Skip To Content

Can You Leave The Orthodox And Remain Culturally Hasidic?

Who Will Lead Us? The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America
By Samuel Heilman
University of California Press, 336 pages, $26.95

A friend of mine, the blogger once known as “Shtreimel,” author of the popular (but now-defunct) website “A Hassid and a Heretic,” was a member of the Belz Hasidic sect when he began, in 2004, to write about living a Hasidic life while being an atheist in secret. In public, he practiced Hasidic Judaism, but in private he did not even observe Shabbat or keep kosher. Nevertheless, he remained, at least in his mind, a Belzer Hasid.

“For the first 20 years of my life,” “Shtreimel” told me recently, “everything was Belz. That’s not something you can take away. I was more Belz than Jewish.”

It may strike some as unusual, but it appears that, just like the cultural but nonreligious Jew, there is also the cultural but nonreligious Hasid.

Pesach Eisen, a 31-year-old man raised in a Hasidic family within the Bobov sect, is now an atheist and a nonobservant Jew, but the last things to go, he told me, were the vestiges that attached him to Bobov: “I had already cut off my peyes. I was no longer really observant, but on Shabbos I still wore shvartze zukken.” *Peyes — the curled sidelocks Hasidic men wear — were not specific to Bobov, and easier to discard. So were the regular rules of Orthodox Judaism. But shvartze zukken, the black stockings and knickers worn by unmarried young Bobov men, were a stronger marker of Eisen’s identity, the loss of which, he feared, would create a real psychic void.

Though Eisen was 12 when Shlomo Halberstam, the rebbe who rebuilt Bobov in America, passed away, Halberstam’s impact on him had been powerful. “He was almost like our Jesus,” Eisen told me. “He radiated this thing — like a mythical figure.” Eisen is now part of a tight-knit group of ex-Hasidim, for whom criticism of Hasidic leadership is almost de rigueur for membership. But, Eisen said, “I really think he [Halberstam] was one of the good ones. He was a solid dude.”

Eisen and “Shtreimel” ultimately made the decision to leave Hasidic life, but many other Hasidim have lost their faith, and yet their attachments to Hasidic life remain strong.

Ayala Fader, an anthropologist at Fordham University, has been studying this phenomenon, and has discovered a network of “double-lifers.” She has interviewed dozens of them for her forthcoming book, “Double Life: Faith, Doubt and the Internet Among Ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York.”

“I always ask don’t you want to leave if you could,” Fader told me recently. “And they’re like, no, this is my community.”

Her subjects claim that despite their nonbelief, they appreciate the “lifestyle,” an amorphous concept involving social and familial bonds, communal institutions, a love for Hasidic folklore and for Yiddish (in many cases their first language), and an appreciation for foods like cholent — the traditional stew eaten for Sabbath lunch.

But Fader thinks there’s something deeper. “The term ‘lifestyle’ is kind of superficial,” she said, “but it’s really about a deeper sense of community, a sense of belonging, and the centrality of family. All of which they see lacking in the secular world — and you know, maybe they’re right.”

The notion that one can be a cultural Jew rather than a religious one is deeply embedded in the modern Jewish experience. That a similar phenomenon should be true of Hasidic identity is perhaps surprising, but it explains the increasing numbers who are questioning their faith — and yet, there is no mass exodus.

Hasidic communities remain strong, with some of the highest birth rates among not only Jews but also most Western population groups. They are believed to more than double their numbers with each generation, and in the United States, especially in the New York Metro area, they have become a powerful force as a valuable electoral bloc for candidates running for public office. They are often characterized by religious and ideological commitments, but a deeper attachment to culture and identity appears to be just as great a factor — if not greater — in this community’s resiliency.

One aspect of this deep-rooted Hasidic culture is the attachment to a rebistve — the Hasidic court led by a rebbe — which for many Hasidim forms a crucial part of their identity, as it did for “Shtreimel” and Eisen.

I remember being a Hasidic 13-year-old, in 1988, attending a yeshiva in Montreal, and grilling two Satmar friends, Sender and Yitzchok, on just how devoted they were to their rebbe. “Would you go in fire for him?” I asked them. To “go in fire” for one’s rebbe is the ultimate test of a Hasid’s devotion. In Hasidic parlance, a true Hasid is known as a farbrenter. Burned. As if the readiness to be consumed by flames renders him already charred to the bone.

Sender hesitated. “In fire? I can’t really say,” he noted, sounding a little embarrassed, like it was a confession. “But up to fire, absolutely!”

Yitzchok looked at him in disbelief: “Of course I would go in fire for my rebbe!”

This was teenage-boy talk in the Hasidic world, but like teenagers everywhere, we were mimicking adults, to whom our respective rebbes possessed singular importance. None of us was particularly pious. We shirked our religious duties frequently — coming late to prayers and goofing off during Talmud study. Sender even confided in me that in between semesters, he went days without praying or putting on tefillin.

But still, rebbes mattered. Deeply.

The rebbe that Sender and Yitzchok would or would not go in fire for was Moshe Teitelbaum, nephew and successor of the first rebbe of Satmar, the charismatic anti-Zionist firebrand Yoelish Teitelbaum, who died in 1979. The elder Teitelbaum was mourned by tens of thousands, but left no children as heirs, and so it was left to the Hasidim to look to Moshe Teitelbaum, 66 at the time, to lead them.

Teitelbaum, however, was an uninspired choice. In his new book, “Who Will Lead Us? The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America,” Samuel Heilman describes him as a man who, at the time of his uncle’s passing, spent “much of his time running a number of small businesses, managing real estate,” and busying himself with other such un-rebbe-like occupations. He lacked his uncle’s natural charisma and formidable intellect, and his ideological passion. To many — including the “dowager rebbetzin” Feiga Teitelbaum, the elder Teitelbaum’s widow — Moshe Teitelbaum was simply unworthy.

Ultimately, though, there were few other viable candidates. Despite cutting a rather mediocre figure, Moshe Teitelbaum would retain the loyalties of most Satmar Hasidim and gain control of their institutions. By 1988, for boys like Sender and Yitzchok, his worthiness was no longer in question — nor particularly relevant. Once chosen, he was the only rebbe they had. The only rebbe to “go in fire” for.

The story of Moshe Teitelbaum’s ascent to the Satmar rebistve is one of the many riveting sagas of dynastic succession within the Hasidic world, which is the broader subject of Heilman’s latest book. A sociologist by training, Heilman has written nearly a dozen books about the Haredi community, and in this latest work he explores the challenges of succession in the courts of Satmar, Munkatch, Boyan, Kopyczynitz, Bobov and Chabad-Lubavitch. His surveys span the history of each sect’s founding in the shtetls of Eastern Europe to its rebuilding in the post-Holocaust era, and the result is a set of gripping narratives, with dramatis personae of deep human complexity: rebbes who nearly crumbled under their leadership burdens; rebbes with sexual obsessions; a rebbe rejected in his own lifetime in favor of his teenage son; even a rebbetzin with aspirations for her own rebistve.

Hasidim offer a spiritual and philosophical basis for revering their leaders on the principle of tzadikism, the notion that an individual Jew can reach greater spiritual heights by attaching to the superior righteous person who does the heavy religious lifting. The process of dynastic succession, however, illuminates the rather mundane factors that determine who gets to be called righteous. Within most contemporary Hasidic courts, little weight is given to a potential rebbe’s personal character traits. The more important quality, by far, speaks to a tribal interest rather than a spiritual one. The new rebbe must provide that sense of continuity that will maintain the group’s cohesion and preserve its identity. As such, he must claim dynastic descent from either the last rebbe or one of his ancestors, and also demonstrate an intuitive understanding of the requirements for this group’s rebistve — by claiming apprenticeship either from the old rebbe or through grooming by elder Hasidim.

A famous Hasidic joke, which Heilman repeats, goes: A Hasid comes to the rebbe and says, “Rebbe, I dreamed that I became a rebbe,” to which the rebbe replies, ‘Yes, but did any Hasidim dream it, too?”

That is to say that rebbes don’t appoint themselves. As Heilman notes elsewhere, “The way democratic societies choose leaders is not foreign to contemporary Hasidic life.” The Hasidic world might appear authoritarian, with power running top-down, but in reality, “the led select and bestow on the leader the power to govern their spiritual and personal lives. But after they’ve done so, they come to believe it is inherent and inborn, bow to it and ask it for blessings.”

If this feels a bit idolatrous, that’s because it suggests a concern with matters of spirit, when in truth, at least where dynastic succession is concerned, Hasidim are more concerned with matters of tribe. As Heilman said to me in a conversation, “What ties the Hasidim to the rebbe is what ties the Hasidim to the other Hasidim.” This, in many respects, is the core of Hasidic identity, a tribal attachment that transcends ideology. Strikingly, among themselves, Hasidim often refer to the panoply of Hasidic courts as partayen, Yiddish for political parties, as if to acknowledge their identities as a form of partisanship, fealty to a group regardless of principle. Faith and spirit might carry weight for a Hasid individually, but for the group, when their rebbe passes, Heilman writes, “the question of who might [succeed him]… becomes crucial for their continuity as a distinct group. This is because the rebbe is essential to Hasidic identity and their sense of who they are.”

If Moshe Teitelbaum was an underwhelming choice for the Satmar Hasidim, the choices in some other Hasidic courts prove even more telling. A survey of Hasidic courts today shows a number of rebbes molded to their positions from childhood — in some cases as early as infancy.

In the 1950s, the Munkatch Hasidim, rebuilding in Brooklyn after the Holocaust, were in need of a new rebbe, and so they looked to the teenage Moshe Leib Rabinowitz, grandson of Chaim Elazar Shapira, Munkatch’s prewar rebbe. Rabinowitz was at that time studying at the non-Hasidic Telshe yeshiva in Cleveland, far removed from Munkatch’s Hasidic culture. When he took the post at age 22, after marrying and undergoing an official crowning, the young rebbe was expected to learn on the job.

“If [he] did something his gabbai [sexton] thought was wrong, he would be sure to tell him,” Heilman writes.

But if Rabinowitz was a rebbe, he could hardly be called a leader. When his Hasidim grumbled about him walking around in ordinary black socks, Chaim Ber Greenfeld, the elderly attendant of the previous rebbe, made sure to instruct him: “We are your hasidim, and we want our rebbe to wear white stockings.” The rebbe, of course, complied.

A similar tale unfolded in the court of Boyan. The old rebbe died in 1971, and the Hasidim turned to a young grandson, Nachum Dov Brayer, who was 11 when his grandfather died.

Brayer was raised in a more open and modern environment than most Boyaner Hasidim. His father was a university professor, and his mother had a Master of Arts degree in chemistry. Nevertheless, a dearth of candidates left the Boyaner Hasidim with few options, and they chose the boy (with his parents’ blessing) and groomed him to be their future holy man.

Other groups (not covered in Heilman’s latest book) offer even starker examples of this. In Karlin-Stolin, the rebbe, Boruch Meir Yaakov Shochet, was appointed in infancy, after the death of his grandfather, and officially crowned at age 9. In Belz, Yissachar Dov Rokeach was pegged for the rebistve as a 9-year-old when his uncle Aaron Rokeach, the previous rebbe of Belz, died and left no heirs.

The Hasidic world is made up of about a dozen major sects and several dozen minor ones, but few of their leaders have a genuine claim to a conventional idea of “charismatic leadership.” What we have instead is a charisma that emerges out of what Heilman calls “cultural performances.”

“The rebbe comes in always at the end; there is the parting of the sea, as it were, the pushing, the effort to see him, the singing, the spectacle. It’s like when you go to a rock concert… when there are 50,000 other people, and they’re all screaming, and the musician’s in the distance, and everyone is trying to see him. What you’re worshipping is a projection of the group…. You’re worshipping yourselves.”

Which is why, perhaps, it should be no surprise that for Hasidic teens, even those unconcerned with piety or religious duties, like my friends Sender and Yitzchok, rebbes still mattered. Because what every teenager (and perhaps, to a degree, every human being) wants is to belong, and worshipping the rebbe is a powerful expression of belonging. It isn’t religious. It isn’t spiritual, or ideological. It’s simply human nature.

Earlier this year, I was in Brooklyn’s Boro Park, which contains the largest Hasidic community in the United States. It was late evening, and most people were home having their Sabbath dinner, but here and there I would pass a Hasidic man in full garb, long black coat and fur shtreimel, almost always appearing to be in a rush. One of those I passed, though, stopped and looked at me intently. “Shulem?” he said.

He told me he was no longer a believer and was considering leaving. Now he is glad he stayed. “Everything’s changed, Shulem,” he said, standing under a streetlamp with his shtreimel in hand. “People sit around in shul arguing, yuh gott, nisht gott — yes, God, no, God. Everything is permitted. Everyone has a smartphone. You can do whatever you want now.” He waved his hand across the street, now empty of its chaotic weekday traffic. “This life here — it’s the best there is.”

Afterward, I wandered the streets a bit, and ambled into a handful of synagogues. At the Bobov and Belz synagogues, posters warned worshippers against bringing smartphones into the building. In the Skulen synagogue, a sign warned against the very possession of a smartphone. Right next to it was a sloppily pasted photocopy of a rabbinic ruling, implying that anyone suspected of using a smartphone must be prevented from leading prayers.

Hasidic leaders are clearly anxious, but they also appear to be failing to curb internet use. And yet, what few realize is that Hasidic identity might be stronger than the currents sweeping through it. The walls are being breached. The information age might be no less impactful than Gutenberg’s printing press. What we see, however, is a community adapting naturally to a changing world, rather than wholesale rejection of a cherished identity.

Several weeks ago, I sat with my friend “Shtreimel” in my apartment. We had first met in 2005, when he and I both looked and dressed like Hasidim. Now, we both looked like typical New Yorkers, bareheaded, in jeans and T-shirts. Over Heinekens and roasted sunflower seeds we reminisced about the past decade. He had watched as I made my own exodus from the Hasidic world in December 2007, but it would take him years to do the same. I asked what took him so long.

He took a sip of beer and, smirking, said, “I was a Belzer. And I wanted to remain a Belzer.” He thought for a moment. “You know, that’s the real American dream, to have the best of both worlds.”

Ultimately, his community learned of his heresy, and he was no longer welcome at his old synagogue. His wife, too, complained about his heretical ways, and worried about his influence over their children. Now he spoke ruefully about it all — he had no intention of influencing his children away from observance, he said. Quite the opposite. “I have five children,” he said, “and I would like at least one of them to be a Belzer.”

He was mostly being facetious, but there was also a hint of earnestness. His children, he told me, are growing up, his youngest nearing adolescence. After he himself was forced from his community, his children, too, began to drift from the traditional life.

“Are any of your kids connected to Belz now at all?” I asked.

“Doesn’t seem like it.” he answered, grimacing, but then his face lit up with a grin. “But I do hope that’ll change.”

Like the cultural Jew, the cultural Hasid feels an attachment to his identity, but might let it drift under the right circumstances. But the kids. He’ll always still want it for the kids.

Shulem Deen is the author of “All Who Go Do Not Return” (Graywolf Press, 2015).


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.