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Holy Shtit.

Sorry, that’s “shtetl,” not “shtit.” NY Mag just published a fascinating look at one woman’s struggle to escape a Jewish cult called Satmar Hasidim from Kiryas Joel in the Catskills — it’s a story that reads as though it’s coming from a fundamentalist Muslim community in the MidEast. In addition to having no access to the outside world by way of the Internet, TV, radio, or newspapers, women are expected to adhere to arranged marriages with men they’ve never met and pop out babies on a fairly regular schedule from their teen years on.

Of course, as most cults go, they’re pretty ignorant on anything that smells of science. From the article:

It was also in school, looking at textbooks with large sections blacked out, that young Satmars learned there was no such thing as evolution, that dinosaur bones are nothing but G-d’s inference of an inaccessible past world, and that stars in the skies are not stars at all but pinpricks of light in a vast scrim placed by G-d for the Jews to gaze upon as they made their passage through the profane world, a world due to expire with the coming of the seventh Hebrew millennium, now 232 years away.

Gitty, the woman at the center of the piece, tells a lot more — including the part where the cult kidnaps her daughter and gives her to the father, who then maintains control over the child while Gitty fights back through the courts. The mother is allowed to see her daughter only when the cult allows. All of it combined with what I’ve read about the equally disgusting Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (start with Under the Banner of Heaven for a terrifying read) and fundamentalist Muslims really makes me think that cults often use children as nothing more than little tools for keeping the women tied down. Even the strongest woman will think twice about running away when she’s pregnant, and once she’s had a child she must consider what a life on the run will do to a baby. Or, she has to give up her child(ren) in order to focus on getting herself to safety, an idea that most mothers will naturally avoid.

While I think that women have it the worst in just about every cult I’ve ever studied, Gitty talks a bit about the troubles faced by the KJ boys:

“A lot of grooms faint on their wedding nights,” Gitty continues. “You see—before you get married, they keep you apart. You talk to the person once or twice. On your wedding night, you’re supposed to get it on with this total stranger. It is really bad for guys. Hasidic men are told all their lives if they masturbate they go to hell. Spilling the seed—that’s the biggest sin. At school, a lot of the boys had their pockets sewn up so couldn’t poke around with their hands. Then, all of a sudden, they’re with this naked woman and they think if they don’t screw her and produce more Jews, G-d is going to get really, really mad at them. That is a lot of pressure.”

Sad, though of course that sort of ignorance of human sexuality is something encouraged even by what we might consider more moderate religions in the US. Of course, this cult takes it so much further for the adolescent girls:

After a woman stops bleeding, she has to wear white underwear for seven days, checking constantly to see if there’s any discharge. Should spotting occur, the woman takes her underwear to a special rabbi who examines the color, shape, and density of the stain. It is he who divines when it is safe for the woman to immerse herself in the mikvah (ritual bath) and be reunited with her husband

Are you horrified yet? You should be. What I find particularly sad is the reaction of a writer on Jezebel, where I first saw this story linked. Overall, I like Jezebel and think they do a good job of drawing attention to good feminist stories like this. However, there are many times when I strongly disagree with the opinions of the individual writers, and this is one of those times. (Those of you who read Jezebel might be familiar with what happened last week with Thinking & Drinking — let’s not even go there.) Here’s what the writer, Jessica, has to say about this story:

When learning about the most Orthodox sects within any religion, it’s very easy to judge their more extreme rituals as freakish. I think I was a little guilty of painting the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints with the freak brush, and I will consciously try not to do that with the Satmar Hasidim from Kiryas Joel, a group of ultra-religious Jews who are the subject of this week’s New York Magazine cover story.

While it’s a good thing to refrain from pre-judging a particular person because of his or her religion, it saddens me that this woman is shy about judging a sect by their actions. That is exactly how we should judge a cult: by what they do. This cult abuses and oppresses women, and god damn it we need to have the figurative balls to say so. Another quote from Jessica:

It’s easy for us to judge the Satmars, call them backwards and misogynistic and sad. And while I privately do think those things, religious freedom means never telling someone else how to live.

That kind of sentiment makes me want to tear my hair out, not least because it makes no sense to say you only “privately” think something while quite publicly declaring it on a popular blog. Let’s get something straight: religious freedom does not mean freedom from criticism. When we talk about religious freedom, generally we are talking about the right of every person to believe what he or she wants to believe without interference from the government. Those people do not have the right to go on raising children in their backwards, misogynistic, sad world without hearing an outcry from the rest of the rational world.

Jessica does a grand disservice to women by suggesting that we should keep our feelings about cults like these private. Consider Gitty’s story — she escaped when she gained access to the Internet and read blogs about other people who had escaped. Bloggers helped her gain her physical and mental freedom. Bloggers who were not afraid to say what they knew about the dangers of a closed-off cult.

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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23 Comments

  1. “It’s easy for us to judge the Satmars, call them backwards and misogynistic and sad.”

    Of course it’s easy to judge them. It’s easy because the judgements are so obviously true that anyone with a 2nd grade education can make them! These cults NEED to be shut down so as not to run the risk of their oppressive and backwards ways spreading and becoming a legitimate religion. It’s happened before you know. Look at christianity.

  2. So much ran through my head when I read this. Furstration that the Jezebel writer was over come with the need to be politically correct about the cult when clearly it’s okay to have a problem with what they do. Good that the subject was able to leave. It makes me sad her daughter is still trapped between, and that she’s being used as a pawn.

  3. If I wasn’t so damn busy, I would totally have ripped Jezebel a new one over the ‘Thinking and Drinking’ fiasco.
    In fact, just thinking about that is making me upset all over again. So angry.

    Stuff like that is just one of the reasons I rarely read Jezebel anymore. I guess it’s because as a rape survivor, I’m not “smart.”

    Urg.

  4. Stories like this does nothing but give credence to my suspicion that a lot of religions are the implementation of some sick pervert’s wet dream.

    (I wish I could say “cult” instead of “religion”, but reading things like the Christian Bible makes me think that the origins of many religions are just as perverted, with the practical doctrines toned down as time passed by sane people.)

  5. The problem would be if the author was judging the whole Jewish faith based on the actions of these people, and no one is doing that. Like how some folks seem to equate all of Islam with suicide bombers. You can criticize the dangerous actions of a fundamentalist sect, and you can criticize the beliefs of a religion, but it helps to separate them.

    This sect is clearly wrong in its actions, and that is the thing that should be criticized. I agree with the sentiment that they do not have the right to live without criticism. And no one has the right to harm another person, regardless of religious intentions.

  6. really makes me think that cults often use children as nothing more than little tools for keeping the women tied down.

    Bingo!

    Appreciated your comment that religious freedom does not equal religion never be criticized, too.

    I believe that the commenter at Jezebel makes a mistake by thinking that criticism = oppressing a minority community. It’s important to clarify that it’s ideas and concepts (that lead to these sorts of communal behaviors) that is being criticized, not the people themselves (although I’m not above criticizing the leaders of such groups, some of whom are clearly interested in their power and influence over others, but that’s another topic).

    I like to think of “political correctness” as one of trying to respect and show graciousness to those different from oneself. But, this doesn’t mean we abandon critical thinking skills for the sake of avoiding offending some group’s ideas or notions.

  7. So it’s not surprising at all to me that Victoria’s Secret would attempt to sell a bra on the spurious claim of making your breasts “firmer”. They haven’t even shown photos of an actual women’s breasts for years, and they probably forget what they look like.

    This makes me happy, having a “real” pair of my own. The ones in the catalogues don’t LOOK real, and I’m glad to hear they’re not.

  8. It kills me to think of a woman having to give up her daughter just to get out of something like this, by the way. I mean, I have definitely felt a little locked into things a few times because of having kids, but that’s just one of the choices you make when you procreate. Having to decide between having your daughter or having your freedom … barbaric.

  9. This is what terrifies me about religion. Most people say “my religion isn’t like that,” but at the end of the day, pertty much all of them are. Let any religion get enough power, and they all start supressing knowledge, abusing the peons at the bottom… wait… That’s what happens anytime you let too much power get into anyone’s hands. Religion is just the tool these particular people use. Of course, it’s the tool a LOT of people use. Why? Because it fucking works, that’s why.

    “Because I said so” is NEVER a good enough answer. ESPECIALLY from a deity.

  10. The problem stems from a religious morality. When you base your moral judgements on god, then you are capable of committing any and all atrocities that god ‘tells’ you to commit.

    And you do it happily and easily because it’s God’s way. This is how all these hainous acts like abortion clinic bombings, fatwahs, and ethnic genocides are done in the nae of religion. People actually believ that because they are doing what god told them to do they are being paragons of morality.

  11. Bug_Girl, yeah, I debated with myself on whether or not to post on it. But after reading all the back and forth, I didn’t feel like there was much more to say. Few people defended what was said on stage, and those who did clearly weren’t able to offer any substantial defense. Some of the comments (like, yes, the idea that you don’t get raped if you’re smart) were so obviously wrong that they hardly needed pointing out.

    Yoo, I agree with you for the most part. I hesitate to label all religions “cults,” though, because I do think there are important distinctions between a cult and a religion. A cult doesn’t need to have a supernatural “God” at the top, for instance. Plus, I think that a cult is more directly harmful to adherents and their families, closes adherents off from the world, bankrupts them, etc. You can argue that most religions do this to a lesser extent, but to me a cult does them to such a great extent as to require a new designation.

  12. My brain nearly exploded when I read the line “…religious freedom means never telling someone else how to live.” So, this cult is free to tell it’s members how to live because in America we have religious freedom which means never telling someone else how to live. Sigh. That reminds me of a political cartoon I once read where a character points out how intolerant fundamentalist Xtian’s are and one of their ranks responds with, “You’re just intolerant of our intolerance!”

    So, I’m totally with you guys on the matter of religious freedom not meaning freedom from criticism. Unfortunately, I just made the mistake of reading the comments section of the NYmag site so I think I need to go wash my eyes out now… :(

  13. Jezebel has always been a bit too clever (or trying to sound so) for their own good. I think they got a little burned in the recent FDLS issue, because they came down really hard on the church, and when not enough evidence in this particular instance was found to make many of the charges stick in court, they ended up looking a bit overzealous. But the lack of legal convictions doesn’t change the fact there is already a body of evidence of FDLS practices, not to mention established patterns of cult behaviors in general, we can base our opinions on. Jezebel is wasting a priceless opportunity to make a stand for both reason and victimized women.

    Fortunately, Rebecca, you can pick up the slack and them some :)

  14. “…religious freedom means never telling someone else how to live.”

    This doesn’t make any sense. What if a religion tells you to tell other people how to live?

    This article was great; thanks for posting it. I can’t believe some of the things women are not allowed to do there–wear pink ballet shoes, sing in the presence of men. I can’t believe that if I wear a sugar plum fairy outfit and belt terrible 80s songs all day long that I would still get some ass.

    On a serious note, I’m glad she was able to escape and rebel. I am most saddened by people who are trapped in these terrible, oppressive places, never able to make their lives or the lives of their children any better.

  15. This doesn’t surprise me. I’m Jewish, and even better, Jewish from Transylvania. Not far from the origins of the Satmarer.

    If you can imagine the moderate Muslim world at large feeling vaguely ashamed of, and never speaking about, their radical Wahabi activists (assuming they lived in tiny, isolated communities), then you have a good idea of how many of us feel about the Satmarer. Even amongst the other sects– Lubavitcher, Breslover, etc– they have a vile reputation.

    I am glad that this woman escaped. Too many do not. The Satmarer are evil.

  16. If you want to read more about the weird world of ultra-orthodox Judaism, I highly recommend Shalom Auslander’s memoir “Foreskin’s Lament”. He’s an escapee from a less extreme community in suburban New York than the Satmars in Kiryas Joel, but his story is searing nonetheless. http://www.shalomauslander.com/

    I’m an gay atheist from a not-very-religious, mostly culturally Jewish family and have no compunction about turning a critical eye toward the fringes of the Jewish world. The Satmars live about a mile south of where I live in the hipster-infested, condo-fying part of Williamsburg, but they might as well be on the moon. Remember, it’s as much the haredi loons who literally believe that God granted the land of Israel to Jews and who are digging their roots into the West Bank that are keeping the Middle East on the verge of explosion as much as their radical Islamic counterparts.

  17. I’m a secular Jew with some extended family members who are very Orthodox (or “frum,” as they say) and some parts of this story are all too familiar. While they’re not as extreme as the KJ, they do have a lot of the same restrictions: women aren’t allowed to sing in front of men once they reach puberty, not allowed to touch men that aren’t their husbands (not even family members like cousins or nephews), not allowed to show their hair… Not to mention the whole creepy “purification” process every month. I think non-religious Westerners are quick to judge fundamentalist Christians simply because they’re the most vocal (and in the cases of say Ted Haggard and Ray Comfort, also the most hilarious.) But extreme Orthodox Jews are even more frightening: think of the horrible offenses committed by the bigoted, bullying, practically bipolar god of the Old Testament, and remember that this is who they are praying to.

    One of those aforementioned extended family members is not only an Orthodox Jew but also an up-and-coming Conservative columnist, and whenever I hear about what he’s writing it makes me sick. We haven’t spoken in several years, so he doesn’t know that I’m now an atheist liberal feminist secular humanist, Jewish in name and cultural background only. Probably the only thing in my life he’d approve of would be my Jewish boyfriend, but then again my boyfriend is very much part of the New York liberal secular pro-feminist intellectual upper-middle-class Jewish Democrat tradition, too, so I guess we’re both pariahs. But I can guarantee that we’re both a lot happier than he is, and a LOT more grounded in reality.

  18. Yeesh, the comments from Ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jews on that website are horrifying and disgusting. Taking a step back, I realize that the article was a bit one-sided, and the writer/photographer a little too creepily into the way an attractive young woman dressed and looked. There were many issues with it. But the comments from Ultra-Orthodox/Hasidic Jews are so frighteningly creepy and inflammatory that they just reinforce the descriptions in the article. (Commenters “Bochur” and “Check_Your_Facts” are particularly vile.) Don’t they realize they’re just substantiating the claims that Ultra-Orthodox Jews can be/often are dogmatic, misogynistic, xenophobic bullies?

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