MAY 26, 2021
I CAN STILL FEEL the pleasant chill of a basement that conceals its secrets behind wrought iron doors. Wooden shelves bear whiskey glasses and the good scotches, ordered especially for the machers, who may also pay to get their bottles custom engraved. This is The Wine Cave, a liquor emporium across the street from a Satmar shul in the heart of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood.
The Wine Cave serves, for me, as a metaphor for what may be the most poorly understood two square miles of the United States. In the groundbreaking new book, A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg, Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper ask how the insular Satmar sect, in particular, managed to build a stronghold in New York after their movement was nearly destroyed during the Holocaust. It’s a little-known comeback story.
The pioneering rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum arrived in the working-class neighborhood three years after the end of World War II, traumatized and shaken by the horrors of the camps. Assimilation had been a root cause of the suffering, he concluded, a mistake that he and his followers would not repeat. They visually distinguished themselves with beards, long coats, and fur hats and politically separated themselves with a strict opposition to the formation of Israel.
All this chafed their working-class Jewish neighbors, many of whom had escaped the tenements of the Lower East Side for a more “Americanized” way of living. To build its ranks, Satmar first had to weather this culture war, against both its neighbors and broader New York City. But it was only by embracing the most powerful modern forces — namely consumerism, urbanization, entrepreneurialism, and power brokering — that one of the most hardline of Hasidic sects was able to survive and thrive.
What matters most is not that Rabbi Teitelbaum came to Williamsburg, but that his followers stayed there. Roughly a million New York Jews joined the white flight of the 1950s and ’60s, but not most Hasidim and especially not Satmar Hasidim. Though the term is primarily associated with discriminatory housing policies leveraged against Black Americans, heavily Hasidic neighborhoods were also subjected to redlining. Unlike other Jews, with their money and their Zionism, Satmar had nowhere else to go.
The 1960s and ’70s in Brooklyn were characterized by violent street crime and turf wars and brutal politicking. Led by physically and psychologically toughened Holocaust survivors, Satmar was ready. The sect’s younger hooligans — always condemned by their rebbes with varying degrees of sincerity — turned occasionally violent against Belz Hasidim, Chabad Hasidim, and local gangs, among others. White Americans tended to lump them in with Black and Latino people, all deemed poor and unworthy of government support. Hasidim lobbied hard for the aid that they were entitled to and physically defended their turf into the 1990s, when young professionals began to think of Williamsburg as less scary than cool.
The influx of hipsters and their boutiques drove up prices in many buildings of their “holy Jewish city” well beyond what the average Hasid could afford. But the wealthiest members within Satmar benefited, as they were actively engaged in gentrification themselves. So evident was this reality that one biting 2003 cartoon from the Hasidic paper Der Yid shows a rotund Hasidic developer chuckling as a moving van empties out a Hasidic apartment building while thinking, “Oy, I will make a killing, another hundred million dollars.”
Satmar influencers told their followers not to sell to non-Jews, but it was no use. The gentrifiers’ decidedly secular way of life, which some Hasidim described as the “worst of all the nations,” was flooding in. Compromises had to be made. A widely distributed map detailed precisely where Hasidim were permitted to rent apartments to non-Hasidim short-term, if no community buyer could be found, and the areas in which they were absolutely prohibited to do so. And this touched an important legal and psychological nerve. Restrictive covenants that allow private owners to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion were deemed illegal by the Supreme Court in 1948, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act prohibits refusing to sell or rent on the basis of membership in a protected class. But in this case, it was the protected class doing the discriminating.
When families have an average of eight children and must live within walking distance of a shul, a local affordable housing shortage is no small thing. The real-estate wars intensified after the Second Grand Rebbe of Satmar, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, died in 2006. With two different relatives each claiming to be the rightful successor, the true owner of the assets of the Hasidic court was unclear. Satmar didn’t just fight outsiders, but also one another, especially as rezoning near the East River increased the pace of gentrification and their property values. The rich got richer, even in the face of the 2007–2008 crash and subsequent recession, because of the “distinctive lending practices of their community” coupled with their proximity to the hottest new market. Hasidic developers were able to circumvent the banks and raise money from within, allowing them to profit from the great recession and amass nearly $2.5 billion in real estate assets from 2006 to 2016. As The Real Deal put it, Hasidim had become “some of the industry’s most active and powerful players.”
Deals got cut, though carefully. Hasidic developers and advocates had convinced the city to rezone several commercial areas for residential use in the Flushing Avenue Corridor. The United Jewish Organizations supervised the construction of 1,600 market-rate condominiums, in an apparent quid pro quo for the city greenlighting 82 homes and a day care center in the Latino section of Williamsburg, overseen by Los Sures. These developments, while legally available for anyone, featured designs that clearly catered to Hasidic Jews, with multiple bedrooms and kosher-friendly kitchens and priced above what many non-Hasidic locals could afford. Satmar spread south into undervalued properties in traditionally Black areas of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Clinton Hill, which the authors refer to as “New Williamsburg.”
Hasidic and Latino leaders grew increasingly at odds with other locals, especially Black residents. All parties had valid arguments. The Latinos and Hasidim saw themselves as building community and bringing development to a traditionally depressed area; Black neighbors insisted it was safe to begin with and that they were now being pushed out. They sued, unsuccessfully, failing to prove that non-Hasidim had been rejected from purchasing units on the basis of discrimination.
Most books about the Hasidic community are either sneering or apologetic; this is neither. The authors acknowledge that some landlords “were guilty of corrupt or criminal business practices,” but also that “Hasidic landlords frequently came under fire in ways that recycled long-standing anti-Semitic stereotypes regarding Jewish economic exploitation and greed.” Both can be true, and it is challenging, as the authors explain:
[T]o describe Hasidic landlords, including, or perhaps especially, those whose behavior justly deserved criticism or condemnation, without sugarcoating or dehumanizing them, reducing them to caricatures, or implying that their behavior was somehow essentially Jewish.
Satmar emerged intact and perhaps even victorious from the culture war in Williamsburg, but it came at a cost. Fancy food, wine, clothing, and shoes sold by and for Hasidim are on nearly every corner. The internet is technically forbidden, but younger people use it all the time. There’s a paradox in the Satmar appreciation for modernity — epitomized by The Wine Cave — but these visible markers of upward mobility can conceal the lives of poor Hasidim, less flashy but more faithful to the original Teitelbaum’s vision.
An exclusive focus on exterior changes would amount to fundamentally misunderstanding Hasidic culture. The embrace of modern tools has enabled the Satmar community not only to survive but also to expand its ranks and harden its ideology. Within their Brooklyn fortress, power continues to work as it always has: those who can convince others that the consequences of disobeying are eternal supply the hearts and minds, while those with wealth and access supply the rooms to house them in. In this way, Hasidic Williamsburg is no different from any other community in Brooklyn: religious leaders vie for cultural clout, activists jockey for political power, entrepreneurs profit from consumerism and urbanization, the rich build their wealth, and the rest of us muddle along the best we can.
This deeply researched book does an admirable job of explaining and exposing the interior workings of an opaque society. Yet there are a few passages that any Orthodox observer would dispute, such as how real-estate developer Toby Moskovits, an astoundingly successful businesswoman, is described as an “insider in the Williamsburg [real-estate] market” who succeeded because she is an Orthodox Jew who possesses local knowledge. But the fact that her father owned a store in Williamsburg does not change the reality that Flatbush, where Moskovits grew up, is culturally, religiously, and socially worlds away from Williamsburg. Religious Jews from Flatbush (really Midwood, if we’re getting technical) can never become Williamsburg insiders: they are predominantly from the Syrian or Yeshivish-Lithuanian communities and speak mostly English, while the first language in Hasidic communities like Williamsburg is typically Yiddish. Moskovits also possesses an MBA — from a university in Israel, no less — which is a virtually unheard-of opportunity for Hasidic women. Moskovits may possess real-estate knowledge, have some familiarity with the neighborhood, and practice Orthodox social norms, but she’s no Hasidic insider.
I’m in a similar category: a non-Hasidic Orthodox Jew who has spent time in many of the institutions and stores the authors describe, I can attest the authors get a lot right and possess sharp vision. But I would have been grateful to encounter a deeper curiosity about the community’s connective tissue and values, from the philanthropic spirit that keeps the poor from becoming destitute to how building a parallel suburban stronghold in the town of Kiryas Joel, an hour’s drive upstate, helped them maintain their fortress in Brooklyn.
When I think of time spent in Williamsburg, I think not just of The Wine Cave but my friend Mechie, a Hasid who radiated joy even as sweat dripped from his 300-pound frame. He worked in a small local deli. He always sent me home with plenty of leftover dips before Shabbat, which he spent hours making in large quantities. They otherwise would have been thrown away.
His wife, like many women often overlooked, dressed for special occasions not in the sleek Ferragamo flats and Chanel suits of the Satmar elite, but in modest clothing, fretting over her two infants as any mother does. The paint in their cramped apartment was peeling, showing signs of water damage. I’m not from here. But we always had a wonderful time.
To fully understand Satmar, of course, one has to be born into it. But to understand how political prowess and real-estate know-how shaped the group’s current iteration in Brooklyn, it would be wise to start with this outstanding book.