In November 2017 all major newspapers ran a top story like this one: Some Brooklyn Children Have Blood Levels Higher Than Kids in Flint. Specifically, the Brooklyn children found to have such high blood levels were the Hasidic kids. As WNYC reported: “The highest rate was found in South Williamsburg, in the tight-knit, ultra-orthodox Jewish Satmar community.” The second highest rate came in in Borough Park, another Hasidic enclave.

When I read this news, I was totally surprised. Hasidic women are almost all stay-at-home mothers, and their kids are the center of their worlds. The kids we see in the community are dressed to the nines and seem quite alright. I didn’t understand why there should be such high rates of lead poisoning. I wondered if there was a cultural issue that might contribute to the lead poisoning rates, but this is all the explanation the media offered:

“Several factors contribute: Old housing, built long before the city’s 1960 lead paint ban, now has peeling paint. Poverty rates are high. And many residents speak Yiddish as a first language, which can make it more difficult for city health workers to do outreach. “

This simplistic story doesn’t satisfy me at all. Because with regards to old housing, New York city is replete with old housing and Hasidic kids are hardly the exception. With regards to poverty rates — I have heard a million times from the media that the poverty rate in the Hasidic community is high, but I don’t understand why they take the reported incomes at face value and don’t account any for the variables that make the community poverty rates seem so stark. There is a whole book to write on the complexities of the Hasidic economy, but I touched on some factors here. I hope to one day be able to write more on that, but don’t expect to have the time or energy anytime in the next decade. But for now, without going into the many reasons why I dispute this simplistic assessment, I’ll say that Hasidic kids are not growing up in impoverished situations. They all are well fed, dressed, housed and cared for. Medical care is widely available through medicaid doctors, and kids don’t go without treatment. I don’t see any relationship between high lead levels and Hasidic financial challenges.

And as for the language barrier – nah. Yes, Yiddish is a first language, but adults understand English full well and get by with various degrees of teeth breaking, but all in all, just fine.

Whenever the city decides that they will use Yiddish to reach the Hasidic community the results are either mildly comical or absurd or strange. But most of all, they give away that the gap between Hasidic Jews and westerners is not language, but culture.

I took this picture yesterday in Bushwick: a poster from the City department of health, hung upside down.

I love when the park translates the rules to Yiddish. It’s just bizarre. This sign before a Williamsburg park tells Hasidim exactly how to comport themselves with their dogs, even though none of the Hasidim have dogs.

Back to the story of the lead poisoning, I tried to ask around and do some of my sleuthing, but no one could explain why Hasidim have such high rates of lead poisoning. I spoke to some health reporters back then and hoped they could explain, but they were content with these superficial narratives of “poverty” and “yiddish”. Which, by the way, one walk down the full length of Lee Avenue and you’d have a hard time accepting this narrative.

So I didn’t find out. And I still don’t know.

I did cut this story out of the paper a few weeks ago, and it tells people about a campaign to raise awareness about lead poisoning that could result of paint, but that didn’t answer anything either.

But — yesterday on my tour we were discussing superstitions, and I mentioned blei gissen, the process of pouring lead to ward off the evil eye . The evil eye is generally considered to be a kind of bad omen or karma that comes from the envy and ill-will of others. The evil eye could often afflict those with striking beauty, money, smarts, etc. No one ever thought I was afflicted with the evil eye, so I don’t have personal experience with the various voodoo treatments like blei gissen, but I regularly see classified ads in the local papers for this service:

These ads are all for experts who proclaim they could help you “remove the evil eye and breathe easily” and “extinguish the evil eye by pouring lead”. Usually, the “expert” is Israeli, a travelling healer of sorts, who makes the rounds through US neighborhoods collecting fees for various opaque cures. My mother has insisted for years now that a birthmark I have on my face could easily be removed for the quick transaction of $400 between me and some Yerushaleymer miracle worker, and I’ve insisted that I’d very much like to hold on to my birth mark and my four hundred measly dollars. But I know my mother will fork over the moola to these itinerant wielders of Bubbe Maysos (sorry, I’m a cynic, it’s the truth) even as she knows full well there’s more than half a chance that it’s some kind of sharp sabra’s ruse. My mother is an intelligent woman and a part of her faith in this witchcraftery is the faith in the placebo effect: the simple belief that if this man will make me think I’m cured, then I will be cured.

In these magical men’s (or sometimes women’s) bags you’ll find various other treatments, like natural ointments or swinging pendants, palm reading and wrinkle reading, or reciting special prayers at specific sites. But the blei gissen seems to be especially popular, because not a week goes by that I don’t see an ad for it in the paper.

Here is a description of the procedure, which I found in a profile in the Jewish publication Five Towns:

To perform blei gissen, Rebbetzin Miller takes an ordinary looking pot, places a small bar of lead in it, and begins heating it on the kitchen stove. She gives out a laminated sheet with a tefilah on it to read while the lead melts. She does this in a typical kitchen with foods baking and children walking through. When the tefilah is finished and the lead has melted. Rebbetzin Miller casts a thick, off-white sheet of cloth like a tallis over the person. The molten lead is poured from the saucepan into a pot of cold water above the person’s head as the Rebbetzin speaks softly. The lead crackles and pops as it hits the cold water. The sheet is removed. The lead has fragmented into long pieces that look like silver twigs. If some of them have bulbous ends, the Rebbetzin explains, “Those are eyes. There is some ayin ha’ra. We have to do it over.”

Sometimes a curved piece can emerge that the Rebbetzin says is a “bird,” which signifies an imminent simcha. She repeats the process one more time to make sure all the ayin ha’ra is gone. Then, for good measure, she takes the names of a couple of the person’s family members and pours lead in their names. She concludes by pressing a few red strings from Kever Rachel on the subject along with a sprig of ruta in a tiny plastic bag.

Hmmm. Hum. I’m part intrigued, part scandalized– the entire procedure seems rather fascinating and I want to see a movie about it.

Well, I actually didn’t know any of how this Rebbetzin Miller or the other peddlers would do their work. I just mentioned blei gissen in conversation about unscientific “healing” and a German woman immediately offered to explain blei gissen – how it’s done and how you read the shape of the cooled lead as a way of diving what’s to come. Blei gissen is a very popular New Year’s custom in Germany. It’s written Bleigiessen but pronounced the same as in Yiddish. The full fancy word for the concept of pouring lead for learning special information is called Molybdomancy, a custom that can be found in “Finland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Turkey, and Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

The woman in our tour told us that one year, she hosted a New Years party in New York, and wanted to have a good time with the pouring of lead and the whole tradition. She couldn’t find the lead kits folks typically use (because it’s outlawed, I believe) so she ordered some lead pellets online. To their utter disappointment, the pellets wouldn’t melt. So we can assume the sign for their upcoming year to come was that of a pellet, which I assume is not a good prophecy. That’s just my thinking; I’m not an expert till someone offers to pay me $400 for my reading.

While I get a bitter kick out of the absurdity of such customs (they just don’t make sense to me, and border on exploitation), I also worry that this custom is simply not safe. On Wikipedia, you’ll see plainly in the first paragraph: “Some versions have been found to have potentially harmful effects on human health.” Specifically, the version that uses lead. There have been efforts in other cultures to replace the metal with tin, as described in the Telegraph:

Another charmingly suicidal German New Year’s tradition is molybdomancy – the posh word for divination using molten metal, or as the Germans call it, Bleigießen, pouring lead. Never heard of it? Quite rightly, since the British decided a long time ago that smelting was an activity best carried out in the open air – preferably somewhere very wet, like Wales. But in Germany, kits are sold with small burners and spoons and, in what looks to the untrained eye like a scene from Trainspotting, friends and families gather round to watch what form the molten metal makes as it hits the cold water, referring avidly to a checklist of shapes to see what the new year holds for the person who poured.

Given the toxicity of lead compounds, there have been efforts in recent years to convince the German Gypsy-Rose-Lee-wannabes of the virtues of tin, but largely in vain. 

I don’t know if the Rebbetzin Millers and Rav Teitelbaum’s of the Hasidic world use lead or tin, but odds are high that the earnest smelting and pouring and divining why a gorgeous little Hasidic boy is always sickly is happening with lead. I also do not know if this contributes, in any way, to the high rate of lead in the blood among the Hasidic population. Obviously I’m in no position to make such claims, but also obviously — the weekly arrival of a new lead-pouring guru can’t help.

I think the blei gissen industry should be a part of the investigation and education campaign on Lead Poisoning. But the larger point is that blei-gissen is but one example of a hazard found in the Hasidic community that doesn’t (mostly) exist for their New York City neighbors. If we try to diagnose and address problems afflicting Hasidim – ie the measles – we cannot expect an effective outcome if we don’t understand the holistic cultural situation from which the problems arise. A lot of the measles crisis could have been dealt with more effectively had they investigated beyond plugging words into Google Translate.

A shell of what would have been one of the largest synagogues in the world stands abandoned at 540 Bedford Avenue Williamsburg, in the heart of the Williamsburg. From the site, we can see the luxury Williamsburg waterfront and the Manhattan skyline, and at two blocks from the Marcy Avenue subway, this monstrosity sits on prime real estate. It’s nearly a square block, although the main residence of the Satmar Rebbe Zalmen Teitelbaum cuts out a corner of Ross and Bedford.

The rusting behemoth at 540 Bedford:
the rusting behemoth at 540 bedford
The Rebbe’s home on the corner of Ross. The younger brother, Reb Zalmen, occupies this building:

Construction began in 1998 when the congregation was granted a city permit to build the three storey synagogue. But it came to a halt in 2001 when the dispute between the sons of the late rebbe Moses Teitelbaum, over which of the two should lead the flock, blew up into full scale internal drama and chaos. The stormy succession feud was well-publicized then, and it fizzled out only after the sects split in two.

The Satmar congregation that owns the property. The problem however is that there are now two Satmar congregations and the American courts have been unable to figure out how to decide which of the two brothers should inherit this particular Satmar property.

The feuding sons: Aaron and Zalmen Leib:

In 1998 construction of what was meant to be one of the biggest synagogues in the world began.  But it stopped in 2001 when the succession feud really blew up, and devolved into incidences of slashed tires, estranged families, brawls in the streets, arrests, and many, many disputes in the American courts.  Many of the questions of who should inherit which piece of valuable dynastic real estate were resolved eventually one way or another, for instance, the older brother inherited the father’s home in Kiryas Joel (where I grew up) and the younger brother inherited this one, on Ross corner Bedford. Like a messy divorce, many pieces were split based on which of the brothers had been more closely associated with that neighborhood or institutions. But this 199,251 square foot baby could not be split. I didn’t follow the process of construction from the beginning, but my guess is that the people deeply involved in the project ended up split on two sides of the divide, both claiming to have invested money or energy or focus in this building.

In 2008, when the divorce had been fairly complete, the construction was renewed when building permits were issued in Aaron’s name. In 2010 it was again stopped when Zalmen’s followers filed complaints that the Aaron camp was unauthorized to receive permits for the building. Authorities decided that this showed that nobody really controlled the project and revoked the permit till a resolution could be found.

The building sits unfinished to this day, almost twenty years since its construction began. It is one of the only things in Williamsburg that have stood unchanged over the six years that I’ve been a tour guide here. Everything is changing so quickly in Brooklyn — but the skeleton sits, a monument to the Satmar feud.

Here’s the Google Maps street view from June 2009:

Here’s the Google Maps street view from September 2018:

We pass this site on our tours and occasionally the big garage door is raised and we are privy to what’s inside, mostly storage for the Zalmen faction; bleachers and sukkah boards. But most important of all (:) the scaffolding makes this one of the few places in the area where we can find reliable shelter from the rain.

This happened in Hasidic Williamsburg: playboy model Marisa Papen traipsed through the neighborhood, in the heart of its busiest areas, in the nude. For a photoshoot. There are a bunch of pictures on her website of this orchestrated photoshoot stroll.

According to this photographer’s post:

“Marisa’s goal is to raise awareness about the global suppression of women by the hand of religion.

“Inspired by the suppressed souls that we witnessed in the ‘One Of Us’ documentary on Netflix we decided to move forward on producing a fine art series about the community.”

I am trying to wrap my head around this. I’m not so much interested in the drama that went down with this photoshoot. There is a video of Marisa and company getting chased by Hasidic men who are screaming hysterically and panting and reporting that she was walking around the streets nakkit (lol!!??) and we see the cops during the last few minutes. It’s a bad film with little to see, just a predictable clash between a provocateur and shocked-aroused Hasidic men. We hear that someone says titties with a Hasidic accent. It’s a panic. You can imagine, surreal if ever. Does life get more absurd?

What I cannot understand is how this is doing anything about the suppression of women by the hand of religion. Let’s follow the logic here. The lady playboy goes out with a camera crew and flashes the expertly trimmed down-there to young Hasidic men who are shocked and traumatized. Okay. So she did that. Then what? How does she hope to get from this moment of pornographic sacrilege in March 2019 to the great liberation, wherein all Hasidic women proudly go about shopping on Lee Avenue with the nothing but a Kate Spade bag and Bugaboo stroller? What’s the plan, pray tell? How will the cure come of this peculiar treatment involving a photoshoot, a good hat and fancy shoes, and presumably, pickles from Flaum’s?

Nutty people exist. But Marisa’s stunt isn’t the act of a mentally ill person who forgot to get dressed before going out for appetizing. She is doing it to get attention and approval. She’ll get it – the story has already been picked up by a handful of bemused media outlets. The stories often criticize Hasidim for their reaction, not her. Because there is an implicit okayness to behavior when it is dressed up (ha ha) as concerned with the rights of women. It is given a sort of cultural stamp of approval. Or at least the Internet and Twiterrati won’t descend on her. Because her motivation is noble. It’s against the suppression of women.

Yeah, only here’s the problem. About the suppression of women it is not. What an Orwellian, empty use of words. She just appropriates real causes for cynical personal gains. Outside of her calling it righteous, there is nothing to show that it is. From everything we can see, she is concerned with her own photos and vanity. It’s totally transparent. We don’t dare say that we see right through it. We give tacit permission, because supposedly the cause is good.

Walking naked in Williamsburg for the liberation of women is the absurd example of a much more banal genre of profitable enterprises under the cloak of concern for women. There is a whole industry of publication that appropriates real feminist causes for pop culture ends. It’s in all the stories of the woman who “escapes”. Western culture loves these stories. In books, movies, tv shows, podcast, you name it. This includes the Netflix documentary ‘One of Us’, which is as skewed and dishonest and as concerned with women as an evangelical anti-abortion documentary. It makes sense that it inspired this nudity stunt. And there are the many books about religious women who heroically self-determined by throwing off the shackles and leaving. I’m thinking titles like ‘The Marrying of Chani Kaufman’, the Naomi Ragen series, Deborah Feldman’s self-flattering ‘Unorthodox’, Leah Vincent’s ‘Cut me Loose’, and probably a few others in my library. Even Judge Ruchy Frier, the ultra-Orthodox judge and something of a media favorite, is in this category. Her story is celebrated by the New York Times not because she is Orthodox, but because while she is Orthodox, she’s also bought into the modern idea that a woman’s value is found in her career accomplishments. In essence, Judge Frier escaped while staying. Her story has a fresh twist, but the same underlying problem.

What all these stories have in common is a complete and total disrespect for the life of the everyday religious woman as she values it. It scoffs at motherhood, domesticity, family and female friendships. It tells us that the Hasidic woman is living life wrong. That she isn’t living until she escapes for twenty-first-century capitalist striving. In this narrative the secular culture is always by definition liberating, the religious culture always oppressive. The girl who leaves her faith and roots is always brave, the woman who gives her all to her children a sufferer of the patriarchy. Those who escape are accomplished, those who stay are nothings.

The story never considers that some women might not share in this hierarchy of importance. It ignores that not everyone wants to walk around in the March cold with their cooter getting frostbite while mixing a confusion of personal ambition with zealous proselytizing.  It decides what kind of sacrifices are meaningful. It’s winter and you’re cold? Well, keep going, all the more heroic fight for the cause! The more you suffer to prove your feminist liberation, the more the suffering oppressed will be liberated. Everyone suffers, sure. But secular-feminist suffering is noble. The suffering of women who live differently is not.

The “Her Escape” story arc is not feminist. It is the total erasure of women’s lives when they don’t match our modern values. It is to impose meaning on someone else’s life. Real support for women is to try to understand the nuances of the challenges and triumphs of a religious woman and to respect what she wants, not what we want.

The genre is profitable though. There is always an audience for a coming of age tale of self-determination. It’s no surprise that Deborah Feldman’s book is being adapted as a TV show by Netflix. The story stells. And as long as it sells, there will be half-talents regaling them.

Audiences know that the motive behind these self-proclaimed activists are insincere, but they shrug, because — well, the story is still good. It makes secular society feel better and right. It makes secular society feel like it is emboldened, powerful, attractive, sure of itself. Look at us secular woman, strutting so free. Strutting so proud. Meanwhile, no one is allowed to say the obvious: that it’s crazy. That the empress has no clothes, and it’s goddamn nuts.

Besides for feeling slightly nauseas about the way feminist causes are co-opted, I’m also so bothered by the nude provocation itself. Pulling such stunts can do real harm. I feel sorry for these naive teenage boys. I know many people would comment about how lucky they are, (yuk) but it can be so damaging. I also am bemused that we should further the liberation of women by introducing men on first occasion to the most unlikely female body — one that very few women will see in the mirror even at their best, nevermind after many children. Hasidic men and women very rarely get to see what normal female bodies look like. They see models and celebrities and porn personalities, but they don’t see the vibrant diversity of boobs and butts that make up my Orange Theory Gym dressing room. It pains me that Hasidic people don’t realize what normal bodies look like. So to show as a model of female sexuality a body that is so unrealistic and creates so many insecurities among the rest of us plain-bodied. It is so harmful to women. Oh the irony.

On a happier note: whenever someone on my tour tells me they feel terrible for Hasidic women, I can now suggest to them that they strut naked in Williamsburg in order to make a difference. If you see a sixty year old IRS employee from Chicago going about in the buff on Division, and a forty year old mother from Melbourne without clothes shopping on Flushing, know that they are liberating women and it’s all peachy from here.

I made a video. You have not seen a video this ammueture since 1997. I wanted to try video instead of writing, because I thought it might be more enjoyable. So I spent an hour ranting into my Samsung Galaxy camera and then cut out all the times I got up to pet the dog, etc.

The video is on the measles outbreak, and all major theological, philosophical, economical, medical and other tangentially related issues to the measles or to things tangentially related to the measles. I tried to address many questions about the measles outbreak in a Q&A format. It was a panel with just me.

Here is the text, which I ended up writing anyway.

 

ABOUT THE MEASLES OUTBREAK

Is it safe to tour the Hasidic community during the outbreak?

I am no doctor, so I’ll tell you what my doctor told me: “Make sure you’re immune and you’re good”. If you were vaccinated, you are probably okay, but you might want to get a blood test to check if you are immune. They call it “titers”, with a hard I, like tiger, tights, like aie yaiy yaiy (per dictionary.com) So get that – the tay-ters. I got mine and have evidence of immunity to measles, mumps and rubella and I feel good about that.

If you have a baby who isn’t vaccinated, then talk to the pediatrician. A couple of people with babies changed plans because of the measles, and I get it. I’ll totally work with you if that’s your situation.

So the outbreak is scary. What’s going on?

Looks like a recurrence in several countries around the world, from where it spreads. It reached the New York Hasidic community via Israel from Ukraine, where there were more cases than any other country. From February 2018 to March 2019 they had 72,408 cases; in 2016 the WHO reported only 42% of kids were vaccinated.

I read about Hasidic anti-vaxxers. Is Hasidism anti-vaccine?

No.

The Williamsburg Hasidic community is pro-vaccines. There are always individual opinions and dissenters, as anywhere. They are an asterisk. I will talk about them later. But they are the exceptions, not the rules. You can say Americans embrace individual freedoms, and you can say Hasidim embrace vaccines. In both instances it doesn’t hold true for every single dingle person, but it is a correct generalization.

But Hasidim are anti-science and anti-modernity?

Nah. You can’t generalize like that. Maybe we can say Hasidim are against Enlightenment values and philosophies. But they are very much a modern phenomenon, shaped in the womb of modernity.

When it comes to many medicines, Hasidim are very eager to embrace the latest technologies – even if these technologies were developed by understanding evolution. Read about Hasidim doing in vitro fertilization in this really fascinating article in the Washington Post. The Hasidic charity organizations for the sick, Bikur Cholim, were in the news because Hasidic volunteers pushed for extending life which seemed to clash with NYU’s counseling for, say, patients on a ventilator who are only alive because of machines. From Jewish Breaking News; “They say that the NYU health system’s approach to end-of-life care has changed and conflicts with the Orthodox Jewish approach to issues surrounding ending life support and administering palliative care — and the hospital doesn’t want observers witnessing decisions that to Orthodox eyes may fall short of extending life by any means available.” Or check out Dor Yeshorim, an organization that performs genetic testing before marriage and according to their website, “successfully eliminates the agonizing occurrence of fatal and debilitating genetic diseases in Jewish families worldwide through its premarital genetic screening program.” It is as if Hasidim have almost no religious comments on many life-saving sciences, because once it is life-saving, it is usually “kosher” by definition. Think of the expression pekuach nefesh docheh shabbes, which means that to save a soul, the shabbes can be desecrated.

 

But Hasidim are anti-science in other way; they reject life-saving changes to circumcision practices or education. Isn’t this vaccine issue the same?

Dear New York Times: not the same. Ugh, the Times loves lump one Hasidic issue in with another. An annoying op-ed by some suspiciously unknown and supposedly Hasidic person, Moshe Friedman (who is he/she really?), brings up these two frequently cited parallels:

1. Metzitzah b’peh (the part of ritual circumcision that exposes the newborn to potential transmission of herpes.)

“When Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration in 2012 introduced rules that required parental consent before an infant could have a form of ritual circumcision believed to be linked to the spread of herpes, some rabbis denounced those efforts as a blood libel or “the evil plans of the New York City health department.”
Some rabbis derided the health department’s scientific expertise, and one respected rabbi went as far as to question the health department’s statistics. “

2. Education (the Hasidic community’s minimal secular curriculum for boys)

“In more recent years, when the Department of Education pushed for an increase in secular studies in the city’s yeshivas, some of our leaders once again instigated their community to oppose these much-needed reforms.”

3. Vaccines: .

“We see this same approach now among some of our leaders toward vaccines. Some rabbis are contributing to the spread of disinformation, repeating unfounded claims about the health risks of the M.M.R. vaccine.”

So Friedman concludes:

“Whether out of shortsightedness or strategic malice, some of our religious leaders have directly fostered an atmosphere where thorough research is sneered at, the scientific method is doubted and the motivations of professionals are assumed to be nefarious and steeped in anti-religious animus.”

I don’t even know how to write a straight sentence without grinding my jaw down. Such sloppy simplifications. We can see from other examples that Hasidim clearly are not “doubting the scientific method” or assuming that the motivations of professionals are nefarious. Because surely that adds up with the Hasid who is going to top doctors for a transplant. “I’ll go to the top doctor. The top nefarious doctor!” Thought nobody.

By the way this author also incorrectly identified the leader of the largest sect in Williamsburg. He clearly has no expertise or insight. He seems to get all his information about Hasidim from the New York Times. Even if he is Hasidic, and of the sect in question, he does not add any information that an outsider wouldn’t have – so what’s the point?

But vaccines are not kosher…?

Again the New York Times: “some view vaccines as a violation of kosher restrictions and a danger to children’s health.”

And is a kosher phone edible? And are kosher cameras properly slaughtered? And are kosher pigs properly vaccinated? These are questions that should keep you up at night.

But then why aren’t they cooperating with the city?

They are. 21,284 doses of the MMR vaccine have been administered to people who are under 19 years old in Williamsburg and Borough Park since October, per the New York City Health website.

Seven yeshivas were closed, but they were also reopened.

Maybe not so well-organized. Maybe not willing to get into big wars with parents. But not not cooperating.

When the Hasidic community decides not to cooperate, like with the New York Sate education standards, there are mass protests in huge stadiums and outcries on the front page of their newspapers and the streetposts fill with posters warning people about the impending danger from the outside. They court politicians and the rabbi meets with the bigwigs and promises votes. It’s a ruckus. With the measles outbreak, there is nothing in the newspaper. Most of the anger is directed at anti-vaxxers, not people from the outside.

Then why is the outbreak so bad?

Let’s look at BAD in perspective. Let’s say there were 360 cases – an estimate. That’s out of a population of about 100,000. That’s .36% of the population. Measles will infect almost any unvaccinated person it comes in contact with. A rate of less than a half percent shows a huge, huge success rate on the part of the vaccine.

But there are many more outbreaks among Hasidim. Doesn’t that prove they have more anti-vaxxers?

More measles cases does not mean more anti-vaxxers.
Hasidim are a more vulnerable population than the rest of society for two main reasons:

1) They have a younger population, which means there are more babies. Let me put it to you in numbers. I’ll use the census data from Kiryas Joel, a Satmar village north of New York City, because we don’t have any census data for Williamsburg Hasidim — their data is mixed with that of other Williamsburg residents. Kiryas Joel is more insular but in all important ways like Williamsburg, and there the median age is 13! Thirteen! This means that half the population is thirteen or under. Compare that to the median age in New York as a whole: 38.2. So the simple math is that Hasidim have far more very young children. Herd immunity depends on a high percent of the population being immune. If 95% of a population is immune, the virus won’t spread. But what happens if 90% of the population are under age one? It’s more likely the measles will spread.

2) The extremely close proximity of Hasidic kids. Let me illustrate how close Hasidic kids come to each other. If a Hasidic kid is not vaccinated and is infected, he will be around an average of eight children in his family, he will go to school on a bus with twenty (six days a week), he will be in a classroom with thirty, at family celebrations with fifty, in the synagogue with hundreds. The opportunity to pass contagions is enormous.

But Kiryas Joel had much fewer incidents of the outbreak.

This is super interesting and it proves a number of things. That Kiryas Joel is more organized. They collaborated with the Hudson Valley health department for a pro-vaccinate publication months ago. It is also much more authoritarian. People who don’t follow conventions are often so marginalized, they have to enjoy suffering to stay there. Most would move to Monsey or Brooklyn.

It also tells you that the outbreak wasn’t a result of some conspiratorial friendship between DiBlasio and the Hasidim. Or that Hasidim don’t want to vaccinate. Because if any of this was true, Kiryas Joel would be at the forefront and the virus would go viral (ha ha, hilarious).

So tell me about the anti-vaxxers. Spill on these juicy nuts.

Anti-vaxxers in the Hasidic community are mostly women who consider themselves enlightened about health and refuse to just follow the masses in these conspiracies they see all around them. They see themselves as smarter and more informed than the rest and refuse to “put all these chemicals” into their perfectly healthy baby’s body. They are a tiny subset of unwieldy rebels within the community. They are the same women who have home births and go to this crackpot and that witchdoctor for all sorts of jewelry-swinging cures. You know the type. People who are very busy with themselves and their special vitamins and juicing and many mishigasen.

But this Hasidic woman told reporters that she doesn’t vaccinate because it’s her “religious freedom”?

Religious freedom is an American concept. Just because one woman cries religious freedom doesn’t mean this is actually a religious issue for her. If she says you should give her a hundred dollars for her religious freedom will you also take her at face value? She is borrowing from the American vocabulary and is using it to her advantage. She learns that if she doesn’t want to vaccinate, she needs to request an exemption for religious reasons. It’s not rocket science. This same woman wouldn’t claim religious freedom to the community.
Let me give you an example: If a Hasidic lady wants to wear, ehhh, say skirts to the floor instead of mid-calf, and to the floor is not really a-okay, she won’t argue with her finger-wagging neighbor that this her religious freedom. She will try to make arguments to its religious validity – like “this is modest”. Religious freedom doesn’t fly here. What freedom? This is the Hasidic community, Lol. Concerns for freedom don’t course through its veins.

But… what about religious exemptions for vaccines?

What about? Were religious exemptions written into law for the Hasidic community? I’m sure not. Let’s dig up why it’s there – I’m curious. Again, we need numbers and details. How many religious exemptions are there and how many medical exemptions? 

Because as per the principal of KJ UTA, a lot of people will be so secretive about health problems that they will claim religious exemption in order to hide the fact that they need a medical exemption. So I don’t even know — how many religious exemptions there are on the books, and how many net exemptions are actually voluntary.

In fact, take a look at this conversation on the religious women’s forum imamother, from 2016(!):

Woman OP: “For my own reasons, I’m an declining the varicella vaccine. I do NOT want my children to have it. I know in public schools, you can claim a religious exemption, and they will be fine with the lack of vaccination. What do you do for a frum school? It’s not like I can fake a religious reason when there isn’t one.Has anyone gotten an exemption for a vaccine from their school?”

Internet Person: “The school doesn’t really care, so if you want to use a religious reason you can (mitzva to take care of the body, and you feel that giving vaccines violates that mitzva.) “

See how it goes? What comes first the religious reason or the vaccine hesitancy? Obviously not the religious reason.

But these Hasidic women wouldn’t believe such nonsense if they got a regular education.

Ehh… How do we me measure this even? Count the number of fringe folks in Silicon Valley? Look – these Hasidic women are incredibly versed in their mishigas. They are not coming to it out of innocence.

Every society will have its conspiracy theorists, its individualists who believe they are the smartest thing to happen to mankind, its walking illustrations of the Dunning Kruger effect. I’ve come to see that some people are just beyond reason. They can’t see past the end of their noses, their logic fails to account for big picture or to keep risk in perspective, they believe they understand everything and everyone else is being led like blind sheep. They form identities based on their being misfits and outsiders and relish their uniqueness. There are such people. They are just human. No?

So what do we do about these anti-vaxxers?

Make their likeness into a piñata and hit it to shreds? Shame them until their lightbulbs go on. Yeah? No. We create laws to deal with the balance between their right to believe whatever and the risk that such rights might bring to others.

The Amish also had a large outbreak in 2014. Is this like — the same cause?

I’m not any more informed about the Amish than you!

I’d caution you against extrapolating conclusions about one insular community based on information about another. Just because there are similarities doesn’t mean that they’re the same in all ways. As they will say on my epitaph: nuance, baby.

Has the media accurately portrayed the outbreak?

No. The coverage made me really angry. A bad kind of anger, the isolating, unhappy kind. Not the one where we feel really good and smart and self-righteous after ranting. I’m exhausted of my anger.

It was a coverage bad for its omissions.

It was as if the reporters simply filed the CDC press release as their stories. No context, no additional information, just whatever the CDC had as its numbers. I can look at the CDC website myself. I need the media to frame the numbers. But since they didn’t, we only learned two things:

• The number of confirmed measles cases. (Now at 764 for the US in 2019)
• That “The majority of people who got measles were unvaccinated.”

Journalists have been hammering on the “unvaccinated” part. But here’s the rub: they are using unvaccinated interchangeably with anti-vaxxers. Just because folks are unvaccinated doesn’t mean they are an anti-vaxxer. Think of all the people unvaccinated in a pediatric oncology ward. Or all the infants in the maternity ward. All of them are at risk and are unvaccinated! The CDC told us that lots of people who got measles were unvaccinated – but the media went straight from there to blaming anti-vaxxers. An article a day in the Times about how anti-vaxxers are all to blame, because they are unvaccinated.

Again, Williamsburg will have a greater number of unvaccinated minors. There is no greater proof of this than by looking at what the CDC did: they ordered that we vaccinate Hasidic babies at 6 months instead of a year. If the regular vaccine schedule alone worked, and the only problem was anti-vaxxers, than all we’d do would be make the anti-vaxxers vaccinate.

In fact, I asked around about specific cases and this is what some people knew of: a newborn baby who got the measles and ran a high fever for a few days (terrifying!), a sickly two year old who wasn’t able to be vaccinated and caught it, a seven month old who had already had one MMR, an adult who didn’t think they could get it. Etc. Many unvaccinated, but not anti-vaccine.

What bothered me was that we never got figures or perspective, so everyone was left with the impression that Hasidim have as a group at a large rate passed on vaccines. But the media never gave us numbers. They never provided more information. This kind of omission created hate and misinformation. Zero sympathy from the public, all blame. I find this scary.

Why do you think the media has been covering this so poorly?

Because Hasidic anti-vaxxers … are you kidding me? A double-whammy of the permitted punching bag. Both anti-vaxxers and Hasidim are fodder for outrage culture. The stubborn single anti-vaxxer lady is red meat for the mob. The public loves to pick themselves up a little bit by collectively bashing those on the list of permitted hates. This must bring in lots of clicks for the newspaper.

Who is to call out the media for malpractice? Unlike, say, Jewish issues related to Israel, Hasidim don’t do PR campaigns to push back against the reporting. If the media doesn’t self-correct, what’s to improve this?
My ranting, that’s what. Of course.

So the coverage made things look bad. Why is it really a problem?

I think reporting should be fair and complete. On principal. Even if for no other reason that we don’t try to wing it with coverage if we can get away with it.
Don’t you want your news to be accurate?
Also – you are really kind of proving to Hasidim that they are right: the media is just out to hurt them.
Also – this is creating hate. A lot of unfair hate against Jews. Really.
Also – and most importantly – healthy coverage when inaccurate fails the public. By hyper-focusing on anti-vaxxers, the media missed an important part:

Some people need to be revaccinated. 200 cases of measles were of people who were vaccinated. This is the kind of information that the public health journalism is supposed to uncover and disseminate. They didn’t, because the media was too busy salting and delivering red meat. Here is a video created by a Jewish community in which one individual came down with the measles:

Update: CNN ran a story that illustrates how a humane story can look like. Watch here.

The measles virus continues to spread, and now the Mayor of New York City has ordered all Williamsburg kids to vaccinate or face a fine. I am set up to get Google Alerts for news about the Hasidic community, and I am getting floods of links to stories about the anti-vaxxers in the community. I am still trying to jive how the stories in the news, in which the measles epidemic seems to be fueled by anti-vaxxers, matches my on-the-ground experience of the Hasidic community.

Here is what I have come to understand. A community needs 95% vaccinated population in order for the community to have herd immunity and not to be vulnerable to the outbreak. In any community, you will have a population that is unable to vaccinate, either those too young or allergic or with compromised immune systems. But these unvaccinated people will be fine so long as there is herd immunity, which, for a very contagious disease like measles that can be spread by just coughing, needs to be very high. This leaves room for only about 5% to opt out before the her immunity is breached MMR. In a community where almost every home has a baby and many are too young for the vaccine, the 5% is much more easily reached. Herd immunity is so delicate.

It looks like the measles outbreak took off when the community dropped below herd immunity rates. It was the perfect recipe for disaster when a lot of scary information about vaccines made its way around the womenfolk, and people either hesitated or delayed vaccinations. On top of that, schools didn’t insist or stay on top of its students immunization status, and doctors and community leaders didn’t aggressively counter these scary ideas. I know my son would never be enrolled in Public School without being either up to date on his shots or an exemption, but Hasidic schools can be much more lax, especially when people already forgot how bad outbreaks can be.

While the community clearly dropped below immunity, we have to ask by what ratio. Notice that according to a pro-vaccine KJ publication titled “Tzim Gezint”, the main Satmar school has only 2% vaccine exemptions. In Williamsburg, where people consider themselves a bit more worldly and are more likely to deviate from community norms, there are probably more exemptions. According to CBS2, about 100 families in Williamsburg are against vaccines. Sure, the city estimated that 1,800 children in the Hasidic Williamsburg neighborhood hadn’t been vaccinated as of December 2018 – when we just started to hear about the measles outbreak. But there has been a huge uptick in vaccinations since.

In the news, the anti-vaxxers take center stage. Their continued absurd stance is painted as the key to the problem. For instance watch these two women, whose way of thinking and modeling for the Dunning Kruger effect makes me want to tear my hair out.

 

 

But do these women reflect mainstream views? Are they anomalies? Considering they showed up to the Brooklyn Library for the announcement by the mayor and were willing to be on camera, I’d say probably not. I am wondering if these folks are going to be the Naturei Karte of the measles issue. The Naturei Karte is a radical fringe anti-zionist group which loves media attention, and even though the people who subscribe to it are a minority, they are so vocal, they are lodged in the popular imagination as the example of a standard Hasidic Jew.

What’s important to realize that once herd immunity has been compromised, the virus can spread even if the population is now up to date. It spreads to the unvaccinated population. This from the Times: “Dr. Yakov Kiffel, a pediatrician in Monsey in Rockland County, said that he has both vaccinated children and treated about a half-dozen patients with measles since the fall. He said the majority of the sick were under 6 months old — the age at which a child can be given the first dose of the M.M.R. vaccine — and members of families that said they vaccinate.”

In other words, the cat is out of the bag. Now, even if the mayor gets everyone to comply, herd immunity is destroyed, and the 5% or so who shouldn’t be vaccinated are very, very vulnerable. Think a cancer patient. Think someone very ill. Think all those tiny babies coming down with measles. They are all now susceptible even if everyone complies after-the-fact. I think the community and health officials should learn, really learn, that if you don’t vaccinate before a problem comes to town, you can’t simply quickly run to get your shots and solve the problem. Contrary to what that lady proudly believes about the problems of vaccines, preventive measures like herd immunity do a lot of good. The old adage… an ounce of prevention is worth — a thousand dollar fine and terrible medical risks and babies with red splotchy rashes and a terrible health scare for everyone else.