What Chasidic Jews Taught this “Rookie” Filmmaker // A conversation with Peter Santenello

The three-part video series about Brooklyn’s Chasidic Jewish community made by Peter Santenello for his YouTube channel is undoubtedly one of the more sympathetic looks at the Chasidic Jewish world in recent times. It has enjoyed millions of views.
During a visit this past Sukkos to Brooklyn’s Orthodox enclaves with a GoPro camera in hand, Peter asked all the right questions, and Shloime Zionce, his host, gave him the perfect answers.

Peter has described the Chasidic world as being “full of mystery and wisdom.” After watching his videos, few would disagree with that characterization.

Tell me a little about yourself.

I’m an entrepreneur. I started this YouTube channel roughly two years ago. I sold a business last year, and since then I’ve been working full time on making videos on various cultural topics all over the world.

Are you making any money from it?

Yes. This is my life now. I do have some financial runway from my business, but I plan on expanding my channel. I’m just getting started, but I really want to build it up. I’d also like to potentially have a podcast. I’m getting enough money from ad revenue to almost keep me afloat, but it’s not consistent. There are other ways to monetize it that I’m working on right now.

What did you do before this?

I was in real estate, but the last business I sold was an auto reconditioning business. I was living in Ukraine, but it was run out of California and Nevada. It was just a business that I happened to own. That was my last endeavor.

I guess you’re exploring the world now, and you’re interested in different types of people.

I’ve always been interested in people. I travel quite a bit, and until COVID hit, I wasn’t planning on being back in the United States. I was going to be in Israel in the spring, then I was going to get into Gaza, and I had Syria and Lebanon lined up as well. These trips were all for various documentaries I was going to make, but then COVID arrived. My wife and I looked at a map and tried to figure out what to do. We ultimately decided to go back to the States, because there are plenty of stories there. Most Americans don’t know about America, and most foreigners don’t know about it either, as you can see with this story about chasidics.

Where are you from originally?

I grew up in Vermont until the age of 18.

Vermont isn’t what we might call a particularly multiethnic state.

No. It was so white that the dishwasher at the Mexican restaurant in my neighborhood was white.

So you got to know one type of people. Then you came to Brooklyn, where you can find different communities by walking a few blocks in any direction.

Yes. I love it.

How did you come to discover the Orthodox Jewish community?

I posted online that I was heading to New York to make videos of different communities to try to capture various angles of New York City. Shloime Zionce, who was following my content, reached out to me and asked if I wanted to see the chasidic community, and I said yes.

True journalism is not about looking at things from the outside and filtering them through a Western lens and making judgments; it’s about empathizing and becoming a part of that culture, even if for only short time, without imposing your perspective on others. That’s what journalism used to be.

Exactly. I don’t consider myself a journalist at all. I’m not a journalist. I’m just a normal guy who is very curious; I love the world, I love people and I want to learn more about it. If I can bring others along with me on that journey through my channel, that’s my dream. I don’t understand the mentality you mentioned at all. It doesn’t make sense. It seems very egotistical. For example, the chasidics have things the Western world doesn’t have. They have things that people would admire if they knew about them, and a lot of people who watched the videos made comments about that. They have a connectivity that so much of the Western world has lost. I don’t know if you saw the episodes, but there was one ten-year-old kid we met who has more wisdom than the average 50-year-old. I’m not here to judge whether people are right or wrong. It’s certainly narcissistic on the part of a journalist to judge. I am who I am because of the conditions in which I grew up, and the same goes for everyone else.

I believe that the reason why your work resonates with people is that a lot of the films that are made about Orthodox Jews are from the perspective of people who have left the community. But you spoke to people who are very happy with where
they are, and you got a different perspective.

Right. Shloime in particular is an excellent resource. He speaks well and is mature beyond his years, and he has an open mind and can see things from many perspectives. That’s why he’s such a great bridge between the chasidic world and everyone else. He’s traveled a lot, he understands how certain things might be perceived, and he has a great way of explaining things in very clear terms. A lot of what he was saying just made a lot of sense to me.

The Jewish people are very tiny compared to other nations, but as a family we’re probably the largest on earth. That’s where our strength lies. I like the word you
used: connectivity. Where did you see it?

There’s uniformity in dress and culture and tradition. That’s immediately obvious. But there were a lot of other things that Shloime explained to me as we were walking down the street, such as the medical services, where if someone is hurt responders can be expected to arrive within 120 seconds. You have a lot of rituals and traditions that keep the culture very close. I was able to see this through his perspective when he spoke about how people are still suffering from the Holocaust. There are many second-generation people and even some first-generation people who are still alive. You have to stick together because you don’t know what’s coming, and that made a lot of sense. We all take on the trauma of our history, and that history wasn’t that long ago. I can see that you want to have your brothers and sisters nearby because of what happened not that long ago, and it can happen again. Hopefully not, obviously, but I understand it. It makes sense.

How long did you spend in Brooklyn? A couple of hours?

I was there for most of a day. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert or authority, and I understand that I saw only a fraction of what exists, and there are many stories that make up a full picture. I’m not trying to tell you how it is, I’m just telling you what I saw.

You didn’t say how it is, but you certainly showed that it made an impression on you.

Most people who aren’t chasidic don’t know anything about them. All they know is that they aren’t very friendly in social settings and the series Unorthodox. That’s all I knew, and it was a pleasant surprise to learn more. I met beautiful, open and hospitable people. It was a very humbling experience.

You visited during the Sukkos holiday so everyone was wearing holiday clothes, which means you got to see more than you would have otherwise.

Yes. I got lucky. My wife and I had just moved back to the US after living in Ukraine for the past four years. We had gone to see my mother in Vermont, and then I came down to New York. It was luck that I got to visit during the holiday.

What was the high point of your visit?

There were a lot of high points, but probably that little boy I mentioned. We were talking about the simplicity of life, and how he doesn’t understand why people are looking at their phones when G-d created the sky and the clouds and the sun and all this beauty to observe while everyone seems to be lost and trying to distract themselves. What he was saying was so true about today’s society. Then he talked about how everything is meant to be, and maybe you’re late for the plane on 9/11 and it’s the best thing that ever happened to you because you didn’t make the flight. Then he got into talking about how we need to keep a positive attitude and just say, “Wow!” to everything around us. These were all simple things, but they really resonated—and from a ten-year-old! It was amazing. The rabbi I met in the last episode was also interesting, as was learning about relationships and marriages.

Religion plays a role in many cultures when there are births, deaths and other milestones, but not necessarily in day-to-day life. In the chasidic community, however, religion is central to everything we do. Did you find that interesting?

I grew up Protestant, but I don’t follow it personally. I was brought up to be independent, and that’s who I am. In fact, I used to think that religion was silly. Then I did a documentary about a family of Ukrainian war refugees on the Russian border. Their apartment was bombed out and they moved to the countryside. I lived with them for a while. Religion was their compass, and that’s what kept their family together. It was the religion and the connectivity that flipped a switch in me. The way it was guiding their lives and keeping them together was beautiful. Even though I’m more of a secular guy, I took that mentality into the chasidic environment, so I really respect it.

Did you discover anything about Judaism in general during your trip to Brooklyn?

I discovered several things. One of them is that it’s very closely aligned with some sects of Islam in its rituals, much more so than with Christianity. Even though Christianity came from Judaism, and Islam was the last on the world stage, I see many close parallels. But as I’ve mentioned, what I admire the most is the connectivity. I could feel that it’s a strong community, not a phony attempt to be a community. No one was trying to hold some event to bring people together. It already exists, it’s there, and it’s preserving the culture. I like the sukkah philosophy: it’s not the gate, the doors or the roof over your head that protect you, it’s your connection with G-d that protects you. And it makes you understand that life isn’t all about comfort, and that being a bit uncomfortable creates more meaning. I could go on forever, but those are the big things I can think of.

How many views did your videos about chasidim get on YouTube?

The first one has over 900,000 views, and the other two have a little over 300,000 each. I also posted one on Shloime’s YouTube channel the other day, and that one got a little over 100,000. And that’s just on YouTube. I’ve gotten millions of views on Facebook. I have a big Muslim following, and they’re very interested in the subject. So many people have commented on how similar the communities are. It’s also amazing to see the nice words people have to say. I was expecting a torrent of hate in the comments section, but they’ve been the most positive I’ve ever seen.

What was the common denominator in the positive comments?

I think people are humbled, and while I’m not a journalist, we can call it that for simplicity’s sake. They’re just happy to see someone look at a community without coming in with an agenda to make them look bad. People are ready for that. They’re tired of the narratives in the mainstream news with all the angles. They’re ready for normal people just talking without being told how to speak or having their words be edited in a way that makes them look terrible.

Do you think your visit to the community puts you in a position to be an advocate for different people in a broader context?

Yes. Exactly. That’s what I enjoy doing. I did a video in what is considered the most dangerous neighborhood in the South Bronx. I want to go to the Amish. I want to go to the Native American community, I want to go to rural West Virginia and talk to the people who have been sort of left out of America to some degree. These are the things that interest me. I want to give a voice to people who traditionally don’t have one. That’s also why I went to Iran, Saudi Arabia and all these Muslim countries that are typically perceived very poorly. I get into people’s worlds and let them talk while trying to make it interesting.

One thing that impressed me in particular about the chasidic community is its ability to hold on to their identity right in the middle of New York City. The Amish are a little easier to understand; they’re out in the countryside. But here you have people right in the heart of capitalism holding on to not having TVs or cellphones and being very focused on that. It’s unbelievable discipline. That’s what the chasidics teach very well that’s lacking in other places—discipline—because without it you can’t accomplish anything in life. They have unbelievable discipline. Not everyone, obviously, but from what I see, as a group the discipline is beautiful.

There have been many attempts at suppressing and changing the Orthodox Jewish community. I think your perspective is very important and should be heard, because you’re highlighting the uniqueness of the community at a time when progressives don’t like uniqueness and want everyone to be like them.

It’s bizarre. I can’t stand the mindset that they have it all figured out. There’s a lot to learn from the chasidic community. You can like it or dislike it, but there are some nuggets in there that anyone can live by that would improve their lives. That doesn’t mean anyone has to convert; I’m talking about the family bonds, the ability to get away from technology and connect on a human level and make a ritual out of it. These are all good things from which everyone can benefit. It’s not just a chasidic thing.

Who does your shooting? Do you do it yourself?

I do everything myself. I go in with a GoPro, which means that I lose some quality, but my whole shtick is capturing authentic human interactions. If I arrive with a cameraman and a crew, most of those people aren’t going to let me into their homes. The same would happen if I came in with a big DSLR on my face; everything would change. So I keep it very simple and casual because I want to capture that essence and feeling. The biggest challenge is that I end up with all this footage, but what I’m going to post is very private and intimate, and I never know how people will receive it. I don’t want anything bad to ever happen because you’re exposing it to the world, and there are all sorts of haters online. But again, this worked out really well. I honestly thought that the family in the second video would ask me to take it down. I was worried about it, but thank G-d, they were happy. It’s such good content.

Do you do the editing yourself as well?

Yes. I do everything myself. I took around five hours of video, and it was cut down to three episodes of 25 minutes each.

And you manage to retain the voice. Whatever is there is there. You don’t go back.

No. You get what you get. I always tell my audience that two very different scenes can be taking place in the same apartment building at the same time, and they’re both the truth. All I do is show the story that I see. In other words, there are many stories going on, but here’s a peek into one of them. I’ll try to get it from different angles if I’m making multiple videos, but as you know, journalism is all about how you edit. It’s unbelievable how many consumers don’t understand that.

Everything is in the eye of the beholder who happens to be relaying the story.
Right. My job is to get in as close as possible and let people speak. I always hope that I’ll get great people who will say and show me interesting things, which I did in this series.

If you don’t mind mentioning this in your article, I’m coming back soon to shoot five or six more episodes, going more deeply into the community. We have a family letting me in for Shabbat, and we’re going to show what that’s all about. And we’re going to visit a number of organizations to see how they run. There’s a lot more content coming.

I guess the first few episodes were more of a discovery with the camera, but now it’s going to be a little different.

I was a “chasidic rookie,” to be honest. No one on the outside knows what the curly sidelocks are for; they just look weird. But now I know what they are. It’s really cool.

From the comments on YouTube, it seems that you’ve enlightened many people about a community that’s been underrepresented.

Yes. That’s exactly the type of thing I try to do, go to what I call “underdog” communities or countries that are usually perceived in a negative way and just put my ear to the ground and listen to the people there.

You don’t consider yourself a journalist, but for all practical purposes that’s exactly what you’re doing.

That’s what’s so sad. Journalism has become so bad that this is seen as something special, when it’s really just me asking questions and being curious. I would have thought that’s what people are supposed to do, but the mainstream garbage in America is atrocious.

That’s because there’s an agenda. Your agenda is to hear what people are saying, while theirs is about what they’re saying.

Exactly. Look, everyone has a bias, but I really try my hardest to open up and be as objective and authentic as possible and let the people do the talking. I just ask the questions.

You ask the important questions that reveal your empathy. I really appreciated talking to you.

I think you’re right that it’s all about empathy, and I also really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you. ●