The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews Part IV

By Ray Schultz

Enfeebled by a stroke, the 86 year-old Satmar Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum, lived in Bar Harbor, Rockaway, and rarely visited Williamsburg. The congregation had to manage without his personal advice, emotional support, organizing skills and leadership in strict obervance of the 613 commandments. The adminitrative responsibility largely fell on Albert Friiedman, a man who could have been in his ‘20s or early 30s, but looked older. He had stepped into the role after his father Leopold died the year before. I met him one morning at Satmar headquarters on Lee Ave. in Williamsburg, not far from the Marcy Ave. El stop with its Hispanic-flavored stores on the street below. “We have our problems,” Friedman said. “Some people need assistance to maintain a certain minum standard of iving. The schools, the health center, the medical facility, the drugstore—we’re trying to get services for our pepople who cannot afford various things. The median income is about $6,900, but with eight or nine kids, it doesn’t go far.”

We sat down around a table with Leopold Lefkowitz, a crystal maker and major donor to Satmar, and a couple of other men. One older man said, “As much as you have to eat and drink, you have to have a religious education. You must.”

I tried to pursue the Rebbe’s stance against Zionism. Friedman informed me that the Rebbe “used to go to Israel before he had his stroke. Every couple of years. He has mny intitutions there, even though he’s not as favorable to Zionism. He did much more for people in Israel and institutions there than most of the Zionist leaders here.”

It fell upon Samuel Shrage to explain the Satmar position to me. “They dislike the state of Israel as it is now constituted,” he said. “What is Israel without it’s santicity, without the spiritualism? A piece of land.”

Shrage gave me some background. “After the war, we were offered land in Africa. They were looking for a place to dump the Jews. Some places had oil. But we said, ‘This is our holy land, the land of the Torah, of the Bible, of our ancestors.’ That’s what the argument was. And even In the halls of the United Nations, what document was used to claim that Israel must now be turned back to the Jews after so many years of Arab residency? The Bible, the oldest recognized document in the world. Fine. So we get Israel. But what kind of document is this? When it appeals to you and you get your land back, it’s a good document. But the document has other clauses. It talks about the Sabbath observance and Kashrut, (the dietary laws). It talks about the religious observances.”

For his part, Friedman seemed to soft-peddle the issue, although I knew from my visit to Camp Rov-Tov that it aroused strong passions among the Satmar.

We returned to the subject of the Rebbe himself. I knew just a little bit about him. The Rebbe, the descendent of several holy men, had escaped Hungary on the so-called Kastner train, a train taking Hungarian Jewish “prominents” out of the Nazi zone. The Nazis allowed Dr. Rudolf Kastner, an official of the Jewish Agency, to select several hundred Hungarian Jews for safe passage to Switzerland. The list included Zionists, Kastner’s own family members and several ultra-orthodox leaders such as the Satmar Rebbe. Iin return for this cynically proffered gift, Kastner would, it was said, reassure the Jews in Kluj and Budapest and withhold from them the true destination of the trains they were boarding—the death camp at Auschwitz. It was later shown in an Israeli court that Kastner collaborated with Adolf Eichmann and other top Nazis, including Kurt Becher, a Jew-killer Kastner defended and helped free after the war.. In his book Perfidy, the U.S. author Ben Hecht charged that the Jews of Kluj could have easily escaped to safety in Rumania, three miles away. but Kastner soothed them and allowed them to go to their deaths; soon they were ash, Hecht wrote. In 1957, Kastner was assassinated in Israel.

Whatever the circumstances, the Rebbe got out. He made his way to Palestine, then to the United States, where he attracted survivors and new adherents. His followers formed yeshivas and congregations.

“Most of the people came after the war, they lost all their families there,” Friedman said. “They went to the Rabbi for every ittle thing, even for to get married. He has a personal interest in each and every individual. Remember, he’s also very sophisticated and worldly. It’s supposed to just be just mysticism, but he’s more sophisticated than anybody else beucase he has more problems coming to him. And he gives good advivce, money advice, business advice, legal advice. People are successful.”

“He’s our father, he’s our father,” Lefkowitz said.

“How can he deal with so many people?” I asked.

“Tight schedule,” Friedman said. “He would be up until the wee hours, then up early the next morning. For 50 years, he didn’t sleep in a bed except on Friday nights: he would sleep on a chair or a couch for an hour or so.”

Following this talk, Friedman and I walked around the neighbodhood. We went into a Satmar meat shop, where glatt-kosher chicken was selling for $1 a pound, compared with 68 cents for the non-kosher variety advertised by Pathmark. We entered a shul on Ramsey St., large front room with benches and tables for studying, mostly occupied by old men, then into the main synagogue, which had a large chandeler for which Lefowitz had supplied the crystal.

Like Shrage and many others, Friedman shared his love of the Sabbath.

“The Sabbath consists of relaxation, enjoyment—mostly study,” he said. “We learn, spend time with the children. Of course, some don’t study, they just waste the day.” Friedman then made a wry comment about his own life: “I change clothes when my wife tells me to.”

A few weeks later, Friedman invited me to cast eyes on the Rebbe himself. This took place on a September Sunday. It was the week before Rosh Hashanah, and the Rebbe had come in to pray at the synagogue on Rodney St., and to give his blessing to a distantly related couple who had married.

First, he visited the main Satmar synagogue. There was a mob of young boys waiting outside the rear entrance. Every time the door opened a fraction of an inch, they tried to get a glimpse inside.

Suddenly there was a rush for the door, with much shoving in all directions. Two or three men came out, leading a very old feeble-looking individual, who happened to be the Rebbe of a different Hasidic group—perhaps the Kalusenburg–who had been visiting the Satmar Rebbe; the two were related. The kids were fascinated by him, and followed his progress down the block. Then a couple of rough looking individuals cleared a path, and other men came out helping the Satmar Rebbe himself.

Friedman removed his hat, then handed me the solid felt yamulke underneath so my head would be covered.. I put it on. Then the Rebbe emerged—A thin, white-haired man wiith a thin face and lips. He had on a round black hat and a purple kaftan. He was stooped over, and could barely move by himself. They helped him into the back seat of the car, while the crowd mobbed around, mesmerized by his presence.

Friedman tapped me on the shoulder and we jammed into the back seat of another car, and the vehicles all started pulling away in a line. We turned down Bedford, swung around on Williamsburg East, then drove into another block. “You see, the kids will be running here when they find out where we are,” Friedman said. Sure enough, we could see several running along the streets. Finally, we pulled up at a building. A small crowd was gathered around the car of the Rebbe as he was helped out. His wife, the daughter of another Hasidic Rebbe, seemed sturdier. Everyone went in. A man at the door shoved me quite hard when I tried to enter, but then Friedman cleared me and I was allowed to pass. Inside, there were three or four tables set up lengthwise in the dining room. There were no pictures in this room; just a bookcase in back with religious volumes and manuscripts. Around the front of the table and down the sides stood several men, with others crowded into the doorway. Everyone was singing heartily when the Rebbe came through and was helped to a chair. The Rebbe sat in front with several people all round him. Several women were crowded into the kitchen, from which they did not emerge. The table was piled high with cakes and loaves of bread, plus a few plates with the remnants of a feast. This was the 7th day of the wedding celebrations, and it was a high privilege to have the Rebbe there. It was time to read the blessing. They put a white towel over his lap, as he sat slumped in his chair, then opened up the prayer book. Someone put the microphone in front of him–they were recording it, so valuable is the very sound of his voice to them. The host opened the curtains in the front windows, revealing a large crowd standing outside. Then he opened the windows a little so the people out there could hear of their holy man’s prayers. Finally, the praying was done. The Rebbe made the Kiddush over the wine.

I was struck by their devotion, and I admit that I myself was awed by the sight of him—he who had narrowly escaped death during the Holocaust, and who led his followers in the U.S. for 30 years and was uncompromising in both his stance on Zionism and his interpretation of Jewish law, yet seemed so kindly. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. And I started wonderng about the seeming fragility of it all. The Rebbe’s three daughers had died, there was no heir apparent.What would happen when he passed on? Rabbi Chaim Stauber, the editor of a Yiddish-language newspaper called Der Yid, put it this way to me: “It’s inconveivable. The future of our children is so dependent on this one individual. We pray he is well enough to lead us. Heaven is not deaf to our prayers. It is a very painful question, one we cannot face.”

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