A Fortress in Brook­lyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Mak­ing of Hasidic Williamsburg

Nathaniel Deutsch, Michael Casper

By – December 13, 2021

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.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

Discussion Questions

Urban his­to­ri­ans Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper bring their impres­sive train­ing and sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the reli­gion, lan­guage, and cul­ture of the Sat­mar Hasidic com­mu­ni­ty of Williams­burg, Brook­lyn to craft this com­pelling his­to­ry of a sep­a­ratist group whose saga has pre­vi­ous­ly elud­ed oth­er schol­ars of Gotham and its Jews. They are attuned to the dynam­ics of both neigh­bor­hood change and per­sis­tence, ful­ly aware of the process­es, advan­tages, and dilem­mas of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, and cog­nizant of the com­plex­i­ties of race in the city. And they cogent­ly detail how the Sat­mar lead­er­ship has deter­mined how to embrace the city’s polit­i­cal sys­tem to advance their eco­nom­ic needs — some­times in con­cert with and oth­er times in oppo­si­tion to their neigh­bors — while sus­tain­ing their com­mit­ment to avoid assim­i­la­tion into the wider cul­ture. While it adheres to schol­ar­ly canons, this book is writ­ten in a style acces­si­ble to a wide readership.