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Visiting the "Jewish Xanadu" in New York│広瀬佳司教授




Visiting the "Jewish Xanadu" in New York
Yoshiji Hirose, PhD.
Translation by Jason Williams

On September 9, 2015, in connection with a lecture I was giving at The State Univeristy of New York (SUNY), I happened to have a chance to visit the Satmar Hasidic world found within the strictly Orthodox Jewish society.

At the invitation of Dr. Barry Trachtenberg, associate professor of History and director of the program in Judaic Studies at the University at Albany, SUNY, I was taken to one of the largest Satmar Hasidic communities in the world, the village of Kiryas Joel, New York. The village is located approximately 90 miles (150 kilometers) from the state capital of Albany, about 90-minutes by car. An area of just 1.11 square miles (2.87 km) is densely packed with the homes of over 22,000 strictly Orthodox Jews.

A single family in the village can have from 10 to 12 children. "If the Japanese government adopted a demographic policy of attracting Satmar Hasidic Jews, the population problem would be solved in one fail swoop," Dr. Trachtenberg said with a laugh.

When you go in a supermarket, there is nothing but kosher items available. Since this was a first experience for me, I bought some kosher chocolate and a picture book to show my students in Japan. The picture book was written in both Yiddish and Hebrew. While I was waiting in line at the cash register a suspicious looking middle aged man brusquely asked me in English, "What are you buying that book for?" When I answered him in Yiddish, he didn't say another word to me. I think perhaps that I was the first Asian to have ever visited their community. The police are rarely called to the village; the residents maintain the safety and order of the community entirely on their own. What an intriguing place.

The role of the women in this community, Dr. Trachtenberg explained, is to serve their husbands by raising the children and doing the housework. Both men and women, of course, are able to leave the strictly Orthodox community to pursue higher education. They are also free to choose the profession of their fancy and where to live. However, in doing so, they sever their ties to their parents. It came as a surprise to me that the parents of such children regard them as dead and even hold a funeral.

The residents of Kiryas Joel apparently never watch television or listen to the radio. What is more, they do not possess computers or cellular phones. In New York City, as in Japan, the sight of young people walking around crowded streets with smartphones in their hands as if they owned the place is rather conspicuous. They pay absolutely no attention to their surroundings. At Japanese universities you often see students sitting at the same table with their eyes glued to their smartphones and not so much as even glancing up at their friends sitting right across from them. I wonder how much information is necessary. The sight of a young person starring down into the small screen of a smartphone is simply outlandish to me. On the other hand, the young people of Kiryas Joel, who have neither cell phones nor smartphones, were having seemingly enjoyable conversations in Yiddish that bordered on noisy. There were even young people with prayer books tucked under their arms having intense discussions. Far from the large city hustle and bustle of New York, the parents' desire to convey the important Jewish tradition of spiritual culture to their children is what preserves Kiryas Joel. While it is easy to denounce the Satmar Jews as a group of fanatics, from a different point of view, couldn't it be said that Kiryas Joel is the "Xanadu" that leads to the spiritual peace that the people of today are in the midst of losing?