Late Saturday night, I found myself driving through the darkness in upstate New York toward the village of Kiryas Joel, a community of Satmar Hasidic Jews who practice a strongly Anti-Zionist orthodox wing of Judaism founded by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum following World War II. It was settled in 1977 by fourteen families and is presently populated by over twenty thousand inhabitants, the highest concentration of Satmars on earth
A resident and friend, Yitz Farkas, invited me into the community to celebrate and document Lag BaOmer, a Jewish holiday celebrating the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the second century. It involves lots of music, dancing and, most notably, the lighting of a bonfire to celebrate the light left by the long since passed Rabbi.
I arrived to the village around 10:30pm and made my way to the town’s square, which was crowned by a Synagogue and bordered by empty bleachers in wait. In one corner of the square sat a large candle, fenced off, surrounded by men pouring gasoline onto it from watering cans and plastic bottles. A band rehearsed on a stage and I got a few curious looks from new arrivals. Some approached me and once it was established that I was friends with a resident, I was welcomed and left alone to wait. I wasn’t waiting long.
In what felt like ten minutes, the square was full of Satmars. Thousands of them poured in, filling every available inch—ground level, all the bleachers, up the steps of the synagogue. Their shtreimels (traditional hats worn by married men) bobbed as far as the eye could see.
I jostled for position as the head Rabbi, Aron Teitelbaum emerged to light the giant candle, which given the amount of gasoline it dripped with, surprisingly took a few minutes to light up.
As the fire grew so did the energy of the band and before I knew it, the entire square was jumping to the energetic music that filled the night air. Men formed joyous circles and spun around as the now massive flames danced along with them. I was dragged along and was spun like a sock in a tumble dryer, trying to keep my feet and make frames.
It was an other-worldly experience. The combination of the music, the traditional clothing of the Satmars and the sheer size of the crowd dancing by the bonfire was almost overwhelming.
Eventually, the fire burned itself out and almost as quickly as it filled, the square was empty as the men entered the aforementioned Synagogue to pray with Rabbi Teitelbaum. I made the long drive home with my head full of memories, my camera full of images.
— Andrew Kelly