I generally find it hard to feel as if I am part of the same Jewish people as Satmar Hasidim. Living not far from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I see them regularly yet it’s hard to imagine feeling more worlds apart.
At the mall I encounter young women — so young that in another life I would call them girls, but for the fact that they are married women wearing wigs with scarves or hats on top, and pushing infants in baby carriages. We shop side by side but their Yiddish chatter poses a shtetle wall too high for me to surmount.
When I see a teenage Satmar girl, often leading younger siblings or cousins, all of them demurely dressed in calf-length pleated skirts and sweaters over collared shirts, I occasionally need to quell an impulse to touch her arm and say “it’s not too late to leave!” since she isn’t yet married but will be, soon. I know it’s ridiculous; for all I know these girls think similar things about my daughters.
Living utterly apart is what their community cultivates. But I hate that other Jews seem so foreign, and that many in my community find them intimidating, or feel judged by their standards eschewing anything to do with modern culture and excluded by the modesty signs in their store windows. It is only stubborn refusal to be made to feel marginalized that leads me to occasionally return to the bakery or hardware store on Lee Avenue, despite the fact that male clerks refuse to look at me and I have to politely insist on being served. Years ago, in upstate New York, a friend and I entered a kosher supermarket across the street from a Satmar bungalow colony to buy challah and dessert for that evening’s Shabbat dinner. Even then the store had modesty warnings on the door. Though I was wearing jeans and not a skirt, I knew I was not immodestly dressed and felt no qualms about walking right in. My friend complimented my refusal to stay away. I am a Jew too, I said to her then. I have just as much a right to buy kosher food as they do. I will not willingly back away from my own claim on Jewish living no matter how many modesty signs they put in their windows.
But since that time the estrangement between Satmar and most of the rest of the Jewish community here has only grown. They hold dear practices most of the rest of us find impossible to understand, like metzitzah b’peh. They protect rather than disavow a convicted child molester like Nechemya Weberman. Many are anti-Zionist.
And yet. When Raizy and Nachman Glauber were killed late Saturday night, my sorrow was tinged with something more familiar than the sadness I would feel for any family suffering such an incomprehensible loss. The wedding portrait accompanying the news stories shows a couple all but touching, their faces shy while posed next to each other. His shtreimel’s fur is carefully brushed upward, her expression apprehensive. They look stunningly young.
The news that their prematurely delivered son, cut from his dead mother’s body, had passed from this world a day later added another layer of sadness. But even amid the sadness, there remained a sense of slight distance.
Then a letter surfaced. Said to have been penned by Nachman on his wedding day, in a neat Yiddish hand he wrote expressing thanks to his parents:
I feel an obligation to thank you for everything you did for me since I was a small child. You did not spare time, energy and money, whether it was when I needed a private tutor to learn or an eye doctor or general encouragement. Also, later on, you helped me to succeed in my Torah studies, you sent me to yeshiva to learn your values, religious and worldly, until I reached to this current lucky moment.But since kids do not grasp what parents are, and how much they do for them, and only when he matures and – with God’s help — have their own kids, they could realize it. And unfortunately I may have caused you a lot of pain; I am asking you to please forgive me.I’m asking you, I’m dependent on your prayers, pray for me and my bride, and I will pray for you.
Any mother can appreciate the humble sweetness in his letter, the moving vulnerability in his appreciation for his parents and request for their love and prayers. Any parent can be proud to have raised such a son. And it is this more than anything that reached across the gulf that usually separates my life from theirs.
Nachman Glauber’s letter showed me that despite our different values and ways of dressing, despite the vastly disparate ways in which we relate to the world, that we really are just mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, people who try to love and hope to be loved. That in the end, we belong to the same Jewish people. And same human race.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”
Hit-and-Run Tragedy Bridges Jewish Divide