Hats On, Gloves Off

A view inside the Satmar synagogue in Brooklyn on April 24, the day the rebbe died.Photo: Michael Brown/Getty Images

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.”

Hats On, Gloves Off