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Sons of The Father

As for this pugilism, Freud could nail that one. A fistfight, a yelling match, a slashed tire holds a certain adrenal attraction; the older partisans are well aware of this fact. Satmar adolescents cannot exercise or play sports. Dating is out of the question, as is masturbation, officially. Sleeping on your stomach is frowned on.

"It's a disgrace," Sarala Fischer says. "Their fistfights are not possessive of us all."

The brawling has spilled into the courts.

Not long ago, Moshe Yaakov Brach testified in state Supreme Court as an expert for the Aaronis on Satmar religious traditions. On cross-examination Brach acknowledged another expertise: swindling.

It seems he once convinced a small Wisconsin town to lend him $250,000 to build a pay-toilet factory. But he never built it.

"You didn't pay back the money until you were arrested, correct?" asked lawyer Scott Mollen.

"Right," Brach replied.

"At the time you were arrested," Mollen continued, "were you also charged with committing criminal conduct relating to the Union Carbide Company?"

Brach nodded. "Yes."

Later, Mollen asked if by chance Brach ever had escaped from a federal halfway house.

"Did not return to the halfway house," Brach replied, according to the court transcript. "Whatever."

This game-playing has infuriated the court.

"There have been many incredible and outrageous attempts by certain [Satmars] . . . to discredit, intimidate and improperly influence this Court," State Supreme Court Justice Melvin Barasch wrote in 2004. Brach has "inundated Court Administration with false, incredible stories claiming 'deals,' 'bribery' etc. involving this Court and its staff."

In private, some Satmar women sound as fed up as the judge.

"We agree not to speak of any politics at home, though the hubby's free to get all hotheaded in the synagogue," explains a Satmar woman in Brooklyn. "For all the battling, or rather precisely because of it, none of the two sons are getting very much rebbe-like respect or holy awe."

The Life

So the fists fly and the lawsuits over succession grind on. But in many ways the more intriguing questions go to the mystery of this life. A secular observer wonders what keeps a Satmar tethered to this restricted world. The Satmar wonders why you wonder.

The Satmars acknowledge they cannot quite seal themselves within a 19th-century Hungarian world. A burly and amiable Satmar fishmonger aligned with his sect's most ultra-orthodox wing comes to your house to chat and at evening's end turns to your son and says: "So you like Notorious B.I.G.? Eminem and Public Enemy, they are straight-up great."

Cruise the orthodox Web sites, and you can find Hasidicrebel.blogspot.com, where a Hasid writes of reconciling doubt -- and his love of Bob Marley, Sting and Philip Roth -- with the "divine mystery" of black hat life.

"Chasids are raised with a set of powerful beliefs that leaves no room for doubt or ambiguity," he writes. "We might just be living an illusion . . . but it is a sweet illusion."

Sarala and Menachem Fischer know nothing of hip-hop or Philip Roth. Their parents arranged their marriage with the help of a matchmaker. Sarala remembers the beshow , the first date. Her intended, a young man with thick glasses and black felt hat, walks in. He can't bring himself to look at her, asking only:

"What job do you do?"

The hour crawls by. In six months they will be married.

The rabbis gave Menachem a 10-lesson course in how to live with a wife. The last lesson was sex. "I grew up in a family of boys; until four weeks before marriage I don't know the difference between boys and girls," he recalls. "I was scared!"

Sarala rolls her eyes.

"Y'know what they teach?" She imitates the Yiddish accent. " 'Vimen zar moody.' The first weeks after marriage you just sit there and want to talk and he falls asleep."

Sarala and Menachem laugh, they steal looks, they blush. "We don't believe in falling in love," Sarala says. "We believe in building love."

Outside marriage, men and women build careful walls. A woman may work for a male, but no jokes, no family talk, everything curt. On the birth of a child, perhaps a boss says mazel tov .

Shtetl life offers the love of an enveloping family. Are there headaches, too? Oy. Of course! Sarala and Menachem were not married three months when yentas (gossips) began to peer at her belly for signs of the telltale bulge.

Everyone looks superficially alike, but there are those who keep every rule, who take the ritual bath and pray for hours each day. And those who test the limits, who sneak away to a movie, surf the Net, raise a hemline, steal a touch, drink coffee on the way to shul.

Maybe a young Satmar turns on the FM in the car. Still he shares laughs and puts on his tallis and davens (bows ritually) at Friday night prayers.

"We put gate within gate within gate," Sarala says. "If we fall, we don't fall the whole way."

At her kitchen table, late into the evening, she talks of the "glass wall" that separates the Satmar women from secular women. She finds security behind that glass, a safety that saves this very bright woman in this community much confusion.

"My husband was a very simple teenager, but for me, I wondered about music, about college," she says. "If I had the opportunity to make choices, I'd probably be in Botswana somewhere wondering what to become. And it would take me 70 years to find my way home."

"Without this world," she says, "I would wander, I would fall, I would be lost."


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