Monday, May 30, 2011

Shame in Skver

Background: As I've spoken about before, my grandfather was a B'aal Teshuvah who became religious sometime in the mid-70s and spent time with several rebbes through the 1980s. This period coincided with his manic-depressive disorder becoming progressively worse, eventually resulting in full-on psychotic episodes. It also coincided with the disintegration of his relationships with nearly every member of his family, including his four children and several sisters. For a long time, my grandmother dutifully went along with his spiritual journey, tolerating one new "mitzvah" after another, including going to several rebbe's tisches with him. Eventually, however, they divorced and his estrangement from the family was complete. Or almost, anyway.

When I was born, this changed, a little. He and my father had always shared something of a bond despite themselves, and in some way I reflected this, too. I've been told that he and I "fell in love" the first time we met when I was an infant (I think). It was about this time that Zayde issued his ultimatum: the only "proper" way for this relationship to work (he was big on things being proper) was for my parents to move to New York and enroll me in a yeshiva.

Given my father's agnostic proclivities and the fact that neither of my parents had any particular interest in religion, this suggestion did not go over well. And, predictably enough, that was the end of any contact between Abbot Yid and Zayde for quite a while.

As a child I was fascinated by my mysterious absent grandfather. In 8th grade (a few years after Zayde's death), I read Potok's The Chosen and it was like a fire had been lit under me. I knew these people. My grandfather had been one of them. It sounds strange, but reading about that world in a book confirmed that it was real for me. I became interested in Orthodox, and especially Hasidic, culture, reading everything I could get my hands on. And I started leaning on the family for details about Zayde's Orthodox life. In particular I wanted to know which Hasidic community he had been a part of. No one seemed to know. Finally one great-aunt suggested it might have been Chabad, which made sense. So for a while Chabad was the target of a lot of my focus and ire. Looking back on it, some of that may have been unfair. While Chabad's got plenty of flaws as an organization, community, and belief system, I have to also acknowledge the contribution its individual members have made in reaching out to Jews across the world (the issue of what strings are attached is my big problem...)

Last year, however, I received a major revelation when I managed to make contact with one of Zayde's old Orthodox buddies, Dr. Jewman. It turns out that he hadn't been a Chabad fellow-traveler. Zayde had had a few rebbes, one of whom was the Rebbe of Skver.

All of which has made the big news coming from Skver over the past week particularly sickening.

Skver is interesting as it is one of the few American Hasidic communities to have created its own shtetl in the mid-50s (while the Satmar Kiryas Yoel sometimes gets more attention, New Square predates it by a good 25 years). So New Square is a kind of fascinating window into a Hasidic group not constrained by urban geography. And as the village is, AFAIK, entirely populated by Skver Hasidim it also provides a glimpse as to what the European shtetls might have looked like. Unfortunately part of that view, as recent events have shown, is the totalitarian nature that living in an enclosed Hasidic world can be. In a town that is controlled by one man, the rebbe, dissent can be a very dicey proposition, ranging from merely ostracism all the way up to, well, this.

Chaim Aron Rottenberg. Father of four. Plumber. Skver Hasid. A man who happened to be praying in the wrong minyan, as determined by the rebbe and the community. A man whose family had been targeted and harassed, their house and car vandalized, their daughter expelled from school.

This family, having committed no crime other than pissing someone off by having the temerity to pray in one building over another, was almost murdered in their sleep a week ago last Sunday. By the live-in butler of the rebbe, no less. The father confronted the thug outside his house and was lit alight. He has suffered burns over 50% of his body and is still in hospital. As he has been recuperating, his character has been slandered in New Square. It took the rebbe almost an entire week to even issue a statement condemning the violence, and even then he wouldn't refer to Rottenberg by name. What, were you talking about someone else who was almost killed for daring to pray somewhere else? How insecure are the great men of Skver that this is the response to someone who decides their services go too long?

It's absolutely crazy that this happened in America in 2011. This kind of insanity seems more appropriate to 19th century Ukraine, though maybe that isn't surprising since David Assaf's Untold Tales of the Hasidim has a whole chapter about the Chernoybler dynasty, of which Skver was an offshoot, vigorously persecuting Breslov Hasidim during the 1800s. One section, recounted by an (admittedly biased) Maskil and relative of Talner [another Chernoybler offshoot] Hasidim in Uman seems particularly instructive:

The Bratslavers had built themselves a separate prayer house in Uman... [A lone Breslov Hasid] was confined in this house of God. He was isolated there almost like a leper; if he ventured outside children would jeer and call out after him: 'Bratslaver dog!' and throw dirt at him. [During the Breslov pilgrimage at Rosh Hashanah] crowds of Uman residents used to surround the prayerhouse... we threw stones and broke windows per the hooligans' code... for so our teachers and parents instructed us. [When the old Hasid died the young men] did not follow his bier as was the custom; just the opposite: we remained standing where we were at the windows and our mouths were full of malicious laughter at his affliction. So great were the hatred and loathing that had been instilled in our hearts.

This was in the 1860s. Different time, different place, same absolute intolerance for anything the rebbes deemed out-of-bounds. If former Skverer Hasid (and blogger formerly known as Hasidic Rebel) Shulem Deen's op-ed in the Forward is any indication, neither my nor Mr. Rottenberg's examples are isolated ones, either. It's mind-boggling, and the fact that my grandfather was associated with this rebbe, that, in some bizarre alternate universe, I could have grown up in this same village, a Hasid of his like my Zayde... well it certainly puts the whole "idealized Hasidic fantasy" I envisioned as a teenager to rest.

There is a silver lining in all this, though. The more I read about Mr. Rottenberg and the more I see of his family, the more I admire him. Looking at TV reports, it looks like his son is a Hasid but his son-in-law appears to be Modern Orthodox. He has friends who are ex-Hasidic bikers. He personally seems to be a nice guy who isn't letting the frumer-than-thou crowds affect who he considers family or a friend. The sense I get of him is that he was a man living a Hasidic lifestyle who, though he may not have agreed 100% with all the beliefs or practices of his community, also wasn't going to leave or let the crazy zealots within it drive him out. For that he should be applauded.

I don't want to project too much onto Mr. Rottenberg here, but in a way I think this incident in New Square is a contemporary example of the tension many American Jews' ancestors went through, either in the US or back in their respective Old Countries. You had really modern folks, you had the really traditional folks, and you had everyone else who were somewhere in the middle. Sometimes they left and sometimes they stayed. While us descendants of grandparents or great-grandparents who went off the derech get flack from the frum world for our ancestors' choices, this incident makes me wonder: How much of that was really about people chasing materialism or assimilating into the American dream, and how much was about needing to get away from a medieval mindset that denied people the basic freedoms to choose their own lives? I'm thinking of books like Yoshe Kalb by I.J. Singer, himself the product of a Hasidic childhood and family, which is certainly none too kind to the frum world. (Sidenote: the narrative as presented is always that secular or non-Orthodox Jews' ancestors chose to leave. I wonder if that was always the case, either. Couldn't there have been cases where people were pushed, or perhaps even thrown out, of their communities or families for not being frum enough?)

I realize I beat up on the Haredi world a lot. And part of me really regrets that, because at the end of the day, I do believe in unity, and I do believe in brotherhood, and I do believe that most people, Jewish or otherwise, have more in common than we have that's different. Part of what turns me off about the Orthodox world I see today, particularly its Haredi wing, is how ridiculously reactionary it has become, and how much of its time is spent guarding its fences. I don't particularly want or need Haredim to become secular, or even to stop being Orthodox. What I would love, however, is to see more members of that world put the superficial stuff aside and reach out to their fellow Jews. (Yes, easy for me to say, but I'm also the last person who will accuse someone of not being Jewish.) What the Jewish people need are not more secular Jews, but more open-minded Jews, Orthodox and Haredim included. We need more Chaim Aron Rottenbergs.

Many, many hat-tips to Failed Messiah, who is keeping the story going.


Mike S. said...

You ask: How much of that was really about people chasing materialism or assimilating into the American dream, and how much was about needing to get away from a medieval mindset that denied people the basic freedoms to choose their own lives?

I am old enough to have known many such people as an adult. My experience is both were important. Also most in Europe left school to work at an early age and had poor Jewish (and no secular) education. For many Judaism was just what Jews did. I would add one other factor, peer pressure. Just as peer pressure can keep people outwardly observant, so, too, the immigrant generation felt tremendous pressure to "do what we do here in America and stop acting like a greenhorn."

Friar Yid said...

Interesting point, Mike. Based on my anecdotal reading, while it seems that in Europe many yeshiva bochurs or rabbis' kids would opt out of the lifestyle and gravitate towards the Haskalah, in America you more typically had people from the bottom of the social and economic barrel whose Jewish education was never particularly high, and who weren't necessarily in a position to explore other forms of Jewish affiliation in an intellectual or philosophical setting. This definitely helps explain the more binary "Orthodox or secular" push-and-pull going on for the early immigrants.