The Jewish Federation of North America released a poverty study in 2011 (and updated it in 2013) about the Jewish population in New York City. According to their finding “Hasidic households have the second-largest number of poor households and the third-highest incidence of poverty of any group.” Russian-speaking seniors came in first as the largest group of poor Jewish households in New York.

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In an attempt to assist the Williamsburg community in its financial need, the Berman Jewish Data Bank, a project of the Jewish Federation, put together some information about Hasidic Williamsburg for those who get involved in Williamsburg charity. Here’s their little tour into Williamsburg. This thin educational booklet begins with pictures of the more diversely orthodox Williamsburg of the past, looks at some data, and ends with emphasis on cultural sensitivity, or as they call it: cultural competence. There are concrete suggestions as to how to reach the community with aid and how to remain sensitive to Hasidic values. I.e, partner with gemachs (interest free loans) and established charities. This is very sensible, but I don’t know which, if any, charities the Jewish Federation or its affiliates are behind.

What I found interesting are the population numbers. People are always interested in population numbers of the growing Hasidic community. I get asked for a figure all the time. According to this booklet, there were 52,700 Jews in 2002 and 74,500 Jews in 2011 (of which 61,000 were Orthodox, presumably mostly Hasidic.) It is really hard to parse the data because the 2002 information does not include the percentage of non-orthodox Jews. Also, there seem to be a significant number of  non-Jews in Jewish households. Who would those be? Cleaning help? Or are these non-Jews living in the homes that are not Orthodox? I’m not sure.

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I wonder if this same source the Berman Jewish Data Bank used is where the New York Times took its figures when in 2004 an article estimated that there is a “community of 57,000 Satmar Hasidic Jews who live in south Williamsburg.” Clearly not all 57,000 persons living in Jewish households are Hasidic, nevermind Satmar. Are the NYT numbers a misreading of the data? Did the NYT assume that all Hasidic Jews are Satmar? I wonder.

Equally interesting (or even more so!) in the booklet is the subdivision of schools. Here you can see that a whopping 38% of the Hasidic population do not attend Satmar schools but attend Hasidic schools of other sects, to which they probably belong.

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And here are the Williamsburg borders, color coded for where the Hasidim are settling.

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On a related note, you can find the population figures for the Satmar Hasidic village Kiryas Joel, where I’m from, on the census bureau’s website. Population 21,357. Because KJ is a separate Hasidic village, it is a lot easier to get a reliable estimate.

Among my circles, we often discuss the inaccurate portrayals of Hasidim in media. From books to movies, or especially movies, it seems secular media can’t get it right. The minor details; the garb, the clumsy Yiddish, are often most jarring to natives. I thought it would be interesting to look at media closely and try to point out what I think they got right and what they got wrong.

The parody video “Talk Yiddish to Me” got a number of things so right, I had to rewatch it several times. It manages to work with the kind of humor that those who know the culture would love. My favorite little detail was the plastic for the black hat. It isn’t raining but that young man is wearing the hat cover as if he’s brazing a thunderstorm. Anyone who is used to its regular use can appreciate the absurdity. The last time I saw a hat cover on a video was — never.

There’s also a parody of the Hasidic minivan culture, and how much value men place on the “fully loaded” minivan. Some people like nice BMW sedans, Hasidic men like fully loaded Hondas. The actors are dancing before the car’s backup cam and showing off. And when they get into the van, the men flip their long coats up, like the real deal. Crackup.

Regrettably, as is so often the case, these things are only male. The woman in the video looks like a Hasidic bubba NOT, red glasses and all, and her inedible fish-sticks cooked in bleach does not work with the reality of a Hungarian Hasidic culture known for its excellent cooking of heimish, simple, hearty meat-and-potato foods. Besides, why is bubba cooking in a commercial kitchen?

To me — these things pop out like eyesores.

Although I could find out who the actors were, I’d like to share my impressions before I look it up, to show you what sounds real to me — and what doesn’t. The backup dancers with their long hair in the front and strange sidecurls don’t look authentic at all. The main actor with the shtreimel has a Yiddish accent that is NOT Hasidic, and his way of gliding — it doesn’t feel right. But his beard is good, he tucks his hands into his belt in a fine way and they figured out that the glasses belong ON TOP of the sidecurls! And he’s wearing glasses. Most Hasidic men do.

The young boy without the beard seems like a real Hasidic bochur, albeit Israeli, per his accent. He’s wearing a tall beeber hat.

And my favorite, the man with the tallis, he has me convinced. He throws his tallis over his shoulders, or pats it in front while singing, or shakes back and forth while fiddling with the fringes on it. He has that comfortable way with his tallis that men who wear it regularly have. And that open coat; very Hasidic cool. His accent is great too. I’m not sure about his hat though. It’s something of a cross between a shtufen hit and a crach hit. Perhaps Borough Park?

Watch the video and let me know what you think! Enjoy!

One of my favorite books that describe contemporary Hasidic life — and probably one of the least known — is Teacha; Storeis from a Yeshiva. The book only gives us a sliver of a glimpse into the community, through the eyes of Gerry Albarelli, a non-Jew who was hired to be a teacher in the Satmar boy’s school. Albarelli writes with candor and an eye for detail about the chaotic, rough, all-male bubble of education inside the Hasidic community. It is clear from his writing that he is neither intimidated nor awestruck by the wild and unusual yeshiva he finds. What we get instead is subtle warms, an occasional shoulder shrug, and a good sense of humor. Albarelli is able to show us how wild and untamed these boys are, a “factory” running into the evening, while it is also clear that he gets through to the children, grows on them as they grow on him. What I like about his stories is that he does not belabor any of these feelings. He just says it as he experienced it, and lets the readers feel the range of experiences through his.

It is told in short essays, but all of the essays together follow him through one school years, from when he was hired as he becomes more comfortable in the yeshiva, until he leaves at the end of the year. His first efforts to earn the boys respect:


“They (the Hasidic boys) were outside the classroom, six or seven boys, waiting, hopping in place, talking excitedly behind their hands. When they saw me coming, they ran inside, “Teacha! The teacha!” The tables and benches were shoved out of their usual arrangement and boys were running around them. Books and papers were all over the floor.

When the boys saw me walk in, they stopped what they were doing – chasing each other, walking on the tables, screaming, laughing, only long enough to let me know they were not going to stop.

Then I was the boy up near the ceiling.

He was on top of the wardrobe that contained their jackets and bookbags.

“Get down!” I said.

Everyone looked up.

“Teacha,” he said, smiling now that everyone was watching. “Look! I’m a janitor fixing the pipes.”

Later, Albarelli adapts and learns to navigate this challenging teaching post, but we know that this is not a situation where he ever completely wins the staff or student’s trust. He is only more successful and teaches more than the other English teachers, but that doesn’t say much, as many of the teachers are terrified of their own students and are just there to get out. Albarelli educates by putting on performances with the boys, or as the boys call it “makhen plays”, something everyone loved.

“The play began with one boy whistling and sweeping the floor of his store in the morning. It was easy to see the broom would have been taller than he was; it was probably even in the way he held the imaginary broom. Whistling, sweeping, and then he had a customer. All the other boys were watching; they were all sitting on the floor, on their tables, quietly listening.

There he was, with his peyahs, and white shirt tucked into his pants, whistling, and the other boys, looking exactly the same, were watching…

All of a sudden another boy entered the store, grabbed a chicken and ran out. When the store owner realized what had happened he was in a panic. He called the police. He was on a first-name basis with the policeman who answered the phone; he even told him to get right over there. The policeman arrived, took a description of the thief, went out, searched for and found him. Then he arrested him and put him in jail, which was the closet at the back of the room.”

We also get a little feel for how the children feel about this outsider, this teacher, who they call a goy, or a “half Jew, half goy” doomed for gehenna. There is an obvious chasm between the Yiddish speaking students and their “English” teacher. 

“Every day they teach me a few new words but they seem to have no faith in my capacity to absorb and remember because every time I throw a Yiddish word into a story, they look up, astonished. “This is a story about an old woman who sweeps with the besom, with the broom.” “Teacha,” a boy says, “you can Yiddish?”

A central character in the boys’ lives is Rabbi Katz, the man who carries the stick and the carrot and shoves around the boys and teachers with the same rough manners. He has a trademark “scariness” that is supposed to put everything in to order, yet his pushing and shoving means he’s not really taken seriously. We all know the bad guy in schools; from whom all the students run. And sometimes thhis bad guy is even the good guy.

“Sorry for my English,” Rabbi Katz says as though he weren’t sorry at all. “I’m born in Israel.”

Then, all of a sudden he switches gears.

“Eleven years I am a teacher. Not only a teacher!” Shouts Rabbi Katz. “I’m director from the boys’ choir. I’m running the kitchen. I run a summer camp. You ask any boy – any boy – who having the best camp! I work mit details!”

Rabbi Katz is explaining himself to us. He goes on and on. There’s a lot to say. He’s explaining himself to the teachers more or less the way he explains himself to the boys.”

Albarelli ends this way-too-short little book with the closing of the school year, when the boys are suddenly informed that they will no longer have English and they can leave early. As Albarelli leaves, there are no obvious expressions of affection to mark their parting, but it is clear that he does not leave the boys easily.

“Walking away, I was thinking about the boys. It was as if they lived on a rope stretched between a lake of fire, Gehenna, and the fires of ecstasy. The boys never saw themselves as individuals but as boys who were wild and in need of a smack. It was as if in the ruin of a classroom – all classrooms were ruined all the time as if ever day were the last day of the year – it was as if the ruin of a classroom was wild  ecstasy – chairs broken, overturned, paper, strips of paper balled up, paper all over the floor, candy, plastic bags with the remains of potato chips and pretzels, orange peels, overflowing trash, books spilling out of the class; all the wildness and destruction of the room – also ecstatsy.

I was walking away from the yeshiva, the rabbis and the boys, but leaving, it was as if I was still there. Even half a block away, I could hear the joyous screaming behind me.”

The book is a compilation of several fictional stories about a few individuals in the ultra-orthodox community. The stories are unoriginal; about a couple meeting through a shidduch, a meddlesome mother in law, a young yeshiva boy who has an affair with a black girl and a middle-aged woman who runs off from the community. The stories are cut up in chapters that skip between the different stories, so all stories span the length of the book. But most of the book actually reads like a long long long introduction to the climax: the salacious wedding night scene between Chani Kaufman and her groom. The author clearly loves to write about the going-ons between couples. I regret to say however, that except for the final chapters, the couples’ going-ons are rather uneventful.

The people in the book seem mostly stifled, uninspired, obsessed with Hashem and repressed by the religious society. It is very frustrating and grating to read a book that is full of giant inaccuracies. Not inaccuracies of ritual, but inaccuracies of the cultural essence, the characters and the spirit of the people. So my problem with this fairly negative book is not that it is negative, but that the negativities are often inaccurate.

For example:

The ultra-orthodox women have many children. While to the outsider, each child may seem to come as quickly as a single breath, well, that is not how it actually happens. The biological law of the nine month pregnancy applies to religious women too! (Surprise!) So young Chani Kauffman whose mother had many children “had watched her mother’s stomach inflate and deflate like a bullfrog’s throat” we get probably the worst, inhumane and ridiculous description of the life of a woman who has many children, condensed into one terrible metaphor. A nine month process is described as superficially as the duration of a breath. Are women really getting pregnant and unpregnant as grotesquely as a bullfrogs throat’s dilation? The author expands: “Chani’s mother had become a machine whose parts were grinding and worn… an exhausted mountain of dilapidated flesh, endlessly suckling, soothing, patting or feeding… Her father sowed his seed time and time again in his wife’s worn out womb”. Is this realistically how big families happen, or is this rather overflowing with the condescension of store-bought feminism? I think the latter. Women everywhere work themselves to sheer exhaustion for whatever they value; and the ultra-orthodox women do too. The assumption that this makes them machine like objects without any agency or pleasure is classic narrow-mindedness. All that this description reflects is someone’s snap judgment of large families. It lacks any empathy or insight. In fact, when Chani’s mother is actually seen in action throughout the book she is engaged and warm and not at all ‘a machine of dilapidated flesh.’

There are many more such problems, for instance in the way the children experience being stifled (they wonder about bacon; right, because another culture’s diet is REALLY what a curious person would think about) or in the radical, unrealistic way the rebbetzin runs off from the community.

Well. The inaccuracies were actually only the least of my problems with this book. The writing is, to quote its own words “not talking like a mentch!” I have no idea who the hell the Man Booker prize people are, or what their prize is, but I cannot begin to understand how a book like this one can receive an award. The writing tries very hard to be cute, so hard; it distracts from what’s happening in the stories. And the stories are told in chopped up pieces, hopping from one character’s tale to another, giving you a long drawn out piece about Chaim’s interest in Chani’s looks, or in Mrs. Levy’s scheme to stop the shidduch, so you lose your tale just when you were maybe (maybe!) starting to get faintly interested in one saga or another. In trying to describe what these characters are like, nothing comes to my mind but their physical characteristics (either great youthful beauty or terrible unsightliness) and their endless kvetching. The characters are so flat, that when you read it you almost see caricatures get pasted in from a crafty handbook of stereotypes. There is very little dialog, all of it stale. (example: “Chany Kaufman, your behavior today was inappropriate at the very least.’ ‘Yes, Mrs. Beranrd,” Chani whispered. “What’s that?” snapped the Deputy Head. “I’m very sorry, Mrs. Bernard.” Etc.)

Lots of things happen because the author tells you it happened (“they grew closer”) not because the scenes are in the book, in over-decorated language riddled with bad metaphors: “her eyes shone with liquid apology” and she walks down the street “her legs pumping like pistons.” Or my favorite “he flamed the colour of chraine.” The pacing is distracting too because of the way the story jumps abruptly from character to character, but worse because you spend so much time with the drawn out descriptive language, nothing happens, and then suddenly it is six months later. Most of all, the appeal of this book seems to lie in its exciting wedding night scene (which isn’t so exciting after all) and this single episode seems to be the book, with three hundred pages of adjectives fluffed around it. In all, I had a hard time getting through it and I would not recommend it.

This picture, of a plaque on Hewes Street in Williamsburg that not only protests the state of Israel but reads “Free Palestine,” made its rounds on the Hasidic Whatsapp. The reason this was newsworthy even to Hasidim is because while anti-zionist Israel may be the attitude amongst many sects, the general sympathies among Hasidim are still not pro-Palestine, especially because many Hasidim live in Israel or American Hasidim have relatives in Israel. The loyalty among many Hasidim I know is to a diaspora type of Israel, but not subsurvients to Palestine or sympathies to Palestinians.

A few individuals are the exception, and in being the exception, they are marginal figures. They not only protest the State of Israel but also loudly support Palestine, and try to even make connections with Palestinians (ie Neturei Karta’s open relationship with Yassir Arafat). They make so much noise that they skew the public perception and make the impression that all anti-zionist Hasidim are pro-Palestine. In reality, these men who make up this pro-Palestine Hasidic faction are a select few, and their voice is not encouraged by the community, as can be seen from the second picture below, taken a few days later, when this pro-Palestine plague was already removed and a small Star of David with a cross over it was inside the window instead.


The people who put up with sign don’t advertise an official affiliation with Hasidism or any sect. On their website, www.dropisrael.org there are many biblical quotes, pictures of the few individuals at protests, and even keychains with pictures of a little Hasidic boy with a Palestinian child that can be bought for $0.00 but while it can be bought, it is also marked “coming soon.”