The funeral of the Satmar grand rebbe went off on Tuesday night like a vast unchoreographed dance on the dark streets of Williamsburg, illuminated only by the yellow glow of streetlights and the red and blue flashing of the police car sirens. The mourning was undercut by a steady anticipation of violence between followers of the late rebbe’s two feuding sons, who have both made claims to being the rightful successor.
The rebbe, Moses Teitelbaum, died close to 7 p.m. on Monday evening in Mount Sinai Hospital, after a battle with several diseases. He was 91.
Following the Jewish imperative for a swift burial, by the time darkness had fallen, the rebbe’s body had been transported to a small room off the main synagogue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where a small clique prepared the body for burial.
The funeral was called for 10 p.m. and, from sunset on, a steady stream of men in long black coats and women with strollers walked toward the synagogue on Rodney Street, the heart of the largest enclave of Satmar Hasidim, thought to be the largest Hasidic group in the world. Charter buses from the upstate village of Kiryas Joel, where at least 15,000 Satmar live, pulled up a few blocks away and dropped their charges.
Towering over the scene in front of the synagogue were television satellites and a police crane, making final adjustments to a security camera installed opposite the synagogue. Satmar children piled up on the hoods of the news vans, peering through the windshield at the televisions inside. One newscaster preparing to go on air was surrounded by curious Satmar girls, who stared silently and occasionally snapped pictures with cell phone cameras.
The police had quickly moved to seal off all the streets around the synagogue, towing any cars that were parked in the area. Traffic trucks moved in with metal barricades, which were pulled off in a jumble of shouts from the workmen. The locals steered around the policemen without making any acknowledgement of their presence.
The impromptu command center for police was on the street in front of the rebbe’s corner house, two blocks from the synagogue. Joseph Esposito, the chief of the New York Police Department, gave calm instructions to a cluster of officers surrounding him on the street. “Patience is the buzzword tonight,” he said. “These people are mourning, and I can’t say enough that what we need is patience.”
Just two weeks ago, Esposito came under fire after an Orthodox councilman claimed that the officer had yelled “f—-ing Jews” in the middle of a riot of Hasidic youth in the Boro Park neighborhood of Brooklyn — an accusation that Esposito denied. On this night, though, any altercations were expected to come from followers of the two feuding Teitelbaum heirs. The death of the rebbe killed, for good, the hope that he would clearly state which of his sons was to succeed him as the grand rabbi and likely have control of the hundreds of millions of dollars in assets owned by the Satmar. For now, Aaron, the oldest, controls the community in upstate New York, and Zalman, the third oldest, controls the Brooklyn congregation.
Fist fights broke out between the two sides at religious services last fall.
Rumors floated in the street on Monday about how the night would proceed and what the rebbe’s sons might do. A 26-year old bus mechanic said he’d heard that there might be an effort to spirit the rebbe’s body to New Jersey and bury him there, “but it’s only a conspiracy. We don’t believe it.”
In front of the synagogue, middle-aged men hustled wooden benches out of the sanctuary to make more room for mourners inside. The process took more than an hour, and the sound of the metal girders screeching against the asphalt overwhelmed the murmur of conversation on the street. All the while, men pushed in and out of the synagogue and the little shtiebls in the basements of neighboring houses.
Women used the police barricades down the middle of the street as an impromptu mechitza, the gender divider used during prayer, and packed together tightly on the sidewalk and stairwells opposite the synagogue. From above, people peered down from the caged windows and rooftops, waiting.
The coffin came out of the back of the synagogue. The first sign of it was a police car that turned on its siren and began the procession. Next was a black SUV with the coffin in back. The hood and doors were open, and arms and legs and shtreimels, the circular fur hats worn by many Hasidim, hung out of the vehicle in every direction.
The procession followed a slow circular route to the rebbe’s house, where the coffin was taken inside so that the female relatives could ritually rip the rebbe’s last garment. The police got out of their cars and retreated to the corner where they stood in the headlights of the lead car, around Esposito. One suited detective stood on the hood, eyes scrunched up, trying to glean what was happening inside. But on the front steps the only people other than the Satmar were two, cleanshaven men with jackets marking them as “Security.”
The procession members clamored to get inside the house, and soon hats were flying and shouts came from the front stairs. There was some talk in the crowd about the fight for succession starting with the fight for the house, which has been under Zalman’s control.
After one bout of pushing, 20 bearded men came jogging up from the direction of the synagogue shouting angrily. But the police kept them at a distance. The stalemate was broken when a man walked out of the house surrounded by a circle of men holding hands to clear the way to the synagogue. During the entire process, four helicopters hovered above with their spot lights off, hanging noisily in the dark.
The motorcade budged forward again, narrowly slicing through the crowd with bystanders ducking back just in time to avoid being hit by the rearview mirrors. The body was returned to the synagogue, but on the street 20 minutes later, there was again confusion.
The funeral had begun but there was no sound outside. One group of boys wondered if Zalman’s boys had cut the wires to the speakers that had been set up. Men inside the synagogue called friends outside and people would gather around the tinny amplified transmission of the speeches.
Suddenly, a bolt of sound came screeching into the night. Only after a few seconds did it become clear that it was the wailing of a grown man, Aaron, as it turned out. He continued wailing as he spoke in Yiddish, and even his pants for breath were amplified over the streets.
A few in the crowd stopped their ears to the deafening sound. But the white-bearded men, who sat down on the benches outside, sat serenely, packed together, stroking their beards, some choking back tears, others with their eyes closed, listening to the shrill cry.
The biggest question on the street beforehand had been who would speak first. The successor to the rebbe would normally speak first, but in order to keep the peace a deal was brokered that allowed the sons to speak in order of their age. After Aaron, Lipa took the microphone and gave his own sobbing eulogy in Yiddish.
Close to 1 a.m., the speakers went down again and the younger men moved, en masse, around the corners, where another set of speakers was broadcasting from inside. On the street, the director of the Satmar school district, Hertz Frankel, was chatting.
“Everyone predicted a bloodbath beforehand,” Frankel said. “It’s a very peaceful, dignified funeral. I hope this is the beginning of a long-lasting peace.”
Frankel said the next question was whether the brothers would sit shiva together at the Brooklyn house. “When people sit together they start to talk — they reminisce, they remember the great qualities of their father.”
Once all the brothers finished speaking, a motorcade headed toward upstate New York, where Teitelbaum was buried in the early hours of the morning Tuesday, near his predecessor, the founder of the Satmar movement.
By the end of the day, the feud had resumed, with supporters on both sides producing conflicting wills, each group claiming that the rebbe had named their leader as his true heir.