Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 21, 2018

Yitzy the Pupa photographer

Filed under: Catskills,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:12 pm

On Wednesday and Thursday, I was up in Sullivan County—once the home of the now mostly defunct resort hotel industry—to work with a drone pilot I had hired to capture the sights of the Catskills from above.

Of all the major hotels that were well-known in the area, there is only one that is still in business and that has the same appearance it had when it was built in 1937, namely the Raleigh Hotel. When I had been told in advance that it was now owned by Hasidim and catering to the frum (devout), I was a bit worried about being prevented from filming since these people are notoriously wary of outsiders. About a mile from the hotel, we stopped on the road to ask directions from a likely hotel guest wearing a long frock coat and a wide-brimmed hat. He told us it was right up the road and asked if he could get a lift. When he opened the door to hop into the back seat, he spotted the drone pilot’s female assistant and then said, while grinning sheepishly, “No thank you”. This came as no big surprise since there were lots of reports about Hasidic men refusing to be seated next to women on Israeli airplanes. Even when I offered to change seats with the assistant, he still said no.

Given that introduction, I suggested to the pilot to stay fairly clear of the hotel in order to avoid confrontations with hotel security. After about five minutes of filming, a car pulled up with a Hasidic driver who we figured to be part of the hotel management ready to tell us to get lost. After we explained what we were doing, he said “Great” with a big smile on his face and then asked when and where the drone shots of the hotel will be available. What a pleasant surprise!

Back in 2004, the hotel was being run by Laurie Landon, a secular Jew who took over the hotel after her father Mannie Halbert died that year at the age of 91. The NY Times described a transition that was atypical:

When she turned 18, she left the Raleigh and the so-called borscht belt behind to study fine arts at the University of Wisconsin. She then ventured farther, to California, where she studied and worked in design before returning east to live in Manhattan. Her father was left to run the 320-room hotel by himself after her mother, Nettie, died of ovarian cancer in 1971.

“The hotel replaced my mother,” she said. “It was his world. I knew he wanted to pass away here. He wore a suit and tie every day until he went into the hospital.”

Having hassle-free filming at the Raleigh was just the prelude to the next encounter with a Hasid that was even more unexpected.

1352

Old Falls, on the Neversink River

The crew and I were at Old Falls, a popular spot for tourists and locals alike, when all of a sudden a panel truck pulled up and a young man wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a yarmulke on his head stepped out to see what we were up to.

While the pilot and his assistant prepared to fly the drone over the falls, I drew their attention to a monarch butterfly a few feet away. To our delight, we had seen a number of them when we were upstate—perhaps recovering from the massive die-off from pesticides in the 1990s. When the young man overheard us chatting about the butterfly, he dashed to his truck and brought out a digital SLR camera with a massive telephoto lens to see if he could photograph the butterfly. In fact, it was this camera:

That is one of the photos on Yitzy’s website that is devoted both to photographing the beauty of the area as well as the religious leaders of the Pupa branch of Hasidic Judaism.

Not only is he a passionate photographer, he is also into drone photography and owns a Mavic Pro just like mine. I should add that the only reason I hired a drone pilot (and a great one at that) is the impossibility of learning how to fly my own in New York City where there is a virtual ban. (Contact me if you want to buy a Mavic Pro in excellent condition.)

Right off the bat, Yitzy identified himself as a Pupa person. The Pupas are a Hasidic sect named after the town of Pápa in Hungary who were deported to Auschwitz during WWII with only a tiny number of people surviving the death camp. There are several thousand Pupas in Brooklyn where Yitzy grew up in a cloistered world that had incorporated the same customs and Yiddish language used in the 19th century in Hungary. He told me that he learned English on the street and even picked up Spanish along the way.

Yitzy and I discussed his online passions that are strictly verboten in his world. Computers, like the female assistant in the drone pilot’s back seat, are doors that open up into the world of temptation and sin. But he was not ready to forsake them since this was as much a part of his identity as the sidelocks (peyot) that he had tucked neatly behind his ears. On Friday night and Saturday, the sidelocks are unraveled and he trades his jeans and t-shirt for the same kind of clothes that the Raleigh hotel guest was wearing. Obviously, it is this sort of ceremony that retains a grip on him:

Yitzy is aware of the films on Hasidim that have cast them in a negative light such as “One of Us” (https://louisproyect.org/2017/10/19/one-of-us-jane/) even if he has not watched them. He wasn’t aware of “Menashe”, the outstanding film about a single father being told by a Hasidic court that unless he remarries, he will have to turn over his son to another family. When I described the plot to him, he had no hesitation saying that the rabbis were wrong.

I was deeply impressed with Yitzy and could understand why he would want to remain in the Hasidic world. Karl Marx once wrote that religion was the opiate of the masses but the words that surround this statement are often neglected:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

My interest in the Hasidim goes back a number of decades mostly because they are so defiantly unconcerned about how they are perceived by others. In American society, it is difficult to withstand the social pressures that turn people into commodity fetishists unless you exist within a religious cocoon like the Amish or the Hasidim.

Ilan Halevi’s “A History of the Jews: Ancient and Modern” is the definitive treatment of Jewish history that I highly recommend. His discussion of the Hasidic movement places it in the context of economic and social dislocations of 19th century Europe:

There is one area where Hasidism not only did not challenge orthodoxy, but outbid the rabbinical discourse: the crucial area of the cleavage Jews and non-Jews. The eschatological justification of difference as essential. Difference was one of the constantly recurring themes of rabbinical Judaism: Separation (havdalah) was a key concept. God separated Israel from among the Nations and this extraction was of an ontological nature:

“Like day from night, like the sacred from the profane.” Talmudic law pushed the horror of the mixing of species to the prohibiting any grafting of vegetable species. Kabbalistic literature was full of such expressions of national pride and messianic particularism. But the intellectual practice of the Mediterranean Kabbala could, through exegesis, lead to heretical questionings of this basic distinction, which cannot simply be reduced to the divine guarantee of the ethnic superiority chosen group. The rabbinical caste, indeed, was dependent on it for relations with the princely rulers and the stratum of intermediaries. The weight of this dual relationship tempered the cosmological tribalism of the Law. It had even, under the tolerant Islam of the Abbassids, allowed this tribalism to harmonize its language with the surrounding civilization, which was itself fascinated by Greek Reason.

Nothing like this, no modification of rabbinical ethnicism was at work in universe of the Hasidim: the fact was that the persecution of the community was occurring in conditions that were unique in the history of this Law. The de facto separation of the Shtetl from the surrounding society, a separation that was not only religious and social, but linguistic and spatial, found in this the theological weapons it needed to assert itself. While postponing to an indefinite future the hopes for a political messiah, Hasidism also expressed, by its outright denial of time and place, the historical subjectivism of the Shtetl which could later fuel the growth of Jewish nationalism.

The internal crisis of the Shtetl, whose roots are to be found in the crisis of Polish feudalism, was exacerbated and radically aggravated. The domain of Polish sovereignty was shrinking rapidly. A kingdom that had stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea grew smaller and smaller as around it tsarist Russia, the Hapsburg empire and the German states grew larger and larger. The Polish question became the European question and centuries-old Polish Jewry saw its territory carved up among several states Austria, which took Galicia, lightened the conditions of Jews there: but Russia, having seized the Ukraine and Byelorussia, oppressed them there, said Lenin, “more harshly than the Negroes”. The Napoleonic conquest, short as it may have been, precipitated the disintegration, inducing a general upheaval in the empires of the centre and east. Following the French occupation, the whole map of the region was transformed. The new frontier of Austria and Russia, which shared the whole of what remained of Poland in 1815, cut the Ashkenazi world in two, divided the dynasties of Hasidic rabbis, and determined new sub-problematics. The sociological unity of Ashkenazi Judaism was beginning to fracture.

This year Philip Roth died at the age of 85. Well over fifty years ago, I read his “Goodbye Columbus” that included a short story titled “Eli the Fanatic” about a secular Jew living among gentiles who is chagrined to discover that a Hasidic Jew has moved into his neighborhood. Samuel Freedman, a Columbia professor who has written about conflicts in the Jewish community in a book titled “Jew Vs Jew: The Struggle For The Soul Of American Jewry”, summarized the plot:

In 1959, very early in his literary career, Philip Roth wrote a short story entitled “Eli, the Fanatic.” At the outset of the tale, nothing is fanatical about Eli, except his desire to fit in. He has ridden a law degree and the wave of postwar prosperity from working-class Newark into a leafy suburb up the slope of the Watchung Hills—the sort of suburb, the reader understands, that had barred Jews with restrictive covenants on home sales until the revelation of the Holocaust discredited the formal structures of American anti-Semitism. Even so, Eli feels that his station there is vulnerable. So when two survivors, one of them Hasidic, open a yeshiva out of a ramshackle home in what is supposed to be a residential neighborhood, Eli fears that their oddity will undermine his fragile new niche. He instructs the men in the importance of obeying zoning laws, and, when that doesn’t work, gives the Hasid one of his own business suits so that, at the very least, the stranger won’t attract quite so many stares as he walks down Main Street. In a final plot twist, the Hasid leaves a set of his own black garb on Eli’s porch. Eli, inexplicably drawn to it, puts on the clothes, whereupon he is committed to a lunatic asylum.

Sometimes I wonder if my 50-year commitment to Marxism is as “fanatical” as Roth’s character. In a world headed to disasters of Biblical proportions, it takes a certain kind of stiff-necked resolve to adhere to beliefs that reject our affluent society that is symbolized by Donald Trump’s garish penthouse. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I admire Yitzy even though his world is so remote from mine.

2 Comments »

  1. Nice writing. And captures well the spirit of the hotel. My brother and I visited last year and as two secular men were treated with warmth.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — July 21, 2018 @ 8:40 pm

  2. Always enjoy your reminisces even more than your polemics.

    Comment by John Kaufmann — July 22, 2018 @ 11:35 am


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