The following essay has been adapted from “Who Shall Lead Us: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America,” by Samuel Heilman (University of California Press).
In his old age, Yoelish Teitelbaum, the first Satmar Rebbe, had outlived his heirs. Although he was leader of the largest Hasidic group in America, with tens of thousands of followers in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, he had no designated successor. One by one, his three daughters had died, each without having given birth to any children. In 1936, his beloved first wife, Chavah, had died as well. Convinced of the truth of the biblical injunction that it was “not good for the man to be alone,” he had asserted that he did not want to be “not good” even for a short time. Hoping he might still father a male successor, a few in the family urged him to “choose a widow or divorcee who already had children, to ensure that she would be capable of bearing children.” Instead, in August 1937, less than a month before the Jewish High Holy Days, the then nearly 51-year-old Yoelish married Alte Feige Shapiro (1912-2001), the orphaned and never-married daughter of Poland’s Tchenstechover (Częstochowa)] Rebbe, who at the time was only half his age. Although old for a first-time Hasidic bride, she was young for a man like the Satmar Rebbe. Her youth recommended her as capable in principle of bearing him children and providing a successor.
But over the years, the rebbetzin Feige, as she was known, failed to bear him any children. Devoted to and fiercely protective of her husband, she had gradually carved out more and more prestige and power in the court and in the Hasidic world — a universe in which women were generally insulated by rules of modesty and kept from most public positions. She guarded her aging husband and his authority, often acting as a go-between who spoke on his behalf and made outsize demands. In the late 1970s, when the rebbe and rebbetzin moved from Brooklyn to his new redoubt, the village of Kiryas Joel, near Monroe in upstate New York, where his followers were effectively a hundred percent of the population and his will was essentially the law, Feige found a place where she expected to reign with even more authority. She had good reason to think so, and even to imagine that she might become the first woman to lead this Hasidic colossus.
The Second Succession Battle: Nephew Versus Rebbetzin
By the time he had moved to Kiryas Joel, Yoelish was a broken vessel. In February 1968, while at Friday night prayers, the then 82- year-old rebbe suffered a devastating stroke. Unconscious for ten days, he woke up to find himself severely impaired in his speech and movement. The question of succession arose again.
For two years after the stroke, Yoelish lived in semi-seclusion from his Hasidim, staying at a summer house in Belle Harbor on Long Island and trying to recover. During this time, his wife, Feige, and his gabbaim, including prominently Yosef Ashkenazi but also Azriel Glick (who following the rebbe’s death and at the unveiling of the tombstone would announce that the soul of the departed rebbe could not enter paradise until a successor to him had been selected) and the yeshiva head, Nosson Yosef Meisels, gradually took outsized roles acting as conduits for his messages and as de facto leaders of the community, sometimes even making speeches on his behalf. The power of the rebbetzin loomed particularly large. Credited as founder of the Satmar Ladies Auxiliary and a prodigious fundraiser for Satmar causes, she was also credited with creating the well-known and popular Bikur Cholim, an agency that provided support and help for any Jews hospitalized in the New York area by supplying them with kosher food, free housing for their loved ones near the hospitals, and other services; it became the goodwill side of Satmar that offset the sectarian and anti-Zionist causes that were far more alienating to many Jews. Feige also had outsized power because of the absence of any direct heirs who could be eased into a position of leadership during what would be her husband’s ten-year precipitous physical decline.
Feige and the gabbaim maintained the fiction that they were taking direction from Yoelish, and all was as it had been. She even came into the men’s section of the synagogue to distribute shirayim, the leftovers of the rebbe’s food that he previously would have distributed himself at a tish.
When the ailing rebbe briefly returned to his Hasidim in early spring of 1970, they could see he was a shadow of himself. Although he would deliver a talk in the fall of 1971 at the yeshiva in Williamsburg, his slurred speech was difficult to understand. In 1972, he moved back to Williamsburg into a new house especially outfitted for his physical limitations, but by the spring he was back in Belle Harbor. In September of 1974, he moved to Kiryas Joel, choosing to live far from the center of the village. Throughout these years, the invalid rebbe became a prisoner of his body, as his Hasidim anxiously watched and wondered how his court would sustain itself in the absence of his leadership.
While Feige and the gabbaim seemed in charge from day to day, Moshe Teitelbaum, Yoelish’s nephew and nominally the Sigheter Rebbe, was quietly taking a growing role at the court. During his uncle’s precipitous decline, Moshe was increasingly being brought into his room in ways that could be seen as setting the stage for a transition of leadership. Hasidim looked for signs from their ailing rebbe that he was ready to anoint Moshe as his successor. They took Yoelish’s embrace of Moshe as such a sign, and they reportedly engaged in wordplay and Satmar exegetic interpretation with a famous liturgical blessing recited each Sabbath and holy day, “Al kiso lo yeshev zar” (On his throne shall no stranger sit). They saw the blessing as a reference to their rebbe and his possible successor, since a nephew was no stranger. But the rebbetzin, recalling how Moshe had been among those urging his uncle to divorce her, and realizing that Moshe’s succession would leave her irrevocably separated from the center of power, resisted this effort as much as she could. Whereas a dowager rebbetzin who has a son or son-in-law who takes over as a rebbe and still looks upon his mother (or mother-in-law) with respect and because of her continuing family tie cannot cut her off from her royal station, Feige realized Moshe would have no incentive to empower her.
Though she had tacit control over his gabbaim, they would likely be replaced almost immediately by any new leader. She also had the force of her personality and a long history with the Hasidim, particularly her high profile as a fundraiser for charities, and these might support her after her husband was gone. As hard as she could, Feige worked to build up credit and authority, using the nearly ten years of her husband’s decline for the purpose. For a long time maintaining a close relationship with some of the most generous Satmar financial supporters, she disbursed funds, on one trip to Israel reputedly carrying “three million dollars to distribute to charity.” This was perhaps her strongest card, for it was critically important for the Hasidim, reminding them that she, no less than the rebbe, was the source of their sustenance (mzonei). She did favors, looked to make alliances and generally acted as a powerful stand-in for her ailing husband, even at times speaking from the lectern and delivering blessings from her husband. All this was freighted with symbolic meaning and was normally limited to a rebbe. With her stepdaughter, Roysaele, dead and the latter’s widowed husband out of the picture, Feige became a near rebbe. But of course, she could not lead a tish, nor could she give out her own blessings; and when all the other rebbes came together at public occasions, she could never be among them — for women, even powerful ones like the rebbetzin, could not mix with the men in this highly gendered social order. (In March 1979, she remarkably appeared as the only woman at a gathering of Hasidic rabbis in FeltForum in Manhattan, seated behind her husband and listening to his nephew Moshe addressing the crowd.) Even if she could somehow find some modus vivendi that would allow her to make peace with Moshe’s taking over her husband’s rebistve, she knew that Moshe’s oldest son, Aaron, his apparent heir, would take up all the available extra power and leave her with nothing. To Aaron, she was even a greater threat because he could leave her no space if he was to assure himself of a future.
Satmar page •After a lifetime as a rebbetzin, Feige believed that because so many Hasidim had seen her late husband as a larger-than-life figure, almost messianic in character, they might be persuaded he was irreplaceable. She convinced herself they might be willing simply to have a rav, someone who would serve as an appointed rabbi but without all the mystical and intercessionary powers with heaven that a rebbe had. She hoped, as did some of the gabbaim with whom she was allied, that after his passing his gravesite and memory would serve as the spiritual base, almost like a kind of extension of the incapacitated rebbe. She even had a plan to bring other great rabbinic forebears and have them reburied in the new cemetery in Kiryas Joel where her husband would be interred, imagining a kind of holy place that would serve in place of a living rebbe and would leave her space to act as its living guiding spirit. As the appointed rabbi she would have a man who was respected as a legal authority but lacking charisma of his own. Because some of the older members of the community from Hungary had in their origins not been Hasidim — recall that Satmar had been a mixed community, which had been one of the sources of resistance to Yoelish’s appointment as its head — she presumed that they might be satisfied with a respected rabbinic authority and with a rebistve left in a kind of suspended animation and in the care of herself, the dowager rebbetzin, and her retinue.
But the younger Hasidim, with no memories of Hungary, having lived in the atmosphere of absolute hands-on rule that marked their experience, wanted a full-fledged rebbe and not a powerful rebbetzin. A number of other Hasidim worried that if Moshe were not appointed as Satmar Rebbe he would simply continue in his role as Sigheter Rebbe and slowly attract more and more of the Satmar Hasidim, for whom a return to the Sigheter affiliation would simply be an acknowledgment of their own Hasidic history and roots. To avoid that real possibility, they moved to make Moshe the rebbe and crown him as the Satmar Rebbe.
Feige also had made enemies over the years who resented her power and who could not see a woman as the crown and scepter of their Hasidic glory. These enemies, many of whom were coalescing around Moshe and his heir apparent Aaron, reminded everyone that she had no heirs of her own. Of course, her gender made it clear that however powerful she was in these closing years of her husband’s life, Feige would have to step aside if Satmar was to continue after Yoelish and to maintain its position as the largest and most powerful Hasidic group in America (or, as they claimed, in the world).
All this concern with continuity was of course not only about symbolic, charismatic, or spiritual leadership; it was also about economic power and resources. The growth of Satmar had led to “a portfolio of shuls, yeshivas, no-interest-loan associations, meat markets and charities” valued in millions of dollars, and in addition there was “a social- service empire” with access to “millions of public dollars for health, welfare, food stamps and public housing.” For all the putative poverty in Satmar, and there was lots of evidence of it, as a Hasidic group it was an economic powerhouse, and the rebbe stood at the apex of that power.
During the late summer of 1979, Yoelish’s condition worsened. Present before his Hasidim in the synagogue in Kiryas Joel on what would be the final Sabbath of his life, he was watched intently. Later the Hasidim reflected on his every move and gesture as having been fraught with significance. Late on Saturday night, August 18, he developed fluid in his lungs and was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, while his anxious followers frantically recited psalms for his recovery — convinced now that he needed their entreaties if he were not to be called to the “yeshiva on high.”
“Those on high and those on earth” were said to be pursuing him; the cosmic battle was now in its most intense stage, as the Hasidim saw it. By the early morning, just before seven, his heart stopped. The New York Times reported that one hundred thousand people gathered for his funeral and created a monumental traffic jam on New York Route 17, the road leading to Kiryas Joel and the cemetery. In keeping with his aspirations to be more than simply the Satmar Rebbe, Yoelish was referred to in Der Yid, the semiofficial organ of the Satmar community, as “the rabbi of all Israel” or “the Rabbi of all the Diaspora,” and his death was described as having “orphaned” the entire Jewish people.
The fact that all this had occurred on the eve of the Hebrew month of Ellul, the start of the season of atonement and the so-called “Days of Awe,” infused the occasion with a kind of solemnity that only enhanced the sense of the significance of the events — this was, after all, the time when Hasidim always sought to be close to their rebbe in the hopes that he would intercede on their behalf on high in order to assure the acceptance of their prayers for forgiveness of sins and blessings in the coming year. But now their rebbe would not be with them “to open the gates of mercy.”
Questions like “What will be? What must we do? Where are we headed?” filled the air. Obviously some leaders had made plans, but others were not enthusiastic about those plans. The moment of truth had arrived.
Moshe Teitelbaum And The Transition To Leadership
By 1979, Moshe Teitelbaum (1914–2006), the Sigheter Rebbe, had been for many years totally eclipsed by his Satmar uncle. Living in nearby Borough Park, he hardly focused all of his energies on his small court, instead spending much of his time running a number of small businesses, managing real estate, and overseeing the kosher certification of the Meal Mart food chain rather than being a full-time zaddik. But now Moshe was the likely successor to claim the leadership of Satmar. Some other names had been briefly floated in internal discussions, but none really were serious contenders. By blood, Moshe stood above the rest, part of the stock of Sighet Hasidic holy seed.
His Holocaust survival story was no less dramatic than his uncle’s, although far less contentious. Orphaned and shuttled between his maternal grandfather and his uncle, while his older brother took on the crown of Sighet, Moshe married at 21 to Leah, a cousin and daughter of the Karacscka Rebbe. He was appointed head of his father-in-law’s yeshiva for the next five years until in 1941 he moved to Zenta, then in Hungary, to be designated rabbi. Within a few years, as the situation of Hungarian Jewry deteriorated, Moshe’s wife and their three small children were murdered in Auschwitz. At war’s end, he was in Theresienstadt, recuperating from typhus. On April 9, 1945, still weak, and unlike his uncle, who had never gone back home, Moshe returned to Sighet to try to revive the rabbinical seat of his martyred older brother. In the summer of 1945, he remarried, this time to another cousin, Pessel Leah (1922–2010), daughter of Aaron Teitelbaum (1881–1944), the Nirbator Rav.
Under communism, any hopes he might have had for a revival in Sighet came to naught, and he made plans to reach America. Unable to exit through proper channels, Moshe paid $500, a fortune at the time, to be smuggled, with his wife, through the border blockades. In the fall of 1946, after a brief detour to Brazil, he arrived at 500 Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, where he met his uncle, Yoelish, who had come from Palestine.
Jews from Sighet who reached Brooklyn before World War II established their own congregation at 152 Hewes Street in Williamsburg. Moshe was invited to serve as their rav and to live there. That synagogue served as the center of the resurgence of the transplanted community of Sighet on American soil. At first, Moshe seemed to develop his court more quickly than his uncle, who was still imagining himself returning to Jerusalem with funds from America. But quite soon after that idea died, the Satmar Rebbe outshone his nephew in attracting followers, as he had done in Europe before the war. In April 1965, Moshe relocated to Fifteenth Avenue and Fiftieth Street in Borough Park, hoping to emerge from the Satmar shadow and create some space for himself. A few years later he appointed his oldest son Aaron rav of the Sigheter congregation that he had left behind in Williamsburg.
Aaron, one of the six children Moshe had with his second wife, would, if his father became the new Satmar Rebbe, be his likely heir, presumably solving the looming concerns about the future of Satmar. That was not a happy possibility for those supporting Feige, and they looked to undermine him. At Aaron’s June 1966 wedding to Sasha, daughter of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe Moshe Hager of Israel, they made much of his ties with a man who seemed to have made his peace with the Zionists and whose daughter had attended the insufficiently Orthodox and anti-Zionist (by Satmar standards) Bais Yaakov schools, where instruction was in Hebrew rather than Yiddish. Indeed, Satmar Hasidim in Israel, many of whom considered Vizhnitzers as unredeemably Zionist, had been warned against attending the wedding, and few did so. Feige expressed concern about putting Aaron in line for the Satmar crown, arguing that anyone who married into such a “Zionist” family was not worthy of leading Satmar. Her motives may not have been purely ideological. Thirteen years later, when Moshe was emerging as the odds-on choice of successor to Yoelish, these arguments came up again.
On the last day of Yoelish’s life, Moshe — already identified in the Yiddish press as “the probable candidate” to take his uncle’s place — was in Los Angeles. Learning of the rebbe’s death, he rushed back to New York immediately after Sabbath’s end on the red-eye flight. Given the time difference and the nearly six-hour journey, Moshe arrived near the end of the nearly five-hour Sunday funeral that began in the afternoon. His keenly awaited entrance near 6:30 p.m. (just before the 7:49 sunset) was quite spectacular. After landing at Kennedy Airport, he boarded a waiting helicopter that flew him straight to Kiryas Joel and dramatically dropped down from the heavens. The symbolism was not lost on the assembled. Following his brief eulogy, the last from among a long line of prominent rabbis, before the mandatory burial by sunset, he would be the one to recite Kaddish for his uncle, a ritual normally performed by a surviving son.
Although she did not speak at the funeral — women were never expected to do so — the widowed rebbetzin found a way to be noticed. She was described in newspaper accounts as “breaking out in heartrending tears” for all to see and hear as she turned to the coffin and asked for forgiveness (as was customary) from her late husband and prayed that he would be an “advocate on high” for all of the Jewish people. But this tableau did not provide her with the same platform as Moshe. As for the late rebbe’s will, the press reported it would be read only after the monument over his grave was unveiled. In fact, no will was ever read.
By the following Sunday, a tombstone had been erected, providing yet another occasion for the Sigheter Rebbe, Moshe Teitelbaum, to offer tears and a eulogy. This time he spoke before the speeches of all the others. While one of the Yiddish papers still described him only as the one who “could possibly be the replacement for the deceased” (perhaps in deference to the resistance from Feige’s supporters), it was obvious to all that he was the one.
At the same time, one newspaper account reported that the dowager rebbetzin, Feige, was “not healthy,” having suddenly become “unwell,” and that a “big doctor from Mount Sinai Hospital was called.” According to the report, she had recently suffered a “light heart attack.” Her doctor had advised that “she cease her community activities” and be put under a nurse’s care, and she was “unable to see anyone during the coming weeks,” even though during the preceding week of shivah for her husband she had — rebbe-like — received pidyonos that she brought to the rebbe’s grave, perhaps as the start of her desperate campaign to turn it into her vehicle for holding on to power. The announcement of her incapacitation, however, was an effective face-saving way to halt that plan. At the same time, it was reported that many of the older Hasidim — the elite who would serve as a signal of where the allegiance of the court was headed — already had handed kvittlach (petitions for blessing) to the Sigheter Rebbe, as a sign that they wanted him to take over.
In yet another signal of the transition to a new rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss, newly appointed av beit din of the Edah HaHaredis in Jerusalem, announced that if Moshe took over the rebistve he, Weiss, would give up his new position in favor of the Satmar leader. In fact, Weiss remained in his position, while Moshe, like Yoelish before him, would be named “president,” a largely symbolic role.
In spite of all this, a continuing dispute over succession lingered. Leaflets were distributed on which, under unflattering images of Moshe, were the words: “Is this the man who is worthy of inheriting the place of our holy rebbe?” At the all-important third meal of the Sabbath, one of the late rebbe’s gabbaim, Azriel Glick, rather than Moshe recited a prayer normally recited by the Satmar Rebbe. Later Glick and the other gabbai, Yosef Ashkenazi, and Sender Deutsch, publisher of the Yiddish paper Der Yid, would negotiate with Moshe over the rebistve.
Moshe appeared to some Hasidim painfully inferior to his uncle. Even as the inevitability of his succession gathered strength, these people continued to paint him as unworthy, supporting Feige’s idea to have the rabbis and dayanim run the day-to-day affairs and religious matters, while she would be the paramount leader. This plan would distribute greater power to the religious virtuosi and would turn the paramount leader into a symbol who reigned but did not rule.
In the midst of all this, a letter purporting to be from Yoelish surfaced. It claimed that Shulem Halpert, one of the young gabbaim who had served him, should be his replacement. The idea that their late rebbe would have wanted as his successor a man with neither family ties to Hasidic royalty (yichus) nor acknowledged Torah scholarship shocked thousands of Hasidim. Turning to the dayanim, whose judgments they respected, they quickly received a verdict. Yecheskel Roth, a respected dayan in the Borough Park Satmar Bes Medrash, called the letter a forgery, and the succession moved forward to the less charismatic but inevitable nephew, Moshe Teitelbaum. By September 14, 1979, reports in the paper made it official: “The Sigheter Rav is the new rav of the Satmar community.” A front-page story in Der Yid identified him as “the famous genius rabbi and zaddik Moshe Teitelbaum.” He was made guardian of Satmar assets and rabbi of Yetev Lev, the formal name of the Satmar congregation. The appointment had been made at a meeting of the administration and officers of the community, the elite Hasidim. Seven of the most prominent leaders had come to his residence to inform him of his selection. Even though he would immediately take over administrative and leadership decisions, he would formally be crowned only at the conclusion of the year of mourning. Moshe deferred all expressions of “Mazel tov” until then.
That same day Feige was “taken to the hospital where she was placed in intensive care.” Some people — no doubt among her supporters — had urged a postponement of the decision and meeting to appoint Moshe because of her condition, as if to suggest that his ascension to the throne could cost the rebbetzin her life. But in a news report four days later, Feige was quoted as saying that the meeting should go ahead. Her challenge was essentially over.
A limited number of diehard opponents broke from the main branch of Satmar and came to be known as the B’nai Yoel (sons of Yoel). Others deri sively called these people “the rebbetzin’s Hasidim” (since she helped economically support many of them) or the misnagdim (opponents), a term with a double meaning, since it not only referred to their opposition to Moshe’s selection purely by blood but had been used in the early years to refer to opponents of Hasidism in general. These opponents echoed what Yoelish had written: “The ways of the Ba’al Shem Tov have been forgotten.” By that they believed he meant that just because someone had royal blood he should not automatically succeed to the crown. Those mystical notions of holy seed should not the governing principles any longer. What mattered more, as the B’nai Yoel and their sympathizers understood it, was one’s zeal for continuing Yoelish’s ways, and Moshe did not have it.
But although they built their own schools and institutions, the B’nai Yoel led by Yossel Waldman remained a small minority. However much a giant Yoelish may have been in the eyes of his Hasidim, his declining years had been troublesome and anxious for most. The shift from a debilitated rebbe and a court run by a rebbetzin to one taken over by a younger, albeit less charismatic relative, the Beirach Moshe, as he was called, after the commentary he had written, promised a new energy in the court — if only those who still opposed the succession could be controlled. Hoping this would happen within less than a month’s time, the leadership planned for their new rebbe’s appearance in the main synagogue in Williamsburg at the start of the slichot prayers for forgiveness that would begin in the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
The new leader continued to defer all wishes of “Mazel tov” to his ascension and even frustrated the hopes of about a hundred Hasidim who had come to his synagogue in Borough Park expecting a chance to “toast a l’chaim” to the new chief. Instead, he told stories about his predecessor and about their mutual forebears, tales that would remind his listeners of his family heritage and credentials as a worthy successor. As Moshe lingered in the shadow of the man who had preceded him, his strategy of reminding them that he too was scion of the royal family was his strongest way to stake his claim for legitimacy. Showing a reluctance to accept “Mazel tovs” demonstrated humility.
Samuel Heilman won a National Jewish Book Award in 2004 for his book ‘When A Jew Dies.’ He is a professor of sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.