In my recent article for the Jewish News/Times of Israel, I called attention to the fact that so far all attempts by the wider community to understand communities like Satmar and the chassidim have been focused on how they are different to us and through the lens of culture clash and differing values. I called for greater understanding of chassidim from the perspective of their daily reality and with a touch of amoralism. By that I mean trying to understand their reality without constantly checking their practices against our values to cast judgment.
It is very natural that when we learn about new alien-to-us cultural practices that our minds immediately carry us to moral judgments. We want to categorise those practices as “good” or “bad”, as our values inform us. I believe that there is a space for that as well, as we need to know what cultural practices we can accept as compatible with our values, and which we must reject. However, I think that a too focused moralistic view can also obscure an understanding of the cultural practices under question, as we are understanding them through the lens of our values, rather than through the lens of their own values.
Following my article, several people have expressed interest in hearing more about Satmar through this insider lens. They want to hear more about chassidic history and daily practice. So time being permitting, I will try and write several posts about this community. They will not be in any particular order or theme and I don’t know how regular they will be. This will depend on my time commitments and workload.
I also want to stress that everything that I write will be from the perspective of a young man who spent most of his life in that community. I’m not an academic who researched this community and its history, so I won’t be providing lots of data and statistics. However, I have lived and breathed this community for 20 years and I have read widely the literature of this community and how it interprets its own history and origins. I have also read a bit about the community from an academic perspective and I try and keep up with the latest academic research about this community.
I also want to add a disclaimer. the community is very segregated on the basis of sex. Men and women have strongly enforced gender roles. Whilst I did see my mum’s life and the lives of my sisters, giving me ample insight into the women’s side of the community, my experiences are still primarily from a male perspective and I will be much more informed about the male experience in the community. But even then, no two people’s experiences are identical. People will experience the community differently depending on wealth, caste, class etc. I am spelling this out because I have been called a liar in the past by members of the community who did not share my particular experiences. I don’t lie, but it is possible that some of my experiences won’t precisely match the experiences of others in the community.
The first post in this series is already up.