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People gather outside of the Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar synagogue, along with members of the NYPD, in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood on Oct. 19, 2020Spencer Platt/Getty Images
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The Satmar Way of Life and Death Used to Be Our Way, Too

A massive illegal funeral for a community judge in Williamsburg is a reminder of just how much of our humanity we have lost to the pandemic

by
Armin Rosen
December 28, 2020
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
People gather outside of the Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar synagogue, along with members of the NYPD, in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood on Oct. 19, 2020Spencer Platt/Getty Images

You needed no special tipoff to have prior notice of the Williamsburg Jewish community’s latest act of alleged social treason and mass endangerment. At 10:40 a.m. on Dec. 7, the Twitter feed for the Zalman faction of the Satmar Hasidic movement announced that a major funeral would be held in Williamsburg at noon that day, less than two weeks after a picture of thousands huddled at a secretly organized indoor wedding in the Brooklyn neighborhood was splashed across two pages of the New York Post. The religion and ethnicity of the wrongdoers was unmistakable in the photograph, which depicted a crowded horizon of black hats and frock coats. These Hasids seemed to dwell in a different world than the rest of us, one in which both the coronavirus and its resulting obligations to one’s fellow human beings simply didn’t matter. Who were these people to believe they were exempt from everyone else’s deadly crisis?

The impulse to a pre-pandemic life screams within the Satmars, who are not going to let their prior existence go without a fight. In a year in which the American social fabric was stretched to a terrifying breaking point, New York’s Orthodox neighborhoods often have a disorienting feeling of stability to them (although in fairness they could be just as crazy or even more crazy than the rest of the country). Lee Avenue is now a museum of pre-pandemic New York. Few businesses seem to have permanently closed; stores are often packed. Sefer shops do a brisk business.

Over 300,000 people appear to have left New York City since March, but not many people have left the Satmar neighborhoods of Williamsburg—if anything, the COVID-era drop in rent and other living costs has slowed the pre-pandemic outflow to cheaper and more spacious Hasidic towns in places like Orange County. Pre-COVID Hasidic Williamsburg was a place where people actually lived, often within blocks of their religious institutions and their entire extended families, in constant proximity to the things that really matter. Such certainties don’t come cheap: Most of us aren’t cut out to be Hasids, and a religious life of near-authoritarian strictness would add significantly to whatever existential angst we already have. Still, there is no mystery as to what Williamsburg will look and feel like when this is all “over.” It will look and feel the way it does right this very second.

Paradoxically, the strong social trust in religious communities might explain why the Satmar, and Brooklyn’s Hasidic enclaves in general, have gotten back to near normalcy on their own initiative. They’ve decided that caring for other people isn’t synonymous with isolating them, even with a highly infectious and sometimes deadly virus on the loose. For some, social solidarity has meant living as if the virus is a background threat, rather than living as if one’s highest priority in life should be avoiding the virus. This conclusion finds theological reinforcement, too. In exile, some bad press or a killer plague is perhaps the least one should expect.

Still, galus-inspired fatalism didn’t really explain the day’s events back on Dec. 7. One couldn’t eliminate the possibility that for its attendees, the funeral was a protest against fatalism. The dead man, as one member of the community explained to me a few days later, was one of the people who had helped reconstitute Satmar life in America after World War II—according to two sources he had a tattoo on his arm from Auschwitz. The Hungarian-born HaGaon HaRav Yisroel Chaim Menashe Friedman, dead at 94, had been leader of a previous Satmar rebbe’s yeshiva in Borough Park. In the ’70s Friedman became the community’s chief dayan: an answerer of Halachic questions, ranging from everyday matters of kashrut to potentially life-and-death issues involving medical care or the breaking of Shabbat observance. His rulings affected the lives of every member of the community.

This dayan’s importance went beyond just his life experience or his mastery of religious law, though. Friedman had what this community member called a hadras punim, which translates to something like “majestic countenance”—one could look upon his face and see an inner spiritual beauty that was reflected in his actions and in his treatment of other people. “When something was complicated, he would never answer on the spot,” the man recalled. “It would take him a lot of time to process the information and find the sources. This was his strong point: his empathy, listening to a person, the honor he showed.” In time, Friedman became “a quasi-rebbe within the community. People would go to him for brachas, or for holding their babies at a bris. Bar mitzvahs would go to him to put on tefillin for the first time. He’d advise on baby names.”

Until his late 80s, Friedman taught a daily Talmud class at the same synagogue on Rodney Street where his funeral was held. He was a neighborhood figure, someone who people actually knew and saw and talked to.

My interlocutor remembered turning his phone on after the first two days of Pesach and receiving notification that nearly 30 community members had died of COVID. But cases were far off of their horrible springtime peak, and attending the funeral for a beloved communal figure didn’t feel like such a crazy risk. Perhaps the real danger lay in not commemorating the man’s life. “It’s very hard to explain to someone who’s an outsider what it means to pay respect to a person of this caliber and the respect people had for him—the risk people would take to be part of it,” he said of the funeral. “People fail to see and understand someone else’s way of life before they make a statement.”

The virus has provoked a battle over differing philosophies of what life really is—what it consists of, what it’s actually worth.

Were the mourners insane or wicked or nihilistic for viewing the coronavirus as but a single element in a wider reality? Did the assembled crowd not care about the plague, or was it that they cared about some other thing in addition to the threat of sickness? Was the thing they cared about really any less important than the thing they were supposed to have cared about? These questions, critical to the moral and social fabric of pandemic-era America, and maybe to the life of the country in whatever lies beyond all this, were answerable only by traversing the physical and psychological gulf separating Bushwick from East Williamsburg and seeing things for myself.

I arrived on the fringes of the crowd on Rodney Street, where children were handing out face masks. The police presence was notably light. A single PA playing at relatively low volume was later set up on Williamsburg Street, behind the shul—you could hear the tears in the eulogists’ voices, which were pained enough to give a non-Yiddish speaker an idea of how serious this all was.

Getting inside the sanctuary itself proved impossible, although the doors were open to anyone who wanted to pay their respects. I was followed into the lobby by a tall man who had issued a grave warning against taking any photographs or using any cellphone of any kind. From that point forward the shul was a crush of human bodies; it wasn’t even possible to see inside for more than an eye-blink at a time. Masks were rare, even in the packed anterooms. “It’s all in Yiddish,” my minder said, steering me back outside after a couple of minutes. The informal security did its job: There would be no viral image from the inside of the synagogue in the New York Post’s write-up of the funeral later that afternoon.

Outside, people crowded the stoops and rooftops; trash cans of water were set up on every street in a several-block radius, so that mourners could perform the necessary ritual hand-washing after having been in the presence of the dead. When the service ended, the streets were suddenly inundated with a river of smooth-domed black hats whose owners were orderly, silent even, coursing toward Bedford Avenue, where the human surge brought traffic to an unexpected halt. A dreadful chorus of horns erupted in demonic harmony, one of the most infernal such singalongs of thwarted automotive ambition I’ve ever heard across over a decade of living in New York.

In the midst of the confusion I realized I was on a side street that emptied directly onto the Brooklyn Queens Expressway a few hundred feet ahead. I was also 10 feet away from the aron—a tiny box, draped in black, advancing above the crowd’s shoulders. It contained some irretrievable part of ourselves, a man who had endured the darkest moment in his people’s history and lived to rebuild Jewish life in a new land, safe from history’s gravest sins. People stood on their toes to catch a fleeting glimpse of the drifting wooden prism. Then suddenly the coffin was loaded into a van, and the crowd dispersed. The ghastly trench of the Williamsburg BQE corridor became the locus of a powerful, vibrating spiritual intensity—a body borne to the edge of a highway amid piercing horns and a hidden microbial terror.

The funeral had not been totally safe, perhaps not even the least bit safe. At best, it was not above a sensible person’s valid objections. But this is the crux of this whole vile era: The virus has provoked a battle over differing philosophies of what life really is—what it consists of, what it’s actually worth. The sides brook no real middle ground. Each is a threat to the other; the philosophy that sees anything less than full submission to plague doctrine as a danger to everyone and everything, and the one that sees a prolonged effacement of normal life as the greater evil, can’t easily coexist.

Worse, perhaps, there is no democratic means of difference-splitting between these opposing ideological camps because democracy has been abrogated. New York is under the mercurial rule-by-decree of a single man, whose pseudoscientific edicts are taken with variable seriousness the farther one lives from Albany and Washington, D.C. Thus, at the funeral it fell to the New York City Police Department to split the difference between Hasidism and COVID-ism, which can be seen in this context as variants of Judaism and 20th-century Western humanism. The cops opted not to stop the proceedings, perhaps imagining, as they did during the summer’s far bigger mass protests, the ugly scene that any action against such a large crowd might produce.

Within a tribalizing society where the law is arbitrary and the relationship between the government’s actions, the popular will, and our supposedly inalienable civil liberties becomes ever more notional, each atomized social unit decides to get away with whatever it can get away with, the blather of state officials and the jockeying disdain of the other tribes be damned. In New York, the Satmar tribe, the hipster tribe, the liberal-technocratic tribe, the uber-wealthy Hamptonite tribe, the cop tribe, various ethnic underclass tribes, and countless other groupings have by a combination of necessity and preexisting values faced the pandemic with wildly varying degrees of loyalty to the plague regime. Everybody knows that there have been gobs of non-Hasidic mass gatherings in the metro area since the spring, partaken of by rich and modest alike.

Within the city, and across the country, the virus has amplified some inner Sheva Ben Bichri, whose voice is always there, but who becomes dangerously louder when crisis strikes: We have no portion in any of this. Every person to their tents.

The temptation to condemn the nearest convenient target for phenomena so massive as to defy any logical or moral comprehension has always been a powerful one. “We forgive the crimes of individuals, but not their participation in a collective crime,” Marcel Proust rightly noted about halfway through In Search of Lost Time. The crime in question was the anti-Semitic persecution of the French army officer Alfred Dreyfus on fabricated charges of treason, something of which both Proust and his narrator rightly disapproved. But even a justified crusade can expose the moral pitfalls of the crusading instinct, which erodes common ground between people and weakens the possibility of a shared existence.

“As soon as she knew my father to be an anti-Dreyfusard she put continents and centuries between herself and him,” Proust continues, writing of the uncompromising Mademoiselle Sazerat. “Which explains why, across such an interval of time and space, her greeting had been imperceptible to my father, and why it had not occurred to her to shake hands or to say a few words which would never have carried across the worlds that lay between.”

Everyone knows a Sazerat by now, and that person’s cause probably isn’t as unambiguously righteous as hers was. Last month, BuzzFeed delivered some of the more depressing non-body-count-related material of the pandemic: Hundreds of readers had responded to a call for stories about how differing reactions to the coronavirus had hurt or destroyed once-close relationships. Most heartbreaking was a psychiatrist whose husband had attempted suicide amid the open-eye nightmare of the early lockdown. From then on the couple lived their lives as permissively as they legally could, placing them on “opposite sides from most of our friends who view us as petri dishes who are killing their grandma.”

I don’t know what the right or wrong answer to that one is—but enough people think they do. For some, COVID has in fact been experienced as a kind of unforgivable collective crime. Blue-versus-red COVID analyses, a media mainstay that was deployed to crude effect by both of this past year’s major party presidential candidates, are so common that we’re numb to just how ghoulish their premises are. Perhaps COVID is a plague that the Chinese inflicted on Americans, or that whites inflicted on Blacks, or that Orthodox Jews inflicted on the rest of the New York metro area. Most of all, the virus is something that the heedless inflicted on the saintly. There is always a villain in COVID morality, and that villain is always another American. When Paul Krugman declared that “the cult of selfishness is killing America” this past July, he wasn’t talking about himself. “No vaccine can end America’s epidemic of ignorance and irrationality,” tut-tutted The Washington Posts’ Max Boot, shaking his head at the benighted American mainstream and the idiots who he believes to inhabit it.

You can picture those idiots, can’t you? Maskless inside of a Chili’s or a megachurch or a synagogue are people who couldn’t possibly be animated by their children’s well-being or by the need to preserve their livelihoods and human dignity, death cultists who only care about weird superstitions or solipsistic ideas of freedom. Don’t these people know that true freedom is submission to the state, and to science? Surely, talk of rights and the constitution is so much blather when human life is at stake. Yet prayer, education, social hygiene, and compassion for the sick and the dying were recently considered essential aspects of “life,” right up until the concept was redefined to mean nothing more than the stanching of a virus whose health effects and vectors of spread still aren’t fully understood.

Coterminous with the idea that the virus spread only because of the ignorance and greed of other Americans is another nauseating psycho-rhetorical mainstay of the COVID era, namely the claim that Americans haven’t sacrificed enough to halt the plague’s advance, and therefore don’t care enough about their hundreds of thousands of dead fellow countrymen. In reality, entire industries were shut down to fight the disease; many of them remain closed at this very moment. Educations and businesses were lost and countless lives ruined in order to slow the disease’s progress; a full 3.5% of the country’s wealth, over 10 million of its jobs, and some $2.6 trillion of its federal treasury have vanished into the war against the contagion.

But no single metric, and no study of, say, the long-term effect of leaving young children unschooled and unsocialized, captures the full extent of the moral and psychic wound we’ve inflicted to stanch this disease. In New York, and in many other places, the virus regime meant that family members could not visit their dying loved ones in the hospital or even attend their funeral. The cost to a sick person of perishing in lonely terror, and to their friends and family who saw them disappear into a sinister death mill, are incalculable—as is the impact of a society imposing such gratuitous cruelties on suffering people. One also wonders whether a society can ever really unwarp its priorities after allowing schools to remain closed for such long periods of time, especially when nearly every other industrialized nation has decided that the fight against COVID did not require such an extreme and quasi-abusive measure.

For months now, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ruled New York state with something like total authority. It is comical to think that one man could define the meaning of “food” during a televised press conference, and that his definition would then have legal force such that people’s lives and businesses could be torn apart over a failure to adhere to this new definition of food—or at least it would be comical if we were living in some other country or state. Meanwhile the attempted cover-up around the state’s deadly nursing home protocol, and the governor’s frequent and tasteless acts of public self-congratulation, aren’t funny at all.

The hospital visitation bans, the wholesale abandonment of education, the suspension of democracy as we used to understand it: Are these things a society can come back from? I guess we’ll see. Or at least some of us will.

This year has seen historic spikes in drug overdoses and in suicidal ideation among the young. To take one example, in San Francisco the number of drug overdose deaths leaped from 440 in 2019 to over 620 so far this year, compared with 173 COVID fatalities. Some 240,000 small businesses are in danger of closing in New York alone, each one representing a dream and an idea.

Maybe this was all necessary and worth it. But that’s not the point. Society didn’t have to shut down in response to the pandemic. The pause in normal life was a human choice, made by human beings, who for the most part complied with what governments and medical experts demanded of them. COVID didn’t put life on hold—we did.

People who were in New York City for the still-unimaginable horrors of March and April should be the first to resist a moralistic view of the virus, both because we witnessed how senseless and arbitrary its destruction could be, and because we saw how quickly a place of even this size and complexity could transform itself around a single narrow public health goal. When the concept of social distancing was invented by a 14-year-old in the late 2000s, epidemiologists believed that even a short national quarantine was impossible in the United States. Here and across the country Americans, in their compassion and in their fear, proved the experts wrong.

But the virus had the final say. In the long run, places with strict, state-enforced “social distancing” have barely performed any better than states with more lenient regimes. California is experiencing a disastrous surge in cases despite heavy restrictions. Mask mandates, held up as a COVID magic bullet and as the lowest threshold for the government caring about the lives of its citizens, have not prevented California, Texas, and Rhode Island from having three of the highest infection rates in the country. This makes perfect sense, when you consider that a vastly disproportionate number of infections seem to take place in private indoor spaces among friends and family, where such mandates can’t reach.

The notion that the public health sins of some other group of Americans is responsible for the suffering of everyone else is not science; it’s not morally righteous. It’s simply not true. In fact, the United States has weathered the plague as well or better than much of the rest of the developed world—one never hears much about the selfishness of Brits, or the anti-science backwardness of the French, even though both countries have death rates roughly on par with ours. Germany, a country that is hardly known for its culture of individualism, has experienced far larger anti-lockdown protests than anything seen in the United States.

But Europe’s COVID-era realities are useless in building a brief against Americans. For many, the virus was the ultimate indictment of who we are. Greatly helping this argument was the virus’s nasty success in breaking down any wider sense of a “we.” Disconnection from other people, even the absence of as basic a leveling experience as a daily commute, meant that a stranger’s suffering was largely something theoretical. Whether they were stricken by COVID or by the challenges of losing a job or a business or of keeping school-age children mentally and emotionally engaged, the afflicted were usually off in some other apartment building, some other neighborhood, some other world.

In time, one of the starkest divides of the pandemic has become the most invisible: the gulf between those for whom the lockdown was an endurable tragedy—relatively unattached people with portable knowledge-economy jobs, or people with a freakish inner resilience, or people who turned out to be surprisingly unattached to real life once it disappeared—and those for whom it was closer to the end of the world. Even after nine months, it can be impossible to tell who’s who.

A lot of time has gone by since New York’s spring apocalypse; the raw terror of those weeks when the plague first struck and carried away tens of thousands of us is almost impossible to access now. The sacrifices were deep and immediate and accepted largely without question. The city was plunged into a darkness from which there is still no guarantee of return.

Still, it shouldn’t be hard to remember, for example, that back when things were at their worst, the same religious Jewish population that is now often condemned for allegedly failing to follow social distancing guidelines also maintained a massive free ambulance fleet, Hatzalah, that helped prevent the collapse of New York’s public health system. It shouldn’t even be hard to remember a time before March, back before the city became a graveyard of familiar places.

New Yorkers should understand the impulse to return to real life—we wouldn’t be living here if there weren’t something about the vibrancy of the pre-pandemic city that was worth preserving. If we do not understand the burning need to return to what we had, it is perhaps a sign that the impulse toward life has faded within us over the intervening months of crisis. It would be one of the pandemic’s grimmer legacies if, after a year of suffering, we decided we either lack the energy or the courage or the interest to return to life as we once understood it.

Are the crowds on Lee Avenue and those thousands of people that followed Rabbi Friedman’s aron to the edge of the highway an expression of epidemiological nihilism? Or do they affirm the opposite, that there is still both higher and mundane meaning possible in life, even amid horrors we could scarcely have imagined not all that long ago, back in that other world?

Perhaps both things can be true, and one can be appalled at a choice that is still humanly fathomable. And if we choose only to be appalled, whether it’s at the Satmars or at nearly anyone else guilty of not playing by the new rules, we might stop and devote a moment or two of thought to the part of ourselves we gave up to halt a tragedy whose scope and meaning only keep expanding.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

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