Satmar is the most numerous of all American Hasidic groups. Under the leadership of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, a small group of Satmar Holocaust survivors settled in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn shortly after World War II. Their numbers have increased dramatically during the past seven decades due to an extremely high birth rate and an influx of converts. It is estimated that one-third of Williamsburg is now Jewish, and the majority of these approximately fifty thousand people are Satmar.
The Satmars are known for their insular lifestyle, extreme religiosity, distinctive clothing, and disdain for the State of Israel. During the past decade, they have achieved notoriety because of movies, television documentaries, and memoirs detailing the bitter disenchantment of individuals who had grown up in the community and then broken away. The Satmar have been the subject of numerous scholarly examinations by historians and sociologists, and A Fortress in Brooklyn is the latest and perhaps the best. Authored by two academically trained historians, it is extremely well-written, copiously documented, and objective in analysis.
A Fortress in Brooklyn focuses on two interrelated elements in the recent history of Williamsburg Jewry. The first concerns the struggle over real estate, the central theme of the book. Rapid population growth and the desire of young Satmar families to remain in Williamsburg have created a severe housing shortage, and this in turn has led to a dramatic rise in apartment rents and house prices. This has been particularly traumatic because much of the Satmar population are poor and dependent on private charity and government welfare and housing subsidies.
The housing crisis has caused the Satmar community to spread into adjoining neighborhoods such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and Clinton Hill. Accompanying this expansion has been a building boom in Williamsburg itself. This has led community leaders to demand that limits be placed on the building of luxury apartments and that more affordable housing units be constructed. Real estate has become a major preoccupation, as well as occupation, for many of the Satmar, and the community has seen the emergence of wealthy Satmar real estate entrepreneurs.
The second theme of the book is the ongoing efforts by the Satmar leadership to prevent contamination of their holy community. Teitelbaum sought to build a permanent “fortress” in Williamsburg, and this had led to attempts to isolate the Satmar population from the effects of gentrification, television, the Internet, new clothing fashions, and scantily clothed bicyclists. The Satmars also consider baseball a harmful influence; they feel that it encouraged acculturation to the ways of the outside world, emphasized physical prowess rather than spirituality, and took valuable time away from studying the holy texts. And yet baseball remained a popular activity of some within the community despite these denunciations.
Here, as well as elsewhere, the Satmar leadership had to confront a population influenced by what was taking place on the street, in places of employment, and in shopping areas, as well as by what was being preached in the synagogue. One of the most interesting features of A Fortress in Brooklyn is showing how even this most inward-looking of communities was unable to insulate itself completely from the general society. The Satmars were constantly being reminded by their leaders that they were living in golus (the diaspora), but they were also Americans for better or for worse.