Williamsburg, one of the oldest parts of Brooklyn, is the new home of the Hasidic followers of the Satmar Rebbe. Clustered in the areas to the east and south of the familiar great gold dome of the Williamsburg Savings Bank, visible even from across the bridge in Manhattan, live some fifteen hundred families who obey the Rebbe, leader of one of the three major sects that make up—together with numerous lesser groups—the Hasidic “shtetl” in the borough of Brooklyn. The Lubavitcher, on Eastern Parkway, and the Klausenburger, also in Williamsburg, are the renowned leaders of the other two large groups. The Satmar Rebbe has won for himself a rather special place by his unrelenting, pure, and active hostility to what he regards as the “sacrilege” of the State of Israel and the “apostasy” of all non-Hasidic Jewry. The other sects of Hasidim have made their peace with Israel.
To get over to the Williamsburg “shtetl” by subway from Manhattan is unexpectedly complicated, as if one were in fact traveling to some foreign place. One must first seek, or even lose, one’s way in the underground complex at Canal Street and Broadway and find the subway there that speeds under Essex and Orchard and Clinton Streets—the memorable East Side of those earlier emigrations from all the shtetlach of East Europe—and over the Williamsburg Bridge to the Marcy Avenue station. Emerging, the visitor is very likely to be accosted by a pair of teenagers in the garb of the neighborhood—earlocks hanging down from under a businessman’s fedora, ritual fringe showing at the waist—and handed a leaflet written in both Yiddish and English, excoriating the State of Israel.
A stroll through Hasidic Williamsburg reveals a neighborhood that is certainly not the kind of slum we think of when we recall the warrens of the old East Side, or of present Harlem and the East Bronx. Quite a few open streets are lined with one-family houses which appear still to be inhabited by single families. These are, outwardly, in as good repair as the homes in any middle-class neighborhood of Brooklyn or the Bronx. On other blocks, six-story apartment houses of the vintage of the 1920’s are interspersed among older brownstones, which also appear quite habitable. Then there are the slum blocks—rows of brownstones now sheltering six families where a single family once resided.
Bedford Avenue remains the solidest street in the area, showing evidences of its former dominance. High-stooped brownstones that used to require two “in help” for their upkeep stand facing decayed mansions with mansard roofs. The Satmar Rebbe himself lives at 500 Bedford Avenue, and his congregation, Yetev Lev d’ Satmar, is housed at Number 550. The building next to the congregation, now part of the Satmar school system, still carries the legend of the Williamsburg Boys Club in the fanlight over the street door. Unexpectedly, on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Wilson Street, an incongruous ruin presents itself—the shell of a Gothic church, complete with rose window, roofless and crumbling, its brownstone pitted as from centuries. It is the one tumbledown structure on the Avenue.
The neighborhood is culturally and racially a mixed one. Besides the large numbers of Hasidic families, there are other Jews, as well as Puerto Ricans and Negroes. The latter are the more heavily represented on the slum blocks. While most of the streets look to be uni-racial, certain blocks appear to house a mixture of Negroes, Puerto Ricans, and “whites.” One block of Driggs Street, for example, is white on one side, colored on the other.
The Hasidim are not alone in Williamsburg in their passion for the strict interpretation of the revealed word. The area is a haven for fundamentalist sects of all kinds, almost every street showing a house of study or worship according to some ritual. There seem to be as many Spanish Pentecostal and Negro Evangelical storefront churches as Jewish religious buildings. One of the latter is the yeshiva of the Novominsker Rebbe, a stately, well-proportioned, high-ceilinged brownstone, through whose large windows can be seen shelves on shelves of great, black-bound folios, and the heads of the old men nodding over open volumes. Four doors down stands an old church building in good repair, which once probably housed some Lutheran or Methodist congregation. It sports a new sign, however, inconsonant with its staid architecture, announcing that here is the place of the Light of the World Church, Pentecostal Puerto Rican. The music of a midweek service—an organ, maracas, and triangle can be identified—pours into the street and into the open windows of the Novominsker yeshiva.
But among Satmar Jews the “shtetl” dominates: the visitor is most of all aware of the ubiquitous peyes, the curled earlocks that adorn every Hasidic male, of whatever age—small boys of two or three, teen-agers, and of course adults, who wear them descending into their beards. That way, as part of a bearded face, they seem natural to the memory. But earlocks on infants, earlocks along with blue jeans, earlocks with summer crewcuts, earlocks on tow-headed youngsters, all descending from the skullcap—these seem, at the least, bizarre on the American scene. The exotic earlock is, nevertheless, no impediment to the familiar Brooklyn street play. A five-year-old boy with blue skullcap atop his brown peyes rides a tricycle in circles, chased by a younger playmate, with blond earlocks and yellow skullcap, who is trying to mount the back treads. A third boy in a black skullcap runs after, calling, “Shtel zich aroif, Yosele, shtel zich aroif!”
Maybe there is less ball playing than would be normal in a similar area anywhere else in the city, though there are just as many boys on the street. In a schoolyard, a fifteen-year-old, with the usual skullcap and peyes, sinks baskets with two non-Hasidic fellow players. In an open space a block away, four earlocked youngsters toss a ball back and forth. One of the boys, sporting a camp tee-shirt with the legend “Moriah Day Camp” and the symbol, in green, of a Torah scroll, keeps yelling, “Okay, Pinchas, tsu mir.” Throughout the area, Yiddish is the language of all ages and activities. The shop signs in English are repeated in Yiddish.
Something seems missing from the streets, some imbalance is felt: there are no grown girls or young women to be seen. The little girls, from two to ten, are playing on the stoops and pavements, and mothers lean out of upper-story windows to call to their children or watch the passing scene. But there are no teen-age girls visible—girls at the marriageable age, that is. At first glance, too, it appears to the visitor that most of the women seen in their homes and on the street have kept their own hair. A closer look shows that at least some are wearing the traditional wigs—but very good ones. A group of mothers watching their children in the playground back of Public School 16 include two with wigs, one wearing a decidedly modish hat, and two with headcoverings of the kerchief type common in any supermarket on a weekday morning. The pious, sparkling white shawl of the old Lower East Side is not seen in Williamsburg.
No shops selling women’s garments are in evidence in the quarter—the flagrant display of female undergarments would be an affront to the Orthodox male. But two or three men’s clothing stores appear to be prospering. All advertise their wares as “100 per cent wool” in large English and Yiddish signs: the Orthodox injunction against the mixing of fibers is here implied. All the suits shown in the store windows are double-breasted, and two stores carry caftans, one of them advertising Rabboinishe Malbushim—clerical garments. Caftans cost $55, in gray or black, in gabardine or worsted. For the unknowing, they are labeled “Prince Albert.”
Among the shops is seen a laundromat—two long lines of gleaming white machines that soak, wash, rinse, and dry, automatically. The bearded, skullcapped, earlocked man checking the machines appears as a startling anachronism. Also anachronistically, two professions remain home industries in the “shtetl”: the practice of law and the teaching of music. Almost every one of the “good” blocks has one or two signs of the gallows type: a one-armed “T” with a shingle dependent from the arm. They proclaim the offices of lawyers, attorneys at law, counselors at law; or they advertise music teachers, piano teachers, violin lessons. The Satmar Rebbe does not hold with such secular diversions as television, and the universal TV antenna is missing from the houses of his followers.
The community comprises a portion of the 90th Police Precinct, the station house fronting a small park in the quarter. The police speak of their Hasidic constituents as the “bearded ones”—a strange lot, in their judgment, but admirable citizens. The area is congested, and has the juvenile delinquency and general arrest rate usual for such neighborhoods. But no officer in the precinct recalls ever arresting, or even bringing in for questioning, any member of the Satmar Rebbe’s flock, young or old. “If they have any quarrels,” the desk sergeant says, “they take them to their Rabbi. They have no juvenile delinquency, take care of their kids, make no disturbances, don’t go on relief, and certainly have no prostitution or other woman trouble.” Once in a great while the police blotter records a complaint from one of the Satmar group. A non-Jewish family new to the district may react to the foreignness of their Hasidic neighbors by teasing and persecuting them in a mild sort of way. According to the police, the Satmar people will take a great deal, but when they are finally irritated beyond endurance, they come into the station to complain. An officer is sent around to talk to the “others” and “straighten them out.”
A fair proportion of the people in the streets and sitting on the benches in the little square before the police station are evidently Jewish, although clean-shaven and minus the skullcaps; the women even wear lipstick. They are non-Hasidic Jews. But these people all appear to be in their fifties, or older. The young folks have fled to less parochial areas of the city. However, almost all the storekeepers, even those without the peyes, wear skullcaps—save for pharmacists. Six years ago the Satmar group tried to force a reluctant Jewish storekeeper (much of whose trade was with non-Hasidic families) to shut his store up on Saturday. Police had to disperse the crowd then, and there has since been no repetition of the incident—not on home grounds, in any case. If there is an occasional anti-Israel riot, it generally starts outside the quarter.
The History of Satmar Jews
The town the Jews have always called “Satmar” lies in the multi-national corner of Transylvania in which three states meet: Rumania, Hungary, and Ruthenia (or Carpatho-Ukraine). The Magyars who ruled the town before 1918 and, under Hitler’s auspices, during World War II, called it Szatmar-Nemeti. The Rumanians, who acquired the town under the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 and regained it in 1945, call it Satu Mare.
Jews made up a large part of the town’s 50,000 population before Hitler sent most of the Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. The Jewish community always included a militant Orthodox minority, Hasidic in outlook. Before World War I, these Hasidim were engaged in a bitter struggle against the worldly-educated, assimilationist-minded Jews of Budapest and their confreres in Satmar. On their side, the worldly Jews looked with disdain—and uneasiness—on the mystic fervor, provincial backwardness, and uncompromising adherence to Orthodoxy of the Hasidim of Satmar and the other country towns. One of the earliest Hasidic leaders of Hungary was the Tsaddik Moses Teitelbaum, the Rebbe of the Jews of Satoraljaujhely, known in Yiddish as “Uhely.” His ministry lasted from 1808 until his death in 1841. An imposing figure, much revered as teacher and judge, Moses was the author of the Yismach Moshe, a work of Biblical exegesis. He was followed by four generations of Rebbes who held court for the most pant in the north Transylvanian town of Marmaros-Sziget—called Sziget by the Jews, but not the cosmopolitan Szeged that is Hungary’s second largest city.
The present Satmar Rebbe of Williamsburg, Joel Teitelbaum, is not in direct line of succession to the Tsaddik Moses Teitelbaum. Joel’s father had designated Joel’s older brother as has spiritual heir. Joel refused to accept the decision and, after overcoming strong community resistance, ultimately succeeded to the leadership of Satmar. The uncompromising belief in his own election, and his forcible will, led him to other bitter controversies with famous teachers and rabbis, including the revered Hasidic scholar Chayim Eleazer Shapiro of nearby Munkacs. As a result, Joel’s reputation as a zealot had spread well beyond the confines of Hungarian Jewry before World War II.
Ironically, Teitelbaum, bitterly anti-Zionist and anti-Israel, was saved from the concentration camp by the Labor Zionist Israel Kastner,1 whom the SS authorized to select a trainload of Hungarian Jews to be sent to Switzerland. Among those selected by Kastner was the Satmar Rebbe. After a brief stay in Switzerland, the Rebbe went on to Palestine. He came to the United States in 1947. Settled in Williamsburg, the Satmar Rebbe has built an impressive domain around his congregation, Yetev Lev d’ Satmar. It includes four mikvehs, a matzoh bakery occupying an entire building, and the Satmar school system.
Although an appreciable number of Orthodox Jews lived in Williamsburg before World War II, the achievements of the Satmar group would have been impossible without the postwar immigration of many survivors of East European Jewry. The Satmar congregation in Williamsburg served as a magnet for hundreds of Hasidim whose own Rebbes had been killed by the Nazis. Rebbe Teitelbaum also brought to the United States a sizable number of followers acquired during his stay in Palestine. Their immigration was made possible, in part, by the Satmar group’s deep commitment to mutual aid; members already established in this country provided the support affidavits required to bring other followers into the United States. When new immigrants arrive, the Rebbe places them in the businesses owned by members of the congregation. The jobs thus obtained may be miserably low paid, but they are jobs in which Hasidic attire and strict observance of the Sabbath are not handicaps.
An abundance of capital is not always available for the Satmar undertakings—many of them, in fact, operate on the proverbial shoestring. A constant appeal for funds is made, and the members, even the indigent ones, often accept heavy financial sacrifices in order to give to the support of the religious, educational, and charitable purposes sponsored by the Satmar Rebbe. A major source of income is the sale of second-hand clothing which the members solicit door to door in the greater New York area. There are well-to-do individuals who give support to the movement—notably diamond brokers and a few manufacturers.
Public School 16 covers the block on Wilson Street between Bedford Avenue and Lee Avenue. It is of the red brick-monumental-functional style popular about thirty-five years ago. But it isn’t rundown and has a large play area. However, none of the boys of the Satmar families attend P.S. 16. They are taught in (he Satmar school system, served by something like one hundred and twenty instructors, two-thirds of whom, approximately, teach religious subjects in the Yiddish language. The rest see to the curriculum required by the state law.
At 95 Boerum Street, in Williamsburg, the United Talmudical Academy Torah Vyirah has about 2,600 students—1,500 boys and 1,100 girls. The building is divided in half by locked doors which separate the sexes. This yeshiva, housed in a former vocational high school building, is, according to its principal, the largest yeshiva elementary school in the world. The Satmar system also includes day-school branches in Boro Park, Crown Heights, and on Manhattan’s East Side, as well as affiliated schools in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Belgium, Canada, and Israel. The congregation’s original yeshiva at 550 Bedford Avenue is now the Mesiftah (or Mesivtah, an Aramaic word meaning yeshiva but now used to describe a school for advanced Talmudic studies). Here about seventy young men drawn from all corners of the Satmar Rebbe’s world-wide realm pursue graduate studies, and about one hundred boys, twelve to fourteen, undergo “pre-Mesiftah” training.
In their long school day, the Satmar children are taught English and the other secular subjects demanded by the state until they reach sixteen; this, of course, is in addition to the Yiddish language and the religious subjects. Those over sixteen who continue their education in the Satmar academies concentrate on non-secular studies. Strong pressures are put on the youth against pursuing higher education in a field which might produce conflict with a fundamentalist interpretation of Torah and Talmud; any study contradicting the Biblical view of the creation of man and the world is forbidden. However, continued education in the industrial arts and sciences is encouraged.
An official of the school offered the rationalization: “We know that the All-Highest created the world 5,720 years ago. It would confuse the children to hear outside that the world evolved slowly over three billion years, while the rabbi says that it was created in one day less than six millennia ago. We know that God created man out of a lump of clay, and gave him life. How can we also allow a child to be taught that man was descended from the animals?” He added, “The child is not competent to judge whether Moses, in giving us the Torah, was a liar or not.”
Despite the Hasidic belief that Torah and Talmud teach all necessary astronomy, physics, and mathematics, the children appear to be getting a secular education beyond that required by the state Board of Regents. The reporter was treated, in a visit to the Satmar school, to a demonstration by the eighth grade girls’ class of its science knowledge. It was the first week of the new school year, and the girls were showing what they had learned during the preceding semester, in the seventh grade. Questioned by their teacher, a middle-aged woman wearing her hat, in the presence of the reporter and the school principal, the girls proved that they knew what atoms and molecules were; something about the periodic table; why carbon was the building block element for sustaining life; what hydrocarbons were and why they were important. The answers were volunteered by about a third of the class of twenty-five girls, and it seemed to the reporter that they knew far more science than children of the same grade in the average New York City public school. At the close of the demonstration (unprepared, since the class did not know that the reporter was coming), the principal asked the girls: “And Who created the atom?” The response was unanimous: “Der Ebershteh—the All-Highest.”
A question from the reporter brought the reply from one of the rabbi-officials of the school (who offered that he had studied psychology and sociology) that his investigation of pupil attitudes indicated that the children did not feel estranged from their larger environment. They were not envious of the greater freedom of their non-Hasidic neighbors. They were happy, he said, and free of resentment at the restrictions imposed by their parents’ view of the world. Finally, he declared that 99 per cent of the children growing up in the Satmar milieu remain members of the congregation, strong adherents of its religious and social codes.
The Satmar Hasidim, tracing their theology from the Baal Shem Tov (like the other Hasidic sects), believe that there can be no division between secular life and religious life. There are no private lives, they say. All life and all activity in life must be in relation to God and His law. Therefore total adherence to the entire roster of Torah-revealed commandments is implicit in being a Jew. To the reporter one of the Satmar rabbis explained, however, that there were no real theological differences between them and other Orthodox believers. It was a question of emphasis more than theology: “Modern American Orthodoxy,” he said, “tries to find ways of adapting religion to modern society. This, in itself, opens the door to change. We, on the other hand, do not want to change our religion or religious practices and so do not seek any justification for change.”
The Hasidic insistence on tradition in religious and daily life he interpreted as being based on psychological and sociological grounds rather than on religious. “Of course we follow the injunctions regarding the wearing of fringes, and not trimming the beard, and the division of the sexes, because Torah requires it. But there are other reasons, too. These exaggerated differences are our greatest armor against assimilation. They build a wall between Jew and non-Jew. We will not compromise with tradition because any compromise is a breach in that wall—and will inevitably widen.”
He continued to the reporter: “You are a good Jew. But your son is brought up to play with non-Jews, to have social relationships with them, to think of them as being no different from himself. Perhaps it will end there with your son. But how about his son, your grandson? Why shouldn’t he accept this theory altogether—and marry a non-Jew?”
He hastened to add that this view did not imply segregation or discrimination. “In fact, we fight discrimination against any people. But Jews must maintain their differences, particularly in America where the pressures for assimilation are so great. Only in this way can we preserve Torah Judaism.”
Referring to the example of himself, the rabbi showed how tradition guards the Hasid from unnecessary contact with worldliness. “I do not go to the theater,” he said. “And even if I wanted to, I couldn’t go.” He pointed to his full beard, his peyes, his clothing. “If I walked into a theater garbed as I am the audience would laugh at me rather than at the comedians on the stage. So you see the virtue becomes a necessity.”
“You,” he pointed again to the reporter, “are a Jew. But you trim your heard, cut off your peyes . You probably do not even put on phylacteries. However, I accept you as a person. For instance: you are a college man, no? How do you regard an illiterate? Surely as a person; but one with no learning and little understanding. It may not be the illiterate’s fault. His parents may not have permitted him to be taught. They may have been too poor to provide education. Or he may not have the head for study. But he could be a fine person. That is how I regard you. Why you are not an observing Jew I do not know. Something is lacking. In this area you are uneducated, you lack understanding. But this does not detract from you as a person.” He added: “However, it is not necessary to go to school to acquire learning. Some people study by themselves. So, too, with religion. Some day you may find the truth within yourself.”
The Satmar congregation does exactly what their Rebbe says, and it does only what he says they may do. Trying to make the reporter understand the relation between Rebbe and followers, a spokesman for the group said, “He is like a king to us.”
The comparison of the Rebbe with a king is not so far-fetched as it sounds. The group’s Yiddish newspaper, Der Yid, commonly refers to the Rebbe as Manhig Hador, Leader of Our Generation, and Tsaddik Hador, Upright One of Our Generation. “Only such a spiritual giant as the Satmar Rebbe could have the strength to lead the erring mass of the Jewish people on the proper path,” the newspaper observed in November 1958. In the same issue, the paper urged all Jews everywhere to celebrate the 21st of Kislev, anniversary of the day the Rebbe escaped from Hungary. “On Pesach we say that the Almighty, blessed be He, liberated not only our forefathers from Egypt, but us together with them. Likewise, we can proclaim that not only was our Rebbe saved by the Almighty on the 21st Kislev, but each one of us, and not merely we the living but our future generations also, nay, even more than that—the entire community of Israel.”
Describing the escape of the “adornment of our heads, the light of our eyes, our master Joel Teitelbaum,” the newspaper said: “On that day the Almighty led forth our holy rabbi—may he be granted a long and goodly life—from darkness to light. As we have the privilege of finding shelter in his shadow, of warming ourselves by his light, may we be so privileged in the future. . . . Thus shall we proceed and go forward until the Messiah of Righteousness Shall come, soon and in our days.”
Such absolute, self-abnegating reverence for the Rebbe is confined, in Williamsburg, to his own congregation. In the Brooklyn “shtetl,” as of old in Hungary, the Satmar remains a figure of controversy. The Klausenburger Rebbe, Y. Y. Halberstam, who was active in the German DP camps after the war, refuses to accept Rebbe Teitelbaum’s leadership or views on Israel. Rebbe Halberstam’s social and educational activities include sponsorship of the Kiryat Tsanz resettlement project near Natanya, Israel. Neither does the renowned Lubavitcher Rebbe share the Satmar’s views. Yet, in fact, Rebbe Teitelbaum’s extreme rejection of Israel makes him an influential as well as a controversial figure.
Nor does his rejection of Israel mean he lacks zealous adherents there. His overseas dominion reaches to the Mea Shearim quarter in Jerusalem. The ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta, the “Guardians of the Wall,” look upon the Satmar Rebbe as their leader. Neturei Karta was founded in Palestine in 1936 when Amram Blau and about a score of his followers were expelled as extremists from Agudat Israel. They too believed that only Divine Grace and the coming of the Messiah could redeem the Jews and establish a Jewish state; therefore any attempt—like the Zionists’—to achieve this end by unaided human effort was regarded by them as sacrilege.
Since the establishment of Israel, Neturei Karta and the Satmar group have refused to recognize the Jerusalem government or any of its instrumentalities. The State of Israel has further confirmed them in their view by permitting secular education, work on the Sabbath, women in the military, and the like. (Refusal to recognize Israel made necessary some peculiar arrangements for Rebbe Teitelbaum’s recent visit to Israel. He and his entourage of fifty traveled by Turkish steamship to Haifa. Neturei Karta chartered a special train to take him to Jerusalem, for which they printed special tickets—without the hated Israel insignia.)
Joel Teitelbaum’s “maximalist” opposition to Zionism goes back fifty years. While in Hungary he was only one of many Orthodox leaders who were critical of political Zionism—the secular movements which gave rise to Israel’s Mapam, Mapai, General Zionist, Herut, and other parties. But the Satmar Rebbe was virtually alone in his staunch opposition to the Orthodox world organization Agudat Israel, which opposed the political Zionists. Today, Agudat Israel, while critical of many policies of the Israeli government, functions as a loyal opposition. The Neturei Karta and the Satmar movement denounce the very basis of the Israeli state. The crucial difference between loyal opposition and outright hostility was strikingly demonstrated when Rebbe Teitelbaum called for a boycott of the Israeli elections. It was Israel’s religious parties—the only parties which would suffer from such a boycott—that were then openly critical of his stand.
What keeps the Satmar Rebbe from total ostracism by the rest of the Jewish community is the strong sense of grievance evoked in many Orthodox groups by Israeli events. Not all these people share the Rebbe’s unswerving hatred of Zionism. But the Satmar Rebbe’s followers, with all their considerable distortion and exaggeration, have been able to capitalize adroitly on real occurrences, so that they can draw five hundred Hasidim to a picketline around the White House and four thousand people to a protest meeting in New York.
The mixed swimming pool incident was a case in point. To the Orthodox, the proprieties of the holy city of Jerusalem are offended by the sight of men and women together, in modern bathing suits. (Mixed bathing on the shores of the Mediterranean and in other areas has not been challenged.) Announcement of a swimming pool to be opened in a neighborhood near Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim quarter provoked such deep feeling among Orthodox believers in Israel that, in May 1958, 20,000 persons there marched in a protest demonstration led by eminent Torah scholars. Here in the United States the incident was an occasion for the Satmar group to stage a picketline demonstration at the White House against the “Unheard Brutality of Israel Zionist Police” (so the demonstrators’ banners proclaimed); and a leaflet read, “Religious Jews Oppose Atrocious Acts of Israeli Atrocities”—the last word in the legend undoubtedly being a printer’s error for “Authorities.”
Rabbi Simon Jacobs, who spoke to reporters on behalf of the demonstrators, explained why they were picketing the White House: “Because the President and Congress have a tremendous influence over Israel, we want them to intervene against anti-religious oppression as well as coercion in Israel.” Leaflets handed by demonstrators to passersby said, “Our Jewish brethren . . . are being persecuted, tortured, and held in prison by the Israeli authorities.” Another leaflet claimed that “Since its inception the State of Israel follows a determined policy of systematically eradicating Jewish religion in its boundaries.” One St. Patrick’s Day, bearded and earlocked Satmar stalwarts were to be seen passing out anti-Israel leaflets to the startled Irishmen parading on Fifth Avenue.
Previous demonstrations mobilized with the “help” of the Satmar Rebbe have brought 5,000 people before the Israeli consulate, 3,500 people to Manhattan Center, and either 2,000 or 10,000 to Union Square—the first is the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s figure, the second Der Yid’s. Speakers at these meetings are not all holders of the Satmar extremist views. They have included Rav Aaron Kotler of Lakewood, New Jersey, the “Kletzker Rosh Yeshiva” and head of the American Agudat Israel’s “Council of the Torah Great,” and Frankfort-born Rabbi Simon Schwab, associate rabbi of a German Jewish congregation in New York.
The “National Committee for Freedom of Religion in Israel” was established six years ago with the strong support of the Satmar Rebbe and the tacit backing of Agudat Israel. At its inception, the Committee’s primary aim was to have Orthodox girls exempted from conscription in the State of Israel. After the Israeli government had conceded this, Agudat Israel withdrew its sup port and assumed that the Committee would go out of existence. Instead, it was moved to a Williamsburg address by Satmar partisans whom it had provided with an instrument for being heard in places which had previously been inaccessible to them.
Within the Committee itself there are some who object to the Satmar group’s unceasing efforts to catch the eye of the non-Jewish world. The Rebbe’s followers, however, argue that, “Only in this way can we really embarrass the Zionists. They don’t listen to Hebrew protests, certainly not to Yiddish ones, but they sit up and take notice when we run English newspaper ads, when we see Congressmen, or when our mass meetings are reported in the American press.” When the proposal to picket the White House was first advanced, it met with strong resistance within the National Committee, and as a result the “World Union of Orthodox Jewish Communities” was set up. Earlier, a demonstration which the National Committee had been reluctant to sponsor was staged by a hastily formed “United Orthodox Jewish Congregations and Organizations in America”—an organization which has since disappeared without a trace.
The present office of the National Committee for Freedom of Religion in Israel consists of a single sparsely furnished room in a Williamsburg office building. Next door are the offices of the “Central Rabbinical Congress,” composed reportedly of about two hundred Satmar graduates and partisans. Adjoining this room are the editorial offices of Der Yid, which claims on its masthead to be “The Voice of the American Orthodox Jewry.”
The “World Union of Orthodox Jewish Communities,” sponsors of the White House picketing and of a two-column anti-Israeli ad in the New York Times on July 11, 1958, on the other hand, is not so easy to find. Jewish organizations and agencies in New York have no record of it The New York Telephone Company does not know it. The New York address on its leaflets, 465 W. 51st Street, turned out to be a telephone answering service and mail drop. The operator of the answering service has been instructed to forward letters and inquiries, but not to reply to any questions. The World Union of Orthodox Jewish Communities turns out to be a letterhead organization Which, behind the elaborate camouflage, is directed by Satmar zealots.
Led by its frail, seventy-three-year-old Rebbe, who is purported not to have slept in a bed in fifty years, and who remains inaccessible to the curious outsider, the Satmar movement is characterized by an extremist intolerance toward opponents and causes. A case in point was the Satmar people’s treatment of the rabbi who for twenty-seven years had occupied the pulpit of the B’nai Israel Community Center Synagogue on Williamsburg’s Fourth Avenue. He served as president of the local Mizrachi chapter, occasionally supported Israeli fund-raising efforts, chose to be clean-shaven, and ruled that it was permissible to drink pasteurized milk even though no kashruth inspector had approved it. Morning after morning, the rabbi found his front steps covered with noisome garbage. His windows were painted with tar to which was affixed anti-Israeli leaflets. He was rudely accosted in the street by youngsters in skullcaps and peyes. His telephone rang all through the night, and when it was answered, anonymous voices cursed him. His wife was spat on in the Street. One day she received a telephone call telling her that her husband had been run over by a truck. The rabbi finally resigned his lifetime contract with his congregation and moved away, although he had no other appointment.
This was only the most flagrant case. Rabbi Aaron B. Shurin, author of a critical article on the Satmar group in the Jewish Daily Forward, was also the victim of a round-the-clock campaign of telephone abuse. Rabbi Shurin suffered weeks of persecution, until he had his telephone changed to an unlisted number. When the Satmar group demonstrated before the Israeli consulate, Rabbi Max Kirshblum, president of the Mizrachi Organization of America, issued a critical statement. Rabbi Kirshblum, too, got the telephone treatment; finally, an anonymous phone call came to the national office of the Mizrachi, claiming that Rabbi Kirshblum had just been “killed” in a traffic accident. Chaim Lieberman, religious columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward was another telephone victim. And the author of a letter to the Forward praising Lieberman received scores of magazines to which he had never subscribed, followed by bills for them. Salesmen of all types came to his door in response to his “requests.” Organizations sent trucks to pick up clothes and furniture he had “offered.” A Catholic priest thanked him for his letter expressing “interest” in the Church. In June 1958, according to Der Yid, copies of the Forward and the Day-Morning Journal, another Jewish daily, were publicly burned in Williamsburg. The Satmar movement’s wrath was also turned on Rabbi Eliezer Silver of Cincinnati, seventy-nine-year-did president of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, when he criticized the “World Union’s” ad in the New York Times as offensive to religious law. He was threatened with physical violence if he set foot in Williamsburg. An Israel Bond Rally at the huge “Brisker Shul” on Williamsburg’s Clymer Street had to be called off when Satmar partisans jammed the synagogue to threaten rabbi and speakers. Police had to quell a riot in the Old Fifth Street Synagogue when Satmar zealots tried to drag Benyamin Mintz, Deputy Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, off the dais.
During the telephone campaign against Chaim Lieberman and the Forward, Rebbe Teitelbaum was urged, without success, to voice his disapproval. Finally, in a rare interview, given to the Toronto Jewish Journal in October 1958, the Rebbe denied categorically the news reports that his Hasidim “had terrorized their adversaries through telephone calls and other inadmissible means.” The Rebbe attributed these stories to the Israeli government, “past masters in spreading false rumors about their opponents.”
Significantly, there have been no stories of such “terrorizing” since the Rebbe released his statement. Credit for the change is given by some to a reported intervention by the District Attorney’s office. Der Yid denies this. The District Attorney’s office will neither deny nor confirm. Another possible factor was alluded to in a column by Lieberman in the Forward: “The Rabbi, after all, also has a telephone, and so do the big fish in his entourage. Hence, it occurred to someone to pay it all back, a phone call for a phone call.” A drop in contributions to the Satmar projects, as a result of antagonism to the anti-Israeli demonstrations, may also have had its effect.
Paradoxically, the recent “Who is a Jew?” controversy in Israel has tended to inhibit the Satmar group. When Agudat Israel and Mizrachi left Ben Gurion’s cabinet in protest against the government’s religious policies, the Satmar Rebbe was put in an anomalous position. To continue to fight against the Israeli government, he now had to side with Agudat Israel and Mizrachi. And he could hardly continue to fight the Orthodox parties when they were in opposition to the secularist leaders. It is undeniable that the extremist activities of the Satmar movement has caused in some uninformed Jews on the outside an undermining of confidence in all conspicuously pious and ultra-Orthodox groups.
A number of such ultra-Orthodox groups launched a vociferous campaign against a thirteen-million-dollar public housing project for the lower Bedford Avenue area recently proposed by the New York Housing Authority and approved by the Board of Estimate. They objected that not only would such housing change the character of their “shtetl,” but the displaced Hasidic families would not be able to move into the new houses where elevators and other machines operate on the Sabbath. The same reasons, according to a knowledgeable banker, militated against a plan for Orthodox groups to build their own cooperative housing in the city.
Tracking down a story that appeared in the New York papers last June to the effect that the Satmar group was moving en masse to the New Jersey countryside, the reporter found himself negotiating for an interview, over a period of about two weeks, through a hierarchy of the lesser rabbis and the lay leaders of the Satmar people. The Rebbe himself, the only source of definitive information, was in Israel. In any case, he doesn’t grant an audience to one who does not belong to his congregation. Finally, a spokesman for the group revealed that three hundred acres of New Jersey farmland have already been purchased by the group. The cost and details of the financing were not forthcoming, but the spokesman said the land was “not expensive.” Title is held by the congregation. Exact plans and dates are vague since the Rebbe has not revealed them to his followers, but it is expected that building will begin this coming February. When the projected community is completed, it will house five hundred families, their stores, community activities, and workshops. The workshops will consist of knitting mills, also owned by “the congregation.”
Private investment in other manufacturing or farming enterprises, from friends of the Satmar movement, will be welcomed. These enterprises will have to obey the strict Sabbath laws enjoined by the community and the other restrictions and strictures found in Bible and canon. For example, the law regarding shatnes, which forbids the mixing of different fibers, will be enforced.
Thus a new communal colony will be established in New Jersey, to rival earlier, anarchist settlements in that state and the mid-19th century primitive communist colonies in Indiana and upstate New York. If the New Satmar is successful, it will, nevertheless, move only about a third of the Satmar Rebbe’s families out of Williamsburg. Five to ten thousand followers (they have a high birth rate) will remain in the Brooklyn “shtetl.” “When he tells us to move, we will move. If he tells us to stay, we will stay.”
So far this absolute faith has been well founded. That the Satmar Rebbe’s followers have learned to adapt American techniques to the movement’s uses has been strikingly demonstrated by them since their settlement in Williamsburg. Their educational system and the movement’s network of propaganda organizations have shown a shrewd ability to overcome great obstacles. The Satmar community, with their Rebbe to lead them, is confident that it will continue to expand.
1 See “The Kastner Case,” by W. Z. Laqueur (December 1955).