Several years ago,
crossing the English Channel from Belgium, I encountered a strange apparition: two gaunt
yeshiva boys floating across the deck, their earlocks, or payess, swinging wildly. On an
impulse, I called out to them in Yiddish, which I had learned as a child from my grandmother,
one of the few people over age forty to have survived the concentration camps. I had extremely
long hair, and they stared at me as if I were some sort of extraterrestrial. After a charged
moment, they responded warmly, inviting me to their cabin, which had four beds but only two
occupants. To the gentle lulling of the ship, the two pimply religious school lads
on their way home from a trip to Antwerp to get advice from a well-known sage
offered me a Judaic version of brimstone and hellfire, something I'd never encountered
in the suburban Reform Sunday school I'd attended as a child.
Hell most certainly exists, they assured me. It is a place where the neshuma, the soul, is
tossed back and forth like a hot potato, for eternity. This they began to act out, passing an
imaginary basketball with the nimbleness of the Harlem Globetrotters. For eternity, one
repeated, waving his finger at me. Not just the soul, the other added with a touch of drama,
but the entire body. One is tossed into a vat of ordure and left to stew, also for eternity.
They continued in this vein throughout much of the night, rocking back and forth on their
beds, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. Every so often, a bony hand would appear in front
of my top bunk from somewhere below, clutching a piece of fruit. "Eat! Eat!" one of them
This was my first introduction to the Satmar Hasidim. Before the boat docked in England,
they gave me their address in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and told me to stop in if I was ever
in the neighborhood.
What Pat Buchanan is to the Republican Party, Satmars are to other Hasidim. In the
ultra-Orthodox world, it just doesn't get any more religious than this.
Reprinted with permission
from Boychiks in the Hood
Copyright © 1996
by Robert Eisenberg