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Satmar - +Hats On, Gloves Off+

Published on: May 1, 2006 01:24 PM
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Rabbe Aron Teitelbaum 

The death of the rebbe frees his sons Aaron and Zalmen to go to war. But is the prize—all of Hasidic Williamsburg—a poisoned chalice?

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 May 08, 2006 at 01:03 PM Anonymous Says:

The statement that
"Aaron sometimes bows to the imperatives of the modern world. Zalmen, by contrast, is a proud kanoi"
Is inaccurate.

I'm a student of both, and Aaron was always unyielding not bowing to anything modern, where Zalmen before he got into this politics was more light mannered and far from being a kanoi.

As for the eruv they both banned the eiruv in Williamsburg; However the Aaronis undermined the bane as a way to undermine Zalmen's authority. As for the eruv in Kiryas Joel it was not erected by Aaron when the old grand rebbe Joel Teitelbaum still lived and should not to be compared to the eruv in Williamsburg because Kiryas Joel is not considert a Big City.

Nevertheless don't expect any of them to encourage a love for Notorious B.I.G., Eminem, and Wilco.


 May 02, 2006 at 04:08 PM Sara K Says:

Written by Sara K.
I appreciate your story and how you clarified it.
What this has to teach us ALL is that we must make EXACT and clear arrangements when our 120 comes around.
No guessing! No figuring it out afterwards.
Be clear to your children.
If you were born, you are going to die, it's inevitable -- so start talking about it and make plans so you don't have these pathetic events and make such a huge chillul HaShem!


 May 02, 2006 at 04:08 PM Anonymous Says:

To the person who wrote this:
"The disgusting superior "holier than thou attitude" that Satmar has always displayed towards other Chassidc groups and especially towards the non-Chassidic, Young Israel and Modern Orthodox segments of the Jewish community has always been very disturbing. However,they were always ready to accept their money.That did not require a Satmar hechsher.

If we ever wonder why Moshiach hasn't come yet,all we have to realize is that we haven't advanced one inch from the time of Churban Bayis Sheini when sinas chinam started the whole process which culminated with this bitter Golus.
When will ever learn? Will it take another 2,000 years to accept another Jew even though he doesn't fit exactly in your mold?
We bring our troubles upon ourselves."

If you'd like to see the true source of Sinat Chinam it is as close to you as the nearest mirror.

While not "Modern Orthodox", I am Otthodox and pretty modern.

Last year I spent several days in a NY hospital (including Shabbat) following a major operation. The Seudot Shabbat I and my mother ate were not from the Young Israel Bikur Cholim. The apartment offered to my mother was not made available through the Young Israel Bikur Cholim. The woman who came by post-op ICU to see how my wife was holding up waiting for me to wake up after a six hour operation was not from the YIBC.

Neither were any of the endless stream of strangers who showed up asking if there was anything they could do for us.

The refrigerators full of extra meals provided free for anyone showing up unexpectedly were not stocked with food from the YI BC.

So while we can nit-pick about every group of people I would humbly suggest we'd accomplish more by nit-picking at our own chisronot.

Perhaps we can start by asking ourselves why WE didn't create the type of Bikur Cholim that Satmar did. After all, the are far more Modern Orthodox doctors working in any hospital than there are Satmar doctors. Why didn't any of them manage to do what a few old ladys with poor command of English managed to accomplish?


 May 02, 2006 at 01:18 PM Boruch Horowitz Says:


1. I am not a Satmarer, and I am as disturbed as anyone else by the dispute. However, once one focuses on the individuals which make up a group, one sees that there are many types of people, no doubt alot of whom are disturbed by such fighting. I am not for hiding one's head in the sand, but one must be fair...

2.The following article indicates how the entire community benefits from this Chassidic group:

The Shopping Bag Ladies
by Malky Lowinger
Am Echad Resources
October 25, 2002

It's 8:00 A.M. at the Satmar Bikur Cholim kitchen on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, and the place is already a beehive of activity. Svetlana and "the Rebbetzin" are stirring huge pots of chicken soup. Esther and Leah are chopping fresh vegetables. The answering machine light blinks urgently.

Mrs. Teitelbaum, petite and middle-aged, is clearly in charge. She sits down at her desk and listens to her messages. The Brody family called at midnight. Their daughter is being discharged from NYU; cancel her food package. Joseph from Long Island will be hospitalized for a week and he needs diabetic-safe food. If it's not too much trouble, says Mrs. Heller, could the salad for her father be prepared without tomatoes today?

Here at Satmar Bikur Cholim, established by the Satmar Rebbetzin in 1957 to provide assistance to the sick and the needy, and funded by private donations, nothing is too much trouble. The group happily and proudly offers a variety of services, though the ladies of Satmar are best known for their food packages, and especially their chicken soup.

The Bikur Cholim kitchen is located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the epicenter of the Satmar Chassidic sect. A tightly-knit, thriving community with highly disciplined religious standards, the Satmar are best known to most Jews for their unyielding stance against Zionism. Though they forcefully reject the Neturei Karta's public coddling of Palestinian terrorists, they nevertheless consider the establishment of a Jewish State before the Messiah's arrival as wrong and as a dangerous affront to the other nations of the world. Yet on this particular morning, political philosophy is the furthest thing from anyone's mind.

Ruchie, Layalah, and Frumie are assembling the food packages. The Bikur Cholim kitchen, a model of cleanliness and efficiency, is their pride and joy. One can actually imagine eating off the floors here. The activity is non-stop. Fruit and vegetable salads are lovingly placed into plastic containers, fresh rolls and cake packed into bags. And the soup, the famously delicious chicken soup, is carefully ladled into thermos containers, to maintain its heat, flavor and, presumably, curative properties until it reaches its intended recipients.

Each day, the volunteers assemble a hundred and fifty customized hot and wholesome meals, which are then distributed to Jewish patients, regardless of level of observance or affiliation, at fifteen metropolitan area hospitals. The recipients, many of whom have never eaten a kosher meal before in their lives (and many more of whom insist that the Satmar Bikur Cholim packages are helping to bring about their speedy recovery) are brought to the Satmar ladies' attention through family, friends or the hospital chaplain.

No computer sits on Mrs. Teitelbaum's desk, and no high-tech machinery graces the kitchen. Yet the place is a model of order and efficiency. Mrs. Teitelbaum laughs at the suggestion of storing the daily information in a database. She points to her head. "The best computer in the world," she says, with an old-world wisdom that has quite apparently served her well thus far.

At ten o'clock, a new team of volunteers bursts in the door. The women doing the cooking and packing are dressed in housecoats and turbans; the new group is smartly turned out in designer suits and stylish wigs. They're all ready to spend the day in the big city.

"I volunteer my time once a week," says Rivka, in a chocolate-colored tweed suit, "but some of the women volunteer two or three full days every week year in, year out." The food is carefully packed into shopping bags and last minute instructions are delivered. Twenty five women then pile onto the Bikur Cholim bus, eager to be on their way to performing a very special mitzvah.

As the bus makes its way onto the Williamsburg Bridge, the Bikur Cholim women settle down to their routines. Reizie takes a cellphone from her pocketbook. "This is when I call in my fish and grocery order," she explains. Matti takes out a siddur and begins her morning prayers. Chaya and Estie begin an animated conversation. "Did you hear that Suri made a shidduch last night?"

These women are Bikur Cholim veterans; they've been making the rounds at the city's hospitals for years. The names of New York's most prestigious medical centers easily roll of their tongues. Matti's been visiting Beth Israel and "Joint Diseases" for thirteen years. "That's my route twice a week," she says. Reizie lays claim to Lenox. And Leah reveals that she visits Mount Sinai "with a shopping cart. The doctors, the nurses, they all know my shopping cart. It's famous."

"We really get to know the patients," explains Sally, who visits Memorial Cancer Center every Thursday. "And the ones who go home to recover," she says, in Yiddish-influenced English, "we keep in touch with them too." It's not easy maintaining friendships with the critically ill, though, Sally confides, "especially when some of them never make it home at all."

"I lost two patients last week," she adds quietly. "It was very hard for me." For a moment it's easy to forget that Sally is just a visiting volunteer, and not "her" patients' doctor.

Reizie leans over to make a point. "We're not Satmar," she says, indicating her two sisters who accompany her every week. "But this group is so wonderful that we felt we had to join." Her first experience with Bikur Cholim wasn't easy. She was asked to fill in for a volunteer who unexpectedly took a day off.

Destination? Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. "I saw a lot of pain and suffering that day," she recalls. The experience was harrowing, but it left an indelible positive impression. "I'll never forget the way the patients' eyes would light up when they saw me," she says. "I honestly don't know what they look forward to more, the chicken soup or just having someone to talk to."

The bus weaves through the traffic along First Avenue, dropping off the women at each one's designated location. Sally gets off at Memorial carrying several shopping bags. They are surprisingly heavy, but she manages well. She has her routine. She drops off her jacket in the coat room and stops by the Rabbi's office to ask if any new patients have been admitted.

As she passes the visitor's lounge, she scans the room and her trained eye settles on a middle-aged man sitting alone in a corner. He looks Jewish and seems worried. As Sally approaches, he looks up and sees her food-laden shopping bags. "Satmar?" he asks.

Sally smiles. She's used to this. Her shopping bags, like Leah's cart, are famous.

Moments later this virtual stranger is confiding the details of his wife's illness to Sally, who listens intently and sympathetically, showing familiarity with the medical jargon. Over time she's become something of an expert in medicine. She offers the man a food package and he happily accepts. His wife isn't able to eat anything, but he's starving and will have it for lunch. "And what about tomorrow?" Sally prods gently. "And by tomorrow your wife will probably be able to eat jello and clear broth. I'll order it for you." And she quickly scribbles a note onto her card. Later she will call Mrs. Teitelbaum, who will store this information on the computer in her head.

Sally makes her way across the floor. She greets the interns and nurses, who seem to know her well. Many of the patients are too ill to accept guests; some are fast asleep. But their families are delighted to talk to someone who isn't dressed in hospital scrubs. On the eighth floor she visits an Israeli family who have been here for three months with their eight-year-old son.

"It's been very difficult for them," Sally explains. "Things are always up and down."

After chatting with the family for several minutes, Sally goes on to the outpatient clinic, where some chemotherapy treatment is administered. Bikur Cholim has customized packages for this unit too. She fills the communal refrigerator with sealed bags of sandwiches, salad, and desserts. Then she waves at Jeremy, speaks to Yossele, and exchanges pleasantries with a young mother whose daughter is busy playing with a doll house. Here, most of the children have lost their hair, yet no one seems in the least self conscious.
They just go about the business of being kids, despite the massive weight hanging precariously over their heads.

The Bikur Cholim bus will be returning to Williamsburg at two o'clock, bringing most of the volunteers back home. Sally, though, won't be on it. "I like to stay here a bit longer," she explains, "and spend some extra time with the children."

Outside the hospital, life in the big city marches relentlessly on.

Everyone seems entirely preoccupied, oblivious to the troubles of those who are hospitalized in their very midst, within these massive medical facilities. On the corner there is a newstand. The day's headlines, three inches tall, scream "Yankees Win!" Derek Jeter is pictured, grinning from ear to ear. Someone is pouring champagne over his head. A city of nine million people pays tribute to its heroes.

It's probably safe to say that Sally, Reizie, and Matti don't know a shortstop from a shortcake.

But that's okay. We all have our heroes.



 May 01, 2006 at 09:56 PM Anonymous Says:

The disgusting superior "holier than thou attitude" that Satmar has always displayed towards other Chassidc groups and especially towards the non-Chassidic, Young Israel and Modern Orthodox segments of the Jewish community has always been very disturbing. However,they were always ready to accept their money.That did not require a Satmar hechsher.

If we ever wonder why Moshiach hasn't come yet,all we have to realize is that we haven't advanced one inch from the time of Churban Bayis Sheini when sinas chinam started the whole process which culminated with this bitter Golus.
When will ever learn? Will it take another 2,000 years to accept another Jew even though he doesn't fit exactly in your mold?
We bring our troubles upon ourselves.


 May 01, 2006 at 09:43 PM Anonymous Says:

it doesnt matter if all the facts are correct the writing is still brilliant


 May 01, 2006 at 07:32 PM Anonymous Says:

Great Writer, 97.5% True,

The comment made are more rude then the entire artical,
It is true that Zalmen was Rabbi in Boro Park in Siget Shul, Supposedly he was going to be the Rav in Jerusalem, unfortunately some of Aron's followers (most from Bnei B'rak) gave him such a hard time being there, All because they wanted Aron to rule the entire Satmar sect,
So when he came back his father the Grand Rabbi told Rab Yonah Halpert a very close friend, a person he spent a lot of time learning together, that the situation between his two sons reminds him of his own younger years, that his father the Atz'ei Chaim Past away very early and his Older brother Zalmen was so bad to him and he wouldn't give him anything from his father, and would make sure that the people would get rid of him, so he saw the same thing here, that Aron wouldn't give Zalmen after his passing and we would be left with nothing, and then he decided to give Zalmen one of the Kehileth, Kiryas Joel Or Monroe, And of course Aron did a major mistake by taking Monroe at that time, because Zalmen would never be able to take over Monroe complete, And Aron would end up having both, but he didn't and now it's way too late.


 May 01, 2006 at 06:32 PM Anonymous Says:

This sounds like a very dysfunctional family. How can a person be a rebbe and advise others on everything including shalom Bayis if they themselves can not lead a normal life and coexist with their own family members.What A chilul Hashem.


 May 01, 2006 at 06:14 PM Anonymous Says:

I think we should invite Moishe Gabbai to this blog so he can tell us the real story. I'm sure he would appreciate such an invitation. Do you think Zalmen has wi-fi in his apartment? I'm sure he does!!


 May 01, 2006 at 05:29 PM Anonymous Says:

Who wrote this story?
Got to give him credit good writer!
Most facts are right some are wrong, like the speech that R Aron gave in Monroe stating that he told his father that he picked Monroe not Williamsburg.
Also he states that R Zalmen had seemed content to rule a lesser Shul in Borough Park until his father sent him to Jerusalem,first of all Mosha Gabba sent him to Jerusalem cause over here in Borough Park he was a loser no looked at him & every one hated him so he knew if he doesn't send him away so no one will see him for a bit of time & forget what loser he was in Borough Park no will want him as a Grand Rabbi so he sent to Jesulaem actually when he came back he took all his father's enemies that also hated R Aron cause he was the one that always stood up for his fathers rights they all started being followers of R Zalmen that people & the news doesn't want to know they are writing as if R Aron is stealing the throne from his brother its actually the other way around


 May 01, 2006 at 03:47 PM Anonymous Says:

You can start chewing on it now because it will take you a while to eat it.


 May 01, 2006 at 02:44 PM Anonymous Says:

I knew the Satmar rebbe almost from the day he arrived.My family is from Sighet.If anybody can prove to me that he used the expression'ROSHO BEN ROSHO to anybody,I will eat my kipah srugah


 May 01, 2006 at 02:12 PM Anonymous Says:

nicely written story, but the facts are not exactlly true,
fighting is not new to satmars ,from both sides
this is a community that never tolerated other jewish people and now they have problems tolerating each other....


 May 01, 2006 at 02:00 PM Anonymous Says:

he says that he got it from a report in HasidicNews.com.


 May 01, 2006 at 01:54 PM Anonymous Says:

u gotta wonder where these guys get their info from. he called his son rushe ben rushe? wouldn't that be calling himself a rushe???


 May 01, 2006 at 01:26 PM VOS IZ NEIAS Says:

Aaron, eldest son of Moses, received the summons in the spring of 1999 at his home on Sanz Court in Kiryas Joel, a small town upstate. His father, the leader of the largest Hasidic sect in the world, requested Aaron’s presence in Brooklyn. It was no small matter to be called to Moses’s court during Passover, a season when every Satmar stays close to home and family to concentrate on the joy of God.

Aaron was a scholar, a writer of learned disquisitions on the Torah and Talmud and a most unyielding leader. In his sixteen years as rabbi there, Aaron had overseen a small miracle in Kiryas Joel. Hundreds of affordable tract homes for the fast-growing community of nearly 20,000 Hasidic souls had been built along its winding roads, and a town hall and shopping mall sat across a plaza from a synagogue grander than any found in Satmar Brooklyn. There was a fine brick-and-marble yeshiva, the United Talmudical Academy, of which Aaron was the dean.

Aaron’s tisch, the Sabbath dinner each Friday, was a delight for the yungerleit, the young men who begged to join in the evening of clapping and singing and keening prayer. Afterward, he would offer counsel about religion and the importance of repressing adolescent longing.

Aaron was building the foundation of a new home for the Satmars. And, he felt sure, demonstrating why one day he should rule as his father’s successor.

Aaron’s driver took him down in an SUV over the George Washington and Williamsburg bridges to 550 Bedford Avenue, the three-story red-brick house of his father, Grand Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum.

Inside he found his brothers, Lipa, Shulem, and Zalmen, the latter freshly arrived from Jerusalem, where he served as Satmar rabbi. Aaron said hello to his father’s gabbai (secretary), Moses Friedman—a political force who, in truth, Aaron could barely tolerate. Then the rebbe, his face thin and wreathed by a beard long and white, sat down and explained a new world to his eldest son.

The Satmars are a great people, he said in Yiddish. But when a sect stretches from Williamsburg to Montreal, London to Antwerp, Jerusalem to Kiryas Joel, the wisdom of a prophet is required to lead. A rebbe can no longer hope to say “mazel tov” at every child’s birth nor recite a blessing at every boy’s Bris. A Satmar knocks at the door seeking advice and you barely know him. You have done a fine job in Kiryas Joel, but growth begets problems. One man cannot rule all.

So the rebbe told Aaron that as his eldest son, he had a right to choose: Kiryas Joel or Williamsburg. You rule one, and your brother Zalmen will rule the other.

Aaron protested. He had trained to become the grand rebbe. Aaron left that night undecided—he complained to aides that the decision should be left to a rabbinical court after his father’s death. But a few days later, he called his father.

I will rule Kiryas Joel, Aaron said.

The grand rebbe, who had seen other Hasidic sects split asunder, insisted his son announce this decision in his Kiryas Joel synagogue on June 29, 1999. It’s known as Aaron’s “confession speech.”

“Today I am one who was told what to do and is doing it,” Aaron said to his congregation in Yiddish. “My father, shall he be healthy and strong, called me this morning and told me a few words . . . That he appointed Rabbi Zalmen as rabbi in Williamsburg . . . Whoever will dare to cause a commotion . . . shall have no right of entry into the synagogue.”

So it ended and so it began, the war between the Cain and Abel of the Hasidic world. In the seven years since the confession speech, Aaron and Zalmen, two middle-aged brothers, have engaged in a succession war so nasty that the ledger includes accusations of forged papers and purloined tapes, broken bones, and a brawl with a platoon of nightclub bouncers inside a Williamsburg synagogue.

Last week, the 91-year-old grand rebbe died at Mount Sinai Hospital, as dementia dimmed his eyes and cancer nested in his spine. At the funeral on April 25 in the Rodney Street synagogue in Williamsburg, in front of thousands of Satmar men pressed so tightly together a spectator could barely draw a breath, Aaron and Zalmen gave a show of unity, sharing a dais as they wailed lamentations and bowed toward their father’s wooden casket. But it soured even before the day was over. Supporters threw punches at the shul in Kiryas Joel, sending two—including Moses Friedman—to the hospital; rumors of two different versions of the grand rebbe’s last will and testament circulated; the local rabbinical court, the beit din, declared Zalmen the grand rebbe, while Aaron claimed that the boards of directors of congregations in Israel, Great Britain, and, of course, Kiryas Joel threw their weight behind the elder son.

Not even sitting shivah has muted the war. Last Wednesday, Aaron announced that he was returning to take over Williamsburg and leaving his son in charge of Kiryas Joel. Two grand rebbes, one flock. The Royal Teitelbaums have ruled the Satmars for decades, during which time the theocratic sect has experienced catastrophic loss in the hills of Transylvania and extraordinary rebirth in a once-forgotten industrial corner of Brooklyn. But if the brothers cannot make peace (and no shtreimel-hatted bookie would take odds that long), the sect will divide.

“Another month, or maybe a year, the split will be complete, that’s for sure,” says an adviser who ranks high in the royal court of Zalmen. “We’ll have our Satmar schools and shuls, and the Aaronis will have their Satmar schools and shuls. We wear fur hats, they wear fur hats. Both sides are using the same name.” He pauses to mull that over. “It will be very confusing, no?”

The two brothers’ leadership styles inhabit distant poles. Aaron casts himself in the model of his great-uncle, the late, revered grand rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, the charismatic leader who brought the sect to Brooklyn in 1946. But Aaron can be an iron-fisted political boss. Those he favors obtain jobs and the rebbe’s love. Those who cross him are sometimes frozen out. And more than a few Kiryas Joel dissidents fear the blows of Aaron’s yungerleit legions.

From his first days in Kiryas Joel, Aaron was opposed by a purist Old Guard aligned with Joel Teitelbaum’s formidable widow, Feige the Rebbetzin. (She has since died.) Aaron lashed back with angry words, and the yungerleit and dissidents clashed in shadowy battles—cars were torched, windows broken, men beaten. Aaron barred one outspoken purist from sending his children to a school and barred other dissidents from visiting dead relatives in the cemetery.

Michael Sussman, a secular lawyer who represented some of the Old Guard, once visited Aaron at his Kiryas Joel home: a modern two-story affair. Why, Sussman asked, can’t you tolerate a little dissent?

“He was polite but very adamant that this was a theocracy: If people want to remain in his congregation, then he had the authority to dictate what people can do,” Sussman recalls. “And if they don’t listen . . . ” His voice trailed off.

Moses told Aaron to choose: Kiryas Joel or Williamsburg. You will rule one, and your brother will rule the other.

As ever, the actions of Aaron’s supporters spoke loudest. The Aaronis marched into a Williamsburg synagogue less than a month after the Zalis repulsed a similar attack. This time, the Aaronis brought a platoon of bouncers from a nightclub. The bouncers climbed onto the dais that leads to the Torah scrolls and coldcocked several Satmar men in the face, dropping them to the floor.

Afterward, Zalmen’s followers began saying aloud what the late grand rebbe Moses would only hint at: that Aaron, with his arrogance and tolerance of violence, had weakened the pillars of his own temple. “Aaron acts like straight-up John Gotti,” says burly fish-store owner Abe Braun—an obvious exaggeration from someone who has himself brawled with Aaron’s forces.

Zalmen, 55, is temperamentally his father’s son, milder of manner and with a more gentle grip on the reins of power than Aaron, 57. Zalmen had seemed content to rule a lesser shul in Borough Park until his father sent him to Jerusalem, a prelude to succession. Even so, Zalmen’s scholarship was never as deep nor his Friday tisch so electric as Aaron’s.

To this day, followers compare notes like scouts sizing up a middling pitching prospect. So he’s getting better, no? His speeches, more self-confident, yes?

No one who analyzes Zalmen’s rise can discount the white-bearded gabbai, Moses Friedman, the grand rebbe’s gatekeeper and confidant. Friedman convinced the grand rebbe that Aaron lacked the temperament to succeed him, aides for both sides say. What’s more, Friedman took a personal hand in grooming Zalmen for leadership, helping him to understand that a successful rebbe must seek consensus rather than command it. Today, the old gabbai supervises Zalmen’s court with a master bureaucrat’s touch, while Zalmen, who is no fool, takes the role of chairman of the board. Friedman talks to local pols; Zalmen closes the deals.

Yet the deal that matters most—the 1999 agreement that Aaron would take Kiryas Joel and Zalmen would take Brooklyn and the schools and shuls that come with that inheritance—has never been sealed.

This past week, when the beit din ruled Zalmen is the rightful heir to the throne, Aaron complained that the judges were biased. For years, Aaron has ignored the board of directors of the Williamsburg congregation, arguing that it was elected illegally. He’s currently waging a court battle to install his own board and let it choose a future leader (inevitably himself). When his father’s 2002 will was read, the one that gives Williamsburg to Zalmen, Aaron charged that Zalmen manipulated the old man into signing it. A year ago, the rebbe turned on Aaron in a public confrontation, according to a report in HasidicNews.com. “You rushe ben rushe [evil person],” the grand rebbe yelled. “You think I’m already kaleching [mentally declining]? You think I don’t know what’s going on?”

The conflict is fueled by an army of royal-court officials and hangers-on—so many jobs and perks and loans depend on which son rules. Thousands of Satmars define themselves as Zalis or Aaronis, and some are cheerfully willing to commit mayhem in service of their chosen leader.

All charismatic Hasidic sects run a risk of dynastic wars, notes David Pollock of the Jewish Community Relations Council, not least because none possesses a clear process for choosing a successor. But the rivalry of Aaron and Zalmen is sui generis. The Satmars have 120,000 members, more than any other sect. The Satmar congregation controls a portfolio of shuls, yeshivas, no-interest-loan associations, meat markets, and charities valued at more than $500 million. That’s not counting a social-service empire that pulls down millions of public dollars for health, welfare, food stamps, and public housing. (For all their wealth, the sect knows poverty—the median income in Kiryas Joel is $15,800, and 60 percent of the families live below the poverty line).

This empire is concentrated in Williamsburg, 50,000 strong, and Aaron has decided to make a play for it. He cannot hope to compete with Zalmen there unless he gains control of at least a few schools and social-service organizations in Brooklyn. To build new institutions from scratch in Williamsburg, at today’s inflated land prices, is nearly impossible. So with Aaron moving back into the old neighborhood, determined to become the grand rebbe, the community is steeling itself for more violence.

“We have one God and one wife,” says Isaac Abraham, a short, husky Aaron supporter who, as a young man, served Grand Rebbe Joel. “We should have one leader.”

He shrugged. “If not, maybe we’ll cut the baby in two.”

The founding father of all Hasidic sects is the Ba’al Shem Tov, an eighteenth-century mystic steeped in Kabbalah who taught Jews in pogrom-ravaged Eastern Europe that scholasticism wasn’t the only way to experience God—loving worship was another.

The Ba’al Shem Tov’s disciples fingered out through Eastern Europe. The sects took the names of their towns. So the Lubavitchers hail from Lubavitch in Belarus, the Belz from Belza in eastern Poland, the Bobov from the similarly named Polish town. The Satmars take their name from Satu Mare, the Romanian hill city (annexed by Hungary during the war) where Joel Teitelbaum, the sect’s modern founder, was appointed rabbi in 1934.

The Satmar story nearly ended in a concentration camp. In 1944, the Nazis invaded Hungary and deported or killed 70 percent of its Jews. Rebbe Joel was shipped to Bergen-Belsen, only to be saved by Reszo Kasztner, a Zionist who negotiated with Adolf Eichmann to buy the rabbi’s freedom.

This was a curious vessel of salvation. The Satmars are fervent anti-Zionists who believe that to create a Jewish state before the Messiah comes courts God’s wrath. “It is because of the Zionists,” Teitelbaum wrote later, “that 6 million Jews were killed.”

The conflict is fueled by royal-court officials and hangers-on—so many jobs and perks depend on which son rules.

Joel Teitelbaum arrived in New York on Rosh Hashanah in 1946. He came with the barest minyan—the ten Jews needed to establish a synagogue. His nephew Moses Teitelbaum arrived as well, having lost his wife, Leah, at Auschwitz. Hasidic Jews had settled in Williamsburg since the twenties, but the atmosphere was that of a trayfe medina (a nonkosher city). It was Rebbe Joel’s all-consuming desire to rebuild the Yiddish-speaking world of Eastern Europe. No compromise with modernity was tolerated. Hence the emphasis on fur hats and white knee-stockings. Boys are schooled in the Talmud while girls learn math. (Biology is a nonstarter; the Satmars believe God created the world 6,000 years ago.)

“Joel turned his back on secular education,” says Zalman Alpert, a reference librarian at Yeshiva University. “He wanted folkways, the food, clothing, even the humor of Eastern Europe.”

When Rebbe Joel noticed many young men passing their days humming prayers, he called them together. We will only survive, he said, if you work and generate cash to nourish us. Those Satmar men branched into real estate—buying up much of Williamsburg—and the diamond business. Their money girds what is now a small empire.

But Joel was not above picking fights with other sects, perhaps to stir the blood of young followers. Many Hasidim share the neighborhood, but the Satmars insist their laws must rule. Recently, the Lubavitchers—who are Zionists and former egg-throwing antagonists of the Satmars—suffered their own schism. When Rebbe Menachem Schneerson died twelve years ago, many Lubavitchers declared him the Messiah and still await his resurrection.

This strikes the Satmars as nutty. They revere but don’t quite worship leaders. Rebbe Joel died in 1979 and the Satmars were rudderless. But the board members kept the religious corporations alive. One year later, Moses Teitelbaum was selected as the new grand rebbe. He was knowledgeable, he was a Holocaust survivor, and if he was a bit of a caretaker, he would steer his sect into a new era. But what now?

The chatter on Lee Avenue, where the Satmar women in head scarves and long spring coats load up on veal at the Satmar Meat Market, is of Aaron’s return and Zalmen’s stand. Next week, Aaron will haul in dignitaries from every corner of the Satmar world, from England and Israel, Belgium and Canada, to declare himself the grand rebbe.

The prize is Williamsburg, but if the battle between the brothers Teitelbaum is long and distracting enough, the neighborhood could turn into a poisoned chalice. Aaron is not the only problem: Gilt-edged gentrification presses at every edge. Once Satmar developers could fill suitcases with cash and persuade poor Latino families to vacate their rowhouses. Now Jewish builders struggle to outbid luxury developers for land upon which to put apartments with five and six bedrooms. Procreation may be a Satmar imperative, but it could create a demographic crisis. The average Satmar family has eight children, and to walk into Satmar tenements is to find poorer parents setting up cots in the kitchen and laying down bedding in the bathtub.

Gentrification’s cultural gravity is no less threatening. The Satmars are insistently hermetic. Rabbis proscribe television and the Internet as sin. In recent weeks, Satmar boys, side-locks—known as payes—bouncing as they ran, pasted up the Yiddish wall posters that functioned as breaking-news bulletins on the fate of the grand rebbe.

Schism is not the only threat: Some ultra-ultra-Orthodox confess a love for Notorious B.I.G., Eminem, and Wilco.

Aaron sometimes bows to the imperatives of the modern world. Zalmen, by contrast, is a proud kanoi—a zealot. He would not allow the construction of an eruv in Williamsburg, the wire enclosure that permits mothers and fathers to lift children and push strollers on the Sabbath. Aaron has an eruv in Kiryas Joel. The theological differences between the brothers are thin as a page in the Talmud.

Each brother inveighs against such sins as masturbation and women talking on cell phones in public. Ari Zupnick, a well-to-do importer and Aaron man, insists every Satmar—every one—likes it this way. “No one is interested in modern culture. We have a saying . . . ” he pauses and wags a forefinger in the air. “ ‘Don’t be smarter than your father.’ ”

That’s fine bluster, but in reality, trying to double-lock the door against modernity is a chancy business. What is to be done about the thousands of Satmar men who carry fancy cell phones and BlackBerrys and keep a computer jack in their cars? How to account for the Zalmen supporter who in the midst of talking about how ultra-ultra-Orthodox the Satmars are, confesses a love of Notorious B.I.G., Eminem, and Wilco?

“The artists,” the Satmar term of derision that encompasses hipsters, trustafarians, and even vaguely trendy yuppies, are a fatter apple of temptation than most Satmars acknowledge. Mothers who live near the hipper side of Williamsburg constantly complain about artists canoodling in front of their children.

“My friends who live near Broadway, they talk of the stress,” says Chaya Kurz, an attractive 22-year-old mother of a 10-month-old. She wears the required wig—all married women shave their hair on the wedding night—that proclaims her modesty. “Where we live, in the middle of our neighborhood, it is easy. On the edges, it is harder.”

An air of apprehension is palpable, not least for Zalis who face invasion from all sides. A few fathers described stopping by Zalmen’s modest home on a recent Friday evening. They put questions to their rabbi: What should we do with our teenage girls who peer covertly at these artists? Why do these artists never put curtains on their windows? Can we force them out?

Zalmen, they reported, meditated a moment. “You must close your curtains and pray and remember what it is to be Satmar,” he said. “This is our shtetl, and our walls must go high.”


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