Latest update: December 27th, 2012
In 1964 the eminent sociologist Marshall Sklare declared Orthodoxy to be irrelevant. His view was that Conservative Judaism was the wave of the future in America.
How wrong he was. Orthodoxy has become a powerful force in American Jewish life. And its power center is New York City, where, according to the latest census figures, the Orthodox comprise 40 percent of the Jewish population. At the same time, 60 percent of Jews living in the city are either nominally affiliated or have no religious identification with Judaism.
A few months ago I chanced upon a remarkable book by Philip Fishman, A Sukkah Is Burning: Remembering Williamsburg’s Hasidic Community. It is a rich and detailed account of life in that Brooklyn neighborhood during the 1950s. The chassidim who came during this post-Holocaust period found an entrenched Modern Orthodox community with a different approach to Orthodoxy and, predictably, tensions ensued. Fishman, who is Modern Orthodox, was part of that community and attended Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, a school that became a flagship institution for a third community – strictly Orthodox or, if you will, yeshivish Jews.
During this period the Orthodox community was weak. The Modern Orthodox were a small group and the survivors who made up much of the immigrant Orthodox were burdened with rebuilding their own lives. In that sense it’s not surprising that no one could foresee the movement’s future.
How did it happen? How did a community seemingly marked for oblivion revive and thrive? The answers lie in an understanding of the internal dynamics of Orthodoxy and a comprehension of developments in the larger society.
* * * * * Every successful movement requires charismatic leaders – people who can inspire others. The refugees had many problems but ultimately they had come, as Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, zt”l, put it, “from the land of the gedolim.”
The Jews of Europe revered rabbinical leaders for both their knowledge and their personal attributes, their middos. Though America had originally been spurned as the “trefeineh medinah” in the early 1900s, it now became the new home for 140,000 European Jews who elected to rebuild their lives here.
Included in this group were chassidic rebbes and Lithuanian/Polish roshei yeshiva. In addition, several gedolim – Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik and Rav Mordechai Gifter, among others – were already here. Many of the new immigrants flocked to these leaders and eagerly enrolled their children in their yeshivas, most of which already existed before the war.
Fishman’s book provides richly textured and invaluable first-hand accounts of the colorful figures who inhabited this world, from the Sigheter chassidim to the Pirchei leader Rabbi Moshe Lazar to the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, who officiated at his bar mitzvah. (The book is also a model case study of the conflicts between different factions that were to roil Orthodox communities then and which, as he describes, have continued to the present time. The truth is, the many strands of Orthodoxy give people options. Without them, a good number might leave the fold altogether.)
The late 1940s were an era of prosperity. As a result, more people could afford to send their children to yeshivas. Before this period fewer went, and those who did were mostly boys. By contrast, Orthodox Jews today who don’t provide their children with a Jewish education are the exception to the rule. (I should add that the near astronomical costs of such an education have spawned the birth of Jewish charter schools, which could be used to great advantage by the Orthodox. But that is beyond the purview of this essay.)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin once said that the most amazing thing about the survivors is that they were still willing to bring children into a world that had treated them so cruelly. For many it was a religious imperative. The desire to deny Hitler a victory by ensuring the continuity of the Jewish people was also a consideration, as was as the desire to lead a tangibly normal life. At any rate, the Orthodox Jewish birthrate rose, even as it declined among the non-Orthodox.
Yet another factor in Orthodoxy’s growth was the tolerance in post-World War II America for cultural expression. In the 1920s and ‘30s the prevailing view was that everyone should assimilate. By the late 1940s, when the postwar generation arrived, that perspective had changed to one where ethnic and religious identity was perfectly fine so long as it posed no threat to the country’s national security.
About the Author: William B. Helmreich is professor of sociology at CUNY Graduate Center and the author of “The World of the Yeshiva” and many other books including the forthcoming “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles Through the City,” to be published in 2013 by Princeton University Press.
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