Nomi M. Stolzenberg and David N. Myers on American Shtetl

Photo credit: Jackson Krule

Nomi M. Stolzenberg and David N. Myers on American Shtetl

By Nomi M. Stolzenberg and David N. Myers

Scroll to Article Content

Settled in the mid-1970s by a small contingent of Hasidic families, Kiryas Joel is an American town with few parallels in Jewish history—but many precedents among religious communities in the United States. This book tells the story of how this group of pious, Yiddish-speaking Jews has grown to become a thriving insular enclave and a powerful local government in upstate New York. While rejecting the norms of mainstream American society, Kiryas Joel has been stunningly successful in creating a world apart by using the very instruments of secular political and legal power that it disavows.

What brought the two of you to write a book about Kiryas Joel?

NMS: Early in my career, I wrote about fundamentalist Christians who claimed that public schools were indoctrinating their children in “secular humanism” in violation of their right to the free exercise of religion. I was intrigued by the paradox they called attention to, which is that a society dedicated to the liberal value of tolerance is paradoxically intolerant of folks like them who reject liberal values.

When the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Kiryas Joel case in 1994, I was intrigued by the opposite side of the coin: how liberal rights could be used to empower a religious community that rejects modern liberal values. My intuition then was that the constitutional issues raised in that case were just the tip of the iceberg. In order to really understand the role of American law in empowering illiberal groups, one had to look at the community “from the bottom up,” in the sense of attending both to the role played by private institutions, private property, and private law and to the real life of the community and the individual actors who make the community tick. I knew that was work I couldn’t do by myself—it required the collaboration of a Jewish historian who understands the culture and its inner workings.  Fortunately, I happened to have just such a collaborator close at hand!

DNM: Over the years, I was intrigued when I would look over Nomi’s shoulder and see her studying Kiryas Joel.  My interest was especially drawn to what seemed to me an unusual, even unique, occurrence in modern Jewish history: a group of Jews united by faith and ritual practice who succeeded in establishing a form of “local sovereignty”—a legally recognized municipality—not in Israel, but in the United States.  Both Nomi and I have been interested in the attempts of Jews to assert a strong form of collective identity in the modern era in the face of threats ranging from an assimilatory liberalism to genocidal totalitarianism.  Well, here was a group of Jews who figured out how to create an extremely strong form of collective identity, embodied in a municipal government recognized by the state that can serve as guardian of the community’s interests and well-being.  The creation of the village of Kiryas Joel (KJ) in 1977 marks both a major success for the community and the beginning of a long and ongoing debate over whether KJ marks a violation of the vaunted constitutional principle of separation of religion and state.

What was your approach in studying Kiryas Joel?  How did you get access to the community?

DNM: My approach to Kiryas Joel was as a scholar of modern Jewish history struck by how distinctive KJ was in the annals of the Jews.  While it may seem surprising, there simply aren’t many precedents to the attempt to create a fully homogeneous and separatist community of strictly observant Jews, especially one that has the authority of the state behind it.  There is, of course, the state of Israel, which has a growing Haredi population.  But it was not intended by the Zionist leadership to be a sovereign state of strictly religious Jews

Kiryas Joel represents a counter-example—a form of what we might call “local sovereignty” in the United States of America.  I was fascinated by this example and began my research by reaching out to the community leadership in KJ almost twenty years ago.  I didn’t know what to expect but heard back quite quickly that I was welcome to come to Kiryas Joel—that, in fact, the community was interested in having someone hold up a mirror after a quarter century of existence as an officially recognized village.  This was the first of a long line of surprises that have marked my work in the community.  After receiving that initial positive answer, I made my first visit and have returned often over nearly two decades, almost always being greeted with a mix of friendliness, curiosity, and skepticism (as in “what are you really interested in getting at here?”).  The book has allowed me to mix an historical perspective that traces the arc of Satmar history from late nineteenth-century Europe to present-day suburban New York with on-site field work focused on the rhythm of daily life in KJ. It’s been an exhilarating and fascinating undertaking, probably the most interesting of my scholarly career. 

NMS: My approach was twofold. On the one hand, I was very focused on the immense amount of litigation generated by the village of Kiryas Joel, and I used traditional tools of legal research to document that litigation and analyze the legal issues the litigation raised. On the other hand, I came to realize that the published judicial decisions told only a small part even of the legal story. More and more, I focused on what has to become to be known as “the shadow docket,” i.e., the pretrial orders and emergency appeals for stays pending the outcomes of the litigation.  If you just looked at the final decisions, you’d think the courts refrained from getting involved in the Satmars’ internal power struggles. The announced decision often said that “we can’t get decide the case because this is an internal religious controversy,” or that “the dispute was settled earlier.” But when I went back and looked at the motions and the transcripts of pretrial hearings, I saw that the courts repeatedly made fateful decisions to grant parties “temporary” control over resources and institutions which, in fact, allowed them to cement their power.  By the time the court eventually decided “not to intervene,” the facts on the ground favored the party that had the won the “temporary” judicial order. A good example of this is the stay attorney Nathan Lewin obtained from the Supreme Court that allowed the KJ public school district to operate while the litigation was ongoing.  Lewin rightly took pride in this as one of his great legal successes because, once the school was allowed to operate, it never stopped. Beyond examining legal documents, I conducted interviews with lawyers, which gave me fascinating insights into the role they play as cultural translators. Last but not least, I talked with people threatened with the loss of custody of their children, as well as the lawyers who represent them in so-called “spiritual custody” disputes.

Why is this book called American Shtetl?

The title plays off of the self-declared aspiration of Satmar Hasidim to create a “shtetl”—the Yiddish word for little town—that resembled the insular Jewish community in Hungary (and later Romania) from which they came.  But that European community, Satu Mare (previously Szatmár), was not at all a shtetl, but rather a multicultural urban environment in which Jews represented a sizeable minority rather than an overwhelming majority of the population.  It was only in the United States that the Satmars and their charismatic leader, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, were able to build the kind of holistic and separatist community of which they had long dreamt—and which Rabbi Teitelbaum saw as the prime measure of success of his leadership.  It is not a coincidence that our titles also echoes that of one of the great pieces of Jewish fiction produced in this country, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral; like Roth’s, our book is as much an American story as it as a Jewish story.  In that sense, it is really an American Jewish story.

How could such a community take rise in the U.S.? Isn’t it unconstitutional?

With its deeply entrenched commitment to private property and the free establishment of religion, the U.S. is actually quite hospitable to an experiment in religious libertarianism such as Kiryas Joel.  Regarding the question of its constitutionality, if there were a simple yes or no answer to that question, there wouldn’t be a book to write!  In point of fact, there are at least two different ways of interpreting the Constitution in a case such as this. On one hand is the view that even though the village and school district of Kiryas Joel are formally secular, the fact that the leaders of the private religious institutions are often the same folks who run the municipal institutions means that you have a fusion of religious and political authority which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  But there is another view. Thanks in part to the multiculturalist movement, but perhaps even more due to the ascendance of the religious conservative movement from the late 1970s, the Supreme Court was becoming ever more receptive to a libertarian interpretation of the constitution according to which religious liberty is robustly protected and, so long as the formal distinction between public and private entities is upheld, the fact that a local government is of, by, and for a religiously homogeneous community does not mean that it violates the Establishment Clause or any other provision of the constitution.

What does the community tell us about the United States?

This tells two important things about the U.S.  First, it tells us that there is no single narrative or view of what the meaning of American values is. On the contrary, there is a deep-seated divide between two competing visions of American values: a liberal vision, which was forged in the mid-twentieth century, which is committed to integration (and therefore leery of any kind of separatism) and the separation of religion and state; and an anti-liberal communitarian vision, which has both conservative adherents and adherents on the left, which rejects integration in favor of group empowerment (read separatism), and permits groups with non-liberal values and non-secular values to form their own political enclaves.  Second, it tells us that the latter anti-liberal vision has been steadily gaining ground, while the liberal commitment to integrationism and secularism has steadily receded. Kiryas Joel’s astonishing rise into a community of 33,000 residents can only be understood against the backdrop of the waning commitment to liberal integrationism and the rise of a new mix of religious conservatism, libertarianism, and communitarianism. Not only did Kiryas Joel benefit from these dramatic changes in American culture, politics, and law; the village played a part, and a not insignificant part, in bringing these changes about.

Nomi M. Stolzenberg holds the Nathan and Lilly Shapell Chair at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. She has written widely on law and religion. Twitter @nomideplume1 David N. Myers holds the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History at the University of California, Los Angeles. His many books include Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction. Website Twitter @DavidNMyersUCLA