The Political Pull of New York’s Ultra-Orthodox

New York City’s mayoral election is approaching, and as the race heats up, more attention is being paid to the increasing political influence of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish sects of Brooklyn.

Like their counterparts in Israel, New York’s Hasidim have rebounded from the decimation of World War II. They were nearly wiped out by the Nazi genocide, but their numbers have swelled in the generations since, due to religious and cultural teachings that make it a duty for Hasidic families to have large numbers of children. And like their counterparts in Israel, they punch above their weight politically because they obey the orders of their rabbis absolutely and vote as a bloc:

That power was evident most recently in last September’s primary for Democratic district leader in the area covering Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Two factions of Satmar Hasidim turned out at the polls in astonishing numbers for such a relatively obscure post, yielding a turnout of 11,000 votes, among the city’s largest. Many members of both factions admitted they did not know whom they were voting for but had been instructed to do so by their rabbis or yeshiva officials. The dominant Satmar faction made the difference in vaulting a candidate to the leadership.

I have little doubt that what they want in New York is the same thing they want in Israel: to impose their own religious rules on the communities where they dominate. Usually, this takes the form of enforced “modesty” codes, especially for women, and sex-segregated streets, buses and businesses. There’ve already been hints of it:

The city’s Commission on Human Rights issued complaints last year against a half-dozen Hasidic merchants on Williamsburg’s Lee Avenue for posting signs stating, “No shorts, no barefoot, no sleeveless, no low-cut neckline allowed in this store.”

This echoes the photo I posted of a sign at the entrance of the ultra-Orthodox village of Kiryas Joel, in upstate New York, which asks visitors to “maintain gender separation in all public areas”. Although decrees like this are legally unenforceable, the Hasidim have often proved perfectly willing to back them up with force. In Israel, this has often escalated to vicious street harassment of “improperly” dressed or behaved women and recurring vandalism of any outdoor ad that shows a human body.

Most of all, the Hasidim want to shut out modernity, which they believe to be a corrupting, contaminating influence. They want to live in their own isolated enclaves, conducting daily life according to rules that haven’t changed since medieval times.
One of the most extreme is the circumcision practice of metzitzah b’peh, in which the mohel sucks the blood away from the infant’s wound with his mouth. Whatever you think about circumcision (and I trust I’ve made my position clear), this hideously unsanitary practice has to be the worst possible way to do it. In a tragic but utterly predictable consequence, babies have died or suffered brain damage after contracting diseases like herpes from this. But the ultra-Orthodox are vehemently defending it:

Most prominently, the city has battled with ultra-Orthodox Jewish representatives over the health risks in metzitzah b’peh, a technique for orally suctioning a circumcision wound. Instead of banning the practice outright, health officials instead required parents to sign a consent form so they could be alerted to the risks. But ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders were still infuriated. The matter even became an issue in the mayoral campaign, with Christine C. Quinn defending the city’s policy and her Democratic opponents, including Anthony D. Weiner and John C. Liu, arguing that the Hasidic practice has stood the test of millenniums.

Given the political pull of New York’s Hasidic community, it’s not surprising that some candidates are pandering to them like this, but it’s still disgraceful. Most shameful is their assertion that metzitzah b’peh has “stood the test of millennia”, if by that they mean “has been infecting infants with communicable diseases for millennia”. I already wasn’t going to vote for Weiner or Liu, but this gives me another good reason. (Here’s what the other candidates have said. I like Bill de Blasio, who’s been more sensible than most of the others.)

Despite the Hasidim’s high birth rate, I doubt this can go on forever. I find it hard to believe that the ultra-Orthodox can preserve their isolated-by-choice lifestyle indefinitely – not just in the age of the internet, but right smack in the middle of Brooklyn, in one of the most diverse and multicultural cities in the world. As hard as they try – and they have tried, even renting out Citi Field to lecture their men about the evils of the internet – here the world is literally on their doorstep. That kind of freedom and openness can’t help but tempt them, and ultimately erode their closed and insular fundamentalism in the process.

Image: The Williamsburg Bridge, Brooklyn. Credit: Keith Sherwood /

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.