Monthly Archives: October 2017

“One of Us” Falls Short

One of Us is the just-released Netflix documentary on the topic of leaving the Haredi sector. Three Haredi “OTD” departees are filmed and interviewed in various stages of their departure. For each of the subjects, we learn about struggles that are typical to departees: a custody battle with her ex, for Etty; assimilating mainstream culture, overcoming drug addiction and finding work, for Ari; overcoming the grief of having abandoned community friends and family, and solidifying his acting career, for Luzer.

The film is particularly moving in its portrayal of Etty, the woman who believes that her ex-haredi husband was physically and verbally abusive to her and is determined that her children not share custody with him. She refuses to “negotiate” with her ex when given the chance, and recruits the aid of Footsteps to legally fight back against her ex’s well-financed and community-backed quest to retain custody of the children and raise them hasidic.

The film does a great job in the pathos department, but falls short in the logos department. It conveys to viewers a good sense of the struggles that departees must endure, and thus evokes empathy for the subjects. But the film does not probe the crux of the matter: What motivates people to leave? How do they adapt? Who are their new friends? What types of jobs/careers do they adopt? How do they manage financially? Is there a network of OTD friends who help one another? It does little or none to address any of such questions that a viewer is apt to have.

Some incidents mentioned by the subjects in the movie beckon elaboration, but none is forthcoming.

I was immensely curious by Etty’s report that she was abused by her ex-husband: “he beat me, yelled at me, embarrassed me, but I never responded; I just had more babies”. Context here is seductively inviting: Where, when and why did he beat you? How did he embarrass you (embarrassment, by definition, requiring such an event to be in the presence of a third party) What did he yell at you about? Did you ask him to hash out disputes calmly? When Etty talks about her ex “hurting the kids” (to which he responds that the law has no control within the community) she is not prompted to elaborate: is it that he used corporal punishment as a disciplinary tool?

Most importantly, the producers/directors should have attempted to get Etty to answer the simple and most obvious question: Does Etty believe that all husbands in the hasidic community “abuse” their wives in the same way that she was abused, or does she believe that her case is an outlier? At one point she mentions her husband’s “controlling behavior” and the mandatory Friday-night sex in one breath. Is that what she means by abuse and control? Is it that her being forced to cut her “beautiful thick black hair” on the day after her wedding is inherently abusive. Or is there something special that happened in her case that doesn’t happen to the thousands of other women who get married every year and are perfectly content with the system?  The answer to these questions holds the key to the correct impression a viewer should have from this film; but, unfortunately, the producers didn’t bother with it, possibly viewing it as outside the scope of their responsibility to simply “tell the story”.

Ari reports that he was exually molested as a child by a member in the community who is still in good standing. Once again, an avalanche of questions started cascading in my mind: Who did it? When and how? Were you hurt by it, physically or psychologically? Did you report it to anyone? If not, why? If yes, was any action taken? These questions are important because they constitute a major factor in Ari’s estrangement from the community. Early in the film Ari tells a friend the reason for shedding his beard and peios is that he “didn’t want to live the lie… I didn’t feel like the person I looked like, so I chose a different path”. Later he talks about “unanswered questions”, and nods when a counselor asks if that is in reference to the existence of God. Nevertheless, later in the film, Ari states that if there was a God, He would have interfered to prevent Ari’s molester from executing his deed, or He would have punished the molester, thus implying that his alleged sexual abuse was a driving force in his decision that there was no God and that the Haredi lifestyle was not worth espousing.

There are some scenes in the movie that are not properly identified. Early in the film there are men dancing on the streets of Borough Park, but no explanation is offered as to what is the occasion. There are scenes of Luzer in his Hasidic hairstyle and garb, from before his transition, that are not properly dated and contextualized. When Luzer points to “here” as the location where he used to watch movies in his car because he couldn’t do so at home, the produces make no effort to identify the place (e.g. neighborhood, city, state). Which brings me to an even more glaring omission: the producers do not identify their subjects’ places of birth, places of marriage (if applicable), sectarian affiliation, and the age at which they departed.

Many of the lacuna that are so vexing to me could have been explained in the subtitles, by prompting the subjects to talk more about them, or by structuring the film within a narrative voiceover that guides the viewer through the film. This latter device for telling a documentary film story is very effective, and I’m confounded as to why producers would eschew it.

Another thing that bothers me is that apart from the Hasidic perspective we glean from the counselor with whom Ari confers, we don’t hear anything directly from the Hasidic side. When you tell a story of leaving something, it would be nice to hear more from the people who created and maintain that “something”, as to why they believe that it is a desirable place to remain in, in opposition to the view taken by the subjects who have decided to leave.

The sombre brooding soundtrack to the film is mysterious to me. It is meant to evoke a Psycho-esque mindset of something ominous and horrific about to happen, but no such event is in the offing in this film.

Finally, let me repeat my criticism mentioned at the outset of this review, because I consider it the film’s biggest shortcoming: I want to learn more about the subjects’ lives. Where do they live? Who are their friends? What kind of work do they do? What are their aspirations in life (other than for the better-established Luzer about whom we know that it’s professional acting, but we still don’t know how successful he is at it)? Do they believe that the Haredi system doesn’t work for themselves only, or is it inherently untenable and unsustainable in the decades to come?

No experts on the topic of Haredism or departure thereof are ever brought on camera to testify.

In conclusion: If you want a movie that is emotionally touching and empathetic, you’ve got it. If you want answers to substantive rational questions about the haredi lifestyle and those who choose to leave it, we will have to continue to wait. The decades-old documentary film “A Life Apart: Hasidism in America” would have to suffice for now.

 

Sharmasher Rav, R. Joel Morgenstern, Dead at 68

R. Morgenstern fulfilling the commandment of writing a Torah scroll

R. Joel Morgenstern, the Sharmasher Rav, died Tuesday, October 10, 2017, in the wee hours of the morning in Kiryas Joel, Monroe, NY, at the age of 68. As a distinguished disciple of R. Yoelish Teitelbaum, he was admired by multitudes of Satmar and Satmar-aligned Hasidim for his piety and adherence to the Satmar shittoh (“opinion”), his perennial smile, and his extraordinarily diligent scholarship. Tens of thousands of Hasidim followed his bier in funeral, first at his “Beis Naftoli” Williamsburg shul where he had lived earlier in his life, and then at his Kiryas Yoel shul.

Joel was born into a working-class family of low repute, one that had neither money nor scholarship. His father, Uri Schildkraut, died when he was a toddler. He subsequently adopted the name of his stepfather: Morgenstern.

He is the quintessence of meritocratic distinction. As a boy he already distinguished himself with incessant studying of the Talmud. A classmate who later became a school teacher recounted that Yoelish, as he was affectionately called, rehearsed the tractate of pseohim by heart to himself when he was once confined to bed in summer camp due to an illness. Another rumor alleges that he traversed that tractate in its entirety on the day of his wedding. Later in life he was known to spend as many ay 18 hours a day immersed in Torah studies.

R. Morgenstern’s body, wrapped in a tallis and surrounded by candles lies overnight awaiting burial

As a bohur he studied in the Satmar Yeshiva under R. Joel Teitelbaum’s auspices. R. Teitelbaum was reportedly very impressed with the dedication and achievement of his disciple, quipping about him that “a pupil like him I have never had, even at the home [i.e. in Europe]”.

His exceptional scholarship brought him to the attention of the Sharmasher Rav, a Holocaust-surviving Romanian Rabbi from the “old home”, who gave his daughter to him in marriage in 1968 thus signaling his acceptance into the class of the Haredi-Hungarian rabbinic elite.

From 1968 until 1980 he was the leader of a small contingency of Satmar Hasidim who chose to settle in the chiefly Lithuanian town of Lakewood, N.J. When his father-in-law, the Sharmasher Rav of Williamsburg, died in 1985, he relocated to Williamsburg to assume the mantle of leadership at his father-in-law’s Williamsburg shul, “Kehal Beis Naftoli”.

In subsequent years he relocated to Kiryas Joel, the thriving Satmar exurban village in the Monroe township of upstate New York. There he opened another shul (also called “schtiebel”) under the Sharmasher brand and attracted a coterie of congregants and adherents. Moreover, his fame had by then spread throughout the Satmar sect; he was admired, queried, and patronized widely, and his opinion on halakhic and political matters was esteemed.

He earned his sustenance in large part through honorariums for attending people’s joyous family celebrations. He never declined a simhoh invitation, sometimes reportedly attending up to ten in a single night.

Morgenstern’s Williamsburg funeral

When the internecine conflict erupted between Kiryas Yoel’s Aaronite leadership and the Benei Yoel dissidents he declined to join other petty Rabbis in the village in signing proclamations against the dissidents. He probably took this stance, viewed as hostile by the Aaronites, out of displeasure with what was perceived as R. Aaron’s laxity on the Satmar shittoh with respect to Zionisim, Mizrahism and Aggadism.

At first he frequented the central Satmar synagogue under R. Aaron’s rabbinate, spending his day there steeped in his studies. The Aaronites continued to attempt to nudge him on the Benei Yoel issue, to no avail. When the Benei Yoel first opened their own schools and the K.J. authorities decried its pupils as “wormy children”, R. Morgenstern balked at signing the anti-dissident proclamation. One day, sometime in the 1990s, K.J. Satmar Yeshiva bohorim, acting impetuously on behalf of their Rabbi, seized R. Morgenstern while he was engrossed in his study, carried him down to the mikveh and tossed him inside. This violent incident, meant to terrorize him into submission to Aaron, had a boomerang effect instead. R. Morgenstern ceased attending the central Satmar synagogue and began to accept invitations to weddings and other family celebrations by the Benei Yoel.

Morgenstern’s Kiryas Joel funeral

Weddings taking place in Kiryas Joel in those years were highly contentious. In the Aaronite attempt to quash the nascent Benei Yoel resistance, they had issued a ban on all weddings in Kiryas Joel officiated by a mesadder kidushin (betrothal organizer) other than the official Rabbi of the village, R. Aaron Teitelbaum, or his authorized deputy. They had adduced a Hasam Sofer responsum that had declared a certain dissident Rabbi in a European schtetel rabbinic succession dispute to be illegitimate: “his slaughtered chickens are therefore treif and the children of marriages over which he officiates are bastards”.

By enjoining all non-Aaronite Rabbis from presiding over a marriage ceremony anywhere within the boundaries of R. Aaron’s jurisdiction as moroh deasroh (Rabbi of the place) of K.J., the Aaronites sought to punish the Benei Yoel by imposing on them the severe hardship of having to move the entire wedding event to an alternate town.

R. Morgenstern’s marriages were null and void according to halokho, cried Aaron, and R. Morgenstern was complicit in the enormous sin of bastardizing hundreds of children born to couples that were married by him. Vehicles circulated the town on the eve of such benei yoel weddings barring townsfolk from attending the wedding and apprising them that such marriages were null and the resulting children bastards with whom one may not associate nor intermarry.

Notice of Morgenstern’s death, posted in the Zalmanite central synagogue in Williamsburg

But the Aaronite campaign ultimately failed. After the Satmar succession feud broke out, the Zalmanites took over as the new, stronger and better armed battalion combating the arrogant, presumptuous and evil Aaronites. Benei Yoel dissidents were quickly invited to join the Zalmanite ranks in the new front, and old hostilities between them and the Berakh Moshe were shoved under the rug and forgotten. Around 2006 the Berakh Moshe purports to have written an official letter reversing his earlier position that no Rabbis may compete with his son, R. Aaron, on his village turf: now that R. Aaron was suing the Williamsburg congregation in court, contrary to halokho, R. Aaron’s exclusive authority in the village was no longer valid. The missive, while technically only legitimating marriages performed by R. Morgenstern and others going forward, caused the whole Aaronite campaign to outlaw non-Aaronite marriages to founder, as if the campaign has never had any validity.

What’s more, with R. Morgenstern stature in the community rising as he got older, the Aaronites found it increasingly untenable to direct their fire at the widely esteemed Rabbi himself. Instead of implicating him in deliberate wrongdoing, Aaronites acknowledged his scholarship and piety but called him a dullard who learns and reviews a lot but never attains a keen and profound grasp of the content. He was feeble-minded, easily beguiled and manipulated by the hardheaded dissidents, the Aaronites said.

R. Morgenstern was known for a peculiar habit of “linking day and night” in Torah study. He fastidiously arose in predawn hours of the night to be poised to engage in Torah study at the the moment of dawn when the night transitions into day. Ditto to dusk: he would make sure to be always occupied in learning at the moment when day turned to night. He had adopted this habit early in his life and persisted with it on every day of the year without exception until his death. It is alleged that when the Satmar Rabbi, R. Joel Teitelbaum finished his Friday night tisch around 2:00 in the morning he once remarked that “yoelish is probably up by now heading to the besmedrosh to study”.

His funeral Tuesday morning fell in the midst of hol hamoed sukkos, the intermediary days of the sukkos festival, –a time of joy when eulogies are normally forbidden. But halokho makes an exception for a talmid hokhom, thus prompting a large turnout of mourners to his Brooklyn and later upstate funeral. The eulogies elicited sobbing by the audience and praise likewise gushed forward on social media on such sites as ivelt.com and kaveshtiebel.com.

R. Morgenstern’s body was laid to rest in the Zalmanite section of the K.J. cemetery, one that is contiguous with the Aaronite section in which lies the grand rebbe, R. Yoelish Teitelbaum, but is accessed from a different road. Visitors to gravesites in the Zalmanite section often climb over or subvert the wall that the Aaronites have put up between the sections to prevent Zalmanites from easily accessing the grand rebbe’s monument.

R. Joel Morgenstern is survived by eight sons and seven daughters.