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Hats On, Gloves Off

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?