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 /

What’s Behind the Appeal of ISIS?
The Rebirth of Nullification in Alabama
Book Review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Weekend Coffee: February 22
About Adam Lee

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

  • Figs

    It seems to me like it should be criminal for a parent to sign a consent form basically saying, “Yes, I acknowledge this elective procedure may sicken or kill my baby.”

  • L.Long

    Another bunch of whacked out nut-jobs! trying to force their imaginary BS up everyone’s ass. These people are no different then the fundie islame or any other group of dogmatists.
    The best thing to do is invade their areas (not that it is theirs) with a parade of near naked (legal) women and really flamboyant gays. But this does not solve the problem, what this points to is that the secularists of all sorts need to get to the polls and VOTE!!! They need to be slapped down and the constitutions and laws voted into place to stop this type of crap.
    If they don’t like being here then they should do what some others have done.
    Buy a large piece of land, fence it off, and post it as private land Keep out! Then they can interbreed and die off! As to the sheeple living in these type communities—nothing is stopping them from leaving. You cannot change them, they can only be changed from the inside, and unfortunately thems that are inside are either scared spitless or want it that way.
    The BEST option is for people to get out and VOTE for the best candidate they can. You can only vote for the best possible as really good ones don’t really exist.

  • Omnicrom

    Like a lot of movements like this the question for me is less “Will the movement survive?” and more “How much damage will the movement do before it finally collapses?” I feel the same way about the modern Republican Party, everything says it eventually has to give, but it seems like they’re going down swinging and aiming to do as much damage to America before they fall. And it’s the same here, how far can the Hasidim push their reactionary values before they overreach and fall apart from the inside. And in both cases even if their ending seems inevitable that’s merely an end date for action, right now people like the Hasadim can cause real and lasting harm.

  • Tommykey69

    L. Long, it can be more subtle than that. About a hundred hetero or gay couples walking quietly through the neighborhood will do the trick.

  • L.Long

    ‘ They were nearly wiped out by the Nazi genocide,’
    They didn’t even come close. You want to know about genocide, there are not many that are as good at it as the jews! Just read their fairy tale book and see how many they claim to have really wiped out. Of course there is case that they were just telling tall tales as they were not really capable of doing so and the history says it never really happened. But their fairy tale book likes to really brag about it.

  • J-D

    What I think would be interesting to know is what fraction of children born into Hasidic groups stay in them as adults and what fraction leave them. I imagine there would be some difficulties in finding out, but I would have thought experienced social science researchers could deal with those difficulties.

  • J-D

    To think of that topic in competitive terms is to leave the path of wisdom.

  • anon101

    Adam, I think you are shockingly naive if you think that the ultra-Orthodox cannot preserve their isolated lifestyle. Look at Israel. When Israel was founded the ultra-Orthodox comprised 1 % of the population. Now it’s 10 to 15 % and in 50 years they will make up half of the population and there is no sign of any compromise on their fundamental attutitudes.

  • GeorgeLocke

    jewish books may describe genocide, but they’re not particularly reliable accounts, as I’m sure you’d agree. So we can’t really say that Jews are good at genocide, can we? We might say that fictional Jews are good at it…

  • Bill Miller

    Hi, agreed. One must never underestimate the determination of religious fundies to stay put whatever happens.

  • Steve

    Lots of “they” and “them” style thinking here. You sure do know how to reduce an entire culture into a faceless enemy.

  • GCT

    Obvious troll is obvious.

  • Steve

    No trolling. Just a very frank appraisal.

  • DavidMHart

    The subculture that is the subject of the article goes to great lengths to emphasise their separateness from the rest of society. They also really do have some common traditions that most people don’t have. It is not ‘reducing them to a faceless enemy’ to point out that some of those traditions are harmful, and it’s especially not inherently suspect to point out that most of that harm is actually suffered by disempowered members of that very subculture.

    I’m sure the Haredim could point out aspects of mainstream New Yorkish culture that are harmful as well, and we could all have a conversation about that. But no one is entitled to subject their own children to unnecessary medical risks, and no one is entitled to subject their own daughters, sisters and wives to harassment simply for dressing the way she wants to dress, or for going out in mixed company.

  • GCT

    Based on…what exactly? Oh yeah, Adam used a couple of personal pronouns to refer to a group of people that were the subject of the post – therefore bigotry. Grow up.

  • Steve

    Wow. No need to be so bitter.

    It’s the entire tone of the article- “these people, they’re bad, they’re the threat, they’re the enemy, must be identified and opposed”, you are aware of tone, correct?

    But I suppose my perception of the article is colored by the context of this blog as a whole – Adam most certainly has a Knight in Shining Armor attitude about himself.

  • sg

    Hasidic children leave at a low rate. In fact the rate is lower than in the past.

    Some think that the rate has fallen because those who have the more independent streak have already left. So, most of those remaining have inherited whatever psychological traits that allow them to feel comfortable in such a culture.

    Amish children now leave at a lower rate than in the past.

  • GCT

    Ah, you’ve come to tone troll, stereotype, and throw about ad hominem. You prove my point. Go away troll.

  • Steve

    Tone troll? So that’s what they call critical reading nowadays.