Blooming Hill is a small farm located about two hours’ drive north of New York City. Here they grow over 200 varieties of organic fruit and vegetables, selling fresh produce on rough trestle tables inside of a rustic wooden barn.
On weekends they also run a simple kitchen, whipping up wholesome food from their super-fresh ingredients. Meals are eaten outdoors, at big communal tables, under the shade of trees, looking over greenhouses and orchards. And you share this dining experience with an eclectic crowd of city-slickers on excursion, crunchy hipsters stocking up on their kale and goji berries, and local hippies (there is an ashram nearby).
It is all pretty lovely. So while visiting New York a few months back we decided to meet a friend there for brunch. We ordered a seriously scrumptious looking breakfast pizza, found seats at one of the tables, and within moments got into conversation with a group of locals seated around us.
Where, to my surprise, a topic of discussion was none other than Hasidic Jews.
It turns out that Blooming Hill’s municipality encompasses three villages. The first two, Monroe and Harriman, are quiet and unremarkable; home to mainly farmers and hippies. But the third village, with the unmistakably Yiddish / Hebrew name of Kiryas Joel, is home to about 30,000 ultra-orthodox Jews – people around the table were referring to it simply as “the Jewish village”.
And not just any old ultra-orthodox Jews, mind you. Rather, Kiryas Joel is a village populated almost exclusively by Satmar Hasidim, one of the most conservative, insular Jewish sects in the world. Satmar ideology categorically rejects modernity, mandates strict adherence to Jewish religious law, and is virulently anti-secular and anti-Israel (Satmars regard the establishment of the modern State of Israel as a heresy).
Apparently Kiryas Joel’s population is growing rapidly – far outpacing the growth of neighboring villages. This is resulting in escalating friction between its residents and those of the neighboring towns. Issues like land allocation (Kiryas Joel’s growth means it is constantly appropriating land from the nearby villages), or differences of opinion on how local schools should be run.
Hence explaining how Hasidic Jews came to be a topic of conversation around a breakfast table in the bucolic surrounds of the Blooming Hill organic farm. Or to put it another way, on a sunny Sunday morning in the boondocks of New York State, I found myself eating a decidedly non-kosher breakfast pizza not three miles away from the domain of some of the most hard-core Jews one could ever hope to meet.
I just had to see what this was all about.
But first, some background.
Once upon a time, in faraway Hungary, a great Hasidic Rabbi died, and his eldest son took over leadership duties. Although some of the flock wanted Joel, second son of the deceased Rabbi, to be their new leader.
So they moved to the village of Satmar and set up a “rival” community. There, Joel’s following grew, and over the next thirty years or so he was able to develop and preach a particularly conservative, anti-modern, anti-Zionist brand of Judaism.
When the Nazis invaded Hungary in 1944, Joel was smuggled out of the country, ultimately winding up in New York, in the Brooklyn suburb of Williamsburg. There he set about rebuilding his congregation, creating a thriving, yet insular, ultra-religious Jewish sect, right in the heart of hyper-modern New York. He insisted on Yiddish, not English, as the lingua franca of the community, and maintained a policy of strict separation from the world at large. Over time Joel’s Satmars became one of New York’s largest Hasidic groups.
But Joel was worried. He did not like his flock being so close to the corrupting influence of city life. So in 1974 he began purchasing land in a remote upstate New York location, and building residences there. The idea was that by decamping to the countryside, the community would be better shielded from the immoral temptations inherent in New York City.
This housing project was called Kiryas Joel (Joel Village, in Yiddish) – no prizes for guessing why. Fourteen Satmar families officially took up residence there in 1977. By the turn of the century the village had grown to about 3,000. By 2014, it was 30,000, a tenfold population increase in less than 15 years. This almost certainly makes Kiryas Joel the largest exclusively Jewish village anywhere outside of Israel.
And the village’s population continues to grow, with no sign of slowing down. Which rapid growth, as mentioned, is causing of all manner of issues with the neighbors ….
I excused myself from the breakfast table, hopped in the car, and set off for some impromptu Judaic exploring.
First stop: a big signboard at the side of the road leading into town, which read “Welcome to Kiryas Joel, a traditional community of modesty and values”. And lest there be any misunderstanding as to what exactly that meant, the sign gave me some helpful pointers on how I should dress and behave while visiting. Like long sleeves below the elbow and long pants (or if a woman, a long skirt with covered neckline), appropriate language, and maintaining gender separation at all times in all public areas. But other than that, “Enjoy your visit!”
Given that it was Sunday, the day after the Jewish Sabbath, the people of Kiryas Joel were out in force, heading into town to shop for the start of their week. Forest Road, the main traffic artery, was bumper to bumper. Every vehicle was being driven by an orthodox Jewish man, long forelocks and beard visible behind the wheel (I did not see a single woman driving – the first hint that they take the subject of “maintaining gender separation” quite seriously in these parts).
Even sitting inside of my car I was clearly an outsider, and it felt like people were staring at me. A small child in the back seat of one car even pointed me out to his siblings, and they all gawked at me, mouths agape, like I was a form of circus curiosity.
I parked out front of the Kiryas Joel Shopping Centre, and went for a short wander. It seems that I was the only bloke dressed for the 20th century summer. Every other man – and I mean every other man, without exception – was dressed in the style of the European Jewish villager, circa the winter of 1600. That is, a heavy black suit and overcoat,long beard and forelocks, skull cap, and a big black furry hat. The women, for their part, were all wearing frumpy ankle to neck dresses and head-scarves, their ankles, elbows, necklines and hair fully covered.
Basically, I felt like an extra-terrestrial. And even though (thankfully) I was “modestly” dressed in jeans, sneakers and a long sleeved shirt, I may as well have been wearing a leopard-print bikini I looked so obviously out of place.
I popped into a store to buy a snack, but mainly as an excuse to interact with a local. A young man at the cash register took my money. To everyone else he spoke in Yiddish; but when speaking to me he switched to English, albeit with a heavy Eastern European accent. I later read that even though Kiryas Joel is in the heart of America, English is its second language. In the most recent US Census, 46% of the locals reported that they spoke English “not well or not at all”. Everyone speaks Yiddish as their mother tongue, a language that is all but extinct everywhere else.
As far as human contact goes, that was it. I had no other interpersonal interactions of any sort while in Kiryas Joel. It was quite eerie really. I passed lots of people in the busy street, and tried to smile or make eye contact, but no-one reciprocated. Men carrying prayer bags seemed to be in a hurry, pouring like a stream into the massive structure of the Yetev Lev Synagogue. I didn’t merit so much as a glance as they brushed past.
And the women of Kiryas Joel, or at least those of them I saw, kept their heads bowed and their eyes firmly fixed on the sidewalk as I walked by. Maintaining gender separation is one thing, but this was extreme, and marginally uncomfortable: to the women in the street that day, it was like I didn’t even exist.
To be fair though, I wasn’t a complete ghost. The kids of Kiryas Joel seemed totally fascinated by my presence. And, there were lots of kids there – lots, and lots, and lots. So much so that Kiryas Joel seemed less of a functioning town and more of a giant Jewish kindergarten.
Outside of every house I saw kids’ bikes and toys strewn on the lawn. Everywhere I looked there were f kids: crossing the road in groups, hanging about outside the stores, or trailing their moms from one store to the next. The Satmar community obviously takes the Lord’s decree to “go forth and multiply” pretty literally, and Kiryas Joel supposedly has the youngest median age of any town its size in the USA, at 13.2 years old. The average family size is six.
In any case the kids obviously hadn’t read the memo. They stared at me without restraint, and a few even pointed at me, just like the kid in the car had done on my way into town.
So I walked around for a bit this way, ignored by the men, unseen by the women, ogled at by the kids. I stopped here and there to watch people go about their daily chores, and I couldn’t help thinking to myself: “wow, I have somehow teleported back in time, to what is basically a medieval Jewish shtetl”.
I was struck by how rundown and dirty the whole place seemed to be. Kiryas Joel has one of the highest poverty rates of anywhere in the USA, with more than two-thirds of the residents living below the poverty line. I suppose this is mainly owing to the fact that most women are busy raising all those kids, while most men are committed to studying Torah full-time. For which I understand that the pay, at least in terms of earthly reward, isn’t that great.
Although the overriding memory of my brief visit to Kiryas Joel comes courtesy of a little boy, probably about five, dressed in over-sized hand-me-down clothes, with long blonde hair, a skullcap, and wearing thick glasses. He was standing outside of a store, presumably while his mother shopped inside. I was standing on the opposite corner of the footpath, about ten feet away, where the little boy saw me, did a double-take, and then stared at me, non-stop, for at least two full minutes. He was fascinated, intently craning his neck and peering at me with a look of bewilderment.
I smiled at him, and he sheepishly smiled back. I smiled again, and he smiled back again. And then I took it too far, by raising my arm and waving at him. The little guy’s face was suddenly overcome with a look somewhere between terror and panic. It was like this weird looking foreigner had suddenly morphed into a Godzilla that might eat him at any moment. He turned around and ran off into the store as fast as his little legs would carry him. As far as he was concerned, I was clearly the strangest, most dangerous thing to come to town in quite some time.
That very same night, back in New York City, we were invited to join some friends for dinner at a barbecue restaurant. It was right in the heart of Williamsburg, alongside an assortment of ultra-trendy bars and fashion stores.
Williamsburg is an area in transition, with hipsters moving in and the neighborhood’s traditional communities getting pushed further and further out. The irony did not escape me. As I hoed into my Texas-style short-ribs and macaroni-cheese, I kept thinking that all those years ago, maybe Joel was right. In the woods of upstate New York the folks of Kiryas Joel are now protected from what he feared most. They know nothing of what has descended on Williamsburg: the warehouse renovations, the Pilates studios, or the chic wine-bars that stay open until 3am each night.
I kept thinking about how Kiryas Joel is one of the more unusual country towns I’ll ever visit, anywhere in the world.
I kept thinking about how far removed I am from the people of Kiryas Joel. I too can trace my origins (at least in part) back to 16th century European shtetls. But somehow, over the past 300 years or so, the differences between those of us Jews who are essentially secular and those who are not have overwhelmed any similarities there may be.
I kept thinking about how strange I had felt in Kiryas Joel. There, surrounded by “my people”, I felt like a complete alien. I may just have well have visited an Amish town in Pennsylvania or a Masai Warrior village in Kenya, for all that I had in common with the folks of Kiryas Joel.
But mostly I kept thinking about the little boy who had run away from me. I regard myself as a normal, everyday, non-threatening kind of guy – not especially big or menacing, no fierce tattoos, no piercings, clean cut in tidy clothing. And yet the little boy had fled in terror at the mere thought that I might approach him. Trust me, it is one thing to be treated like the invisible man by every adult in a town, but it’s a pretty uncomfortable feeling to know that the little kids are scared shitless of you.
I am just as Jewish as the Satmars of Kiryas Joel, but I am a completely different beast to them, as they are to me. Kiryas Joel is their home, but could never in a million years be mine. Just as they could never feel comfortable in my home: the world of places like a barbecue joint in Williamsburg, or the Blooming Hill Farm, with its warm familiarity of organic kale and breakfast pizzas.
PS: Happy Chanukah to all my Jewish readers, whatever variety you are!