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. Here's the gist: a young woman named Sterna "Gitty" Gittel Grunwald, 23, (pictured) used to live in the upstate New York town of Kiryas Joel, which is an exclusively Satmar enclave. Much like the FLDS, the Satmars arrange marriages and don't believe in birth control. After marrying a man named Yoely when she was 17 and having a daughter, Esther Miriam, Gitty realized, "I couldn't live in KJ anymore, that I didn't want to be one of those women who pop out babies every eighteen months and think whatever their husbands tell them to… When Esther Miriam was born, that raised the stakes, because now there were two of us. Two KJ girls."
With the help of her secular Jewish grandparents, Gitty moved to Brooklyn and tried to start a new life with Esther Miriam. All was basically well until January, when Esther Miriam was snatched from a local playground during preschool by envoys from Kiryas Joel. Since then, Gitty has been battling with Yoely for custody of Esther, and her story really highlights the way religion can tear families apart.
The following passage shows the extreme pain felt by both Gitty and her (now ex) husband. Even though the practices strike me as incredibly controlling of the female body, you can also see how Yoely would find Gitty's behavior so terribly upsetting:
The critical battleground in the War Between the Grunwalds would prove to be niddah, or "separation," i.e., when the menstruating female is considered "impure" and kept apart from her husband. "It isn't just your period," Gitty says. 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. "Great, huh? Some old rabbi looking at your panties with a magnifying glass?" Gitty asks. "This was so embarrassing to me. In KJ, everything is about sex-this idea of sex made up by men from 300 years ago. I wouldn't do it anymore. I stopped counting, wore black underwear. I walked around the house in shorts, because when you're impure, your husband can't touch you or even look at your arm. Yoely would hide his eyes and start crying, ‘Put on your turban, please put on your turban.' "
I'm sure he really thought that Gitty was going to invoke the wrath of G-d by not wearing that turban. 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. What is galling, however, is that the Satmars believe that they get to be the arbiters of Jewishness. According to New York: "On one of their last visits, [Gitty's grandfather] saw one of Gitty's young stepbrothers regarding him warily. 'The kid says, ‘Dis is a Yid?' I felt like screaming, ‘Yeah, for 70 goddamn years!' But it wouldn't have done any good.'" Oh man. If they're going to demand tolerance, they should preach it as well.
Escape From the Holy Shtetl [NY Mag]