speeches in Yiddish that denounced the recently reinvigorated attempts of the Israeli military to draft their young Yeshiva students. The Satmar’s “conscientious objector’s” defiance of the Israeli military notwithstanding, I was struck by the way they were portrayed by most of the media: as “ultra- Orthodox”. The Satmar, however, identify themselves as Chassidic, or Orthodox (just look at their placards). Should we not respect their right of self-designation? What distinguishes the Satmar from other Orthodox Jews (those represented by the Rabbinical Council of America, for example), is not religious extremism but political passivism.
See related report by the Yeshiva World News
But let me share with you my personal memories of this community and the reason I have a soft spot for the Satmar. As a Muslim Iranian, I arrived in New York to complete my graduate studies in 1978. After a few months, I found myself in a Satmar Chassidic neighborhood (on Ditmas Avenue, Brooklyn). I spent the next 6 years there. Needless to say, we (I and my roommate and twin brother) never became “buddies” with the Satmar. Nevertheless, mutual trust slowly grew between us. We gradually assumed the voluntary role of the “Shabbath Goy” for the community. The term designates an empathetic outsider who helps Jews with tasks forbidden to them during the Sabbath. These tasks included rolling up the metal screen of a store-front prayer hall on Saturdays, which would be considered “work” and, therefore, forbidden to the Orthodox Jews. On other occasions, we rendered favors such as plugging in an accidentally unplugged refrigerator, which would also be considered work, as it is decreed an equivalent of “kindling fire”. The Satmar (like the rest of the Orthodox Jews) take these prohibitions very seriously and in the absence of a friendly outsider, they would face minor conundrums and small disasters such as a slowly melting freezer for hours on end. Pleasant talks with our grocer, who looked like a character straight out of one of Issac Bashevis Singer’s tales, were another part of living with the Satmar. I remember once the smiling soft spoken gentleman advised us: “Don’t go back to Iran. This Ayatollah Khomeini of yours is very much like our Rabbi Schneerson (the leader of the Lubavitch, a rival Chassidic sect); it is either his way or highway!” A year after we moved to that quiet lower middle class Brooklyn neighborhood, my late mother came from Iran to stay with us for a few months. She, too, discovered the joys of shopping in that dank cavernous grocery store and other businesses along the leafy street. In these places she was delighted to engage in ‘haggling’ with the shopkeepers, a skill forgotten elsewhere in New York.
Curious to learn more about the Satmar, I happened across Amos Oz’s superb collection of interviews: “In the Land of Israel”. The book provides an invaluable glimpse into the temperament and political theology of this ignored and often misunderstood Jewish sect. It features an interview with an implacable Satmar Jew, peppered by Oz’s impassioned questions.
The news of the Satmar’s rare recent protest reminded me of the debt of gratitude I owe them for tolerating utter strangers among themselves all those decades ago. I am glad I was able to perform little services to return for their hospitality. I wish them well, and I pray for greater understanding and tolerance of this gentle Orthodox, (not “ultra-Orthodox”) community of believers.
About the author: Mahmoud Sadri is a Professor of Sociology; he is an Affiliated Professor of Women's Studies at Texas Women's University. Dr. Sadri has a doctorate in sociology from New York's New School for Social Research.
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