In the Carpathian Mountains, in early 1944, the Satmar rebbe was emperor of a Hungarian chasidic kingdom; in Brooklyn 1946, he was almost alone. Reb Yoilish (Joel) Teitelbaum couldn’t get 10 men for a minyan. In the Brooklyn dusk, his gabbai (assistant) asked passersby if they davened; the passersby kept walking.
The rebbe was then almost 60, old for his age, as most survivors were. In 1944, when leaves were turning green, the Nazis entered Hungary. When leaves turned brown, 437,000 Hungarian Jews were dead. And now, in 1946, with two children and a wife sleeping eternally across the ocean, and his only remaining child, a daughter, soon to die in Brooklyn, the rebbe hit bottom, or so it seemed. And yet, though no one knew it, his best was yet to be.
By the time the Satmar rebbe died in 1979 in Kiryas Joel, the all-Satmar shtetl he founded upstate, Reb Yoilish was leader of the largest, most uncompromising chasidic group in the world, more than 150,000 strong — and that, with contempt for outreach, dialogue or inclusion. To this day, Yiddish is their mother tongue; Zionism, their nemesis; and making Jewish life affordable, their passion. (Tuition ranges from $2,500 to $4,000, and is free for the poor. Satmar also offers heavily subsidized weddings, if one agrees to the standardized menu and the house band). If the test of a successful Jewish family is the number of Jewish grandchildren, nobody does it better. In Satmar shuls, one can see upwards of 80 cousins lining up on Friday nights to say “Good Shabbos” to their shared zeyde. The New York Times reported in 2006: “If the Satmar schools in New York were a public school system, it would be the fourth-largest system in the state, after those of New York City, Buffalo and Rochester.”
Rabbi Hertz Frankel, principal of Satmar’s Bais Rochel, says his school has 17 first grade classes for girls alone (boys have their own school). With 37,000 Satmar children — all of whom speak Yiddish during recess — he estimates that 15-20 percent of all Jewish children in Jewish schools are Satmar or an affiliate group.
The Satmar phenomenon is the subject of Frankel’s new memoir, “The Satmar Rebbe and His English Principal: Reflections on the Struggle to Build Yiddishkeit in America” (Menucha Publishers). Frankel, not a chasid, was ordained at the (non-Satmar) Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and just 26 when he met the rebbe in 1959. The rebbe told Frankel that he had experience running a boys’ yeshiva in Europe, but didn’t know how to run a chasidic school for girls; there were no such things in the town of Satmar. The rebbe needed help. He turned to Frankel, who remembers, “There I was, an Agudist in Satmar land, wearing a light colored suit and a new straw hat.”
Frankel’s book is not academic but more in the style of schmoozing on a Shabbos afternoon. The book demurely avoids scandal or innuendo, let alone several sexual abuse cases in Williamsburg, and stands in contrast to several recent memoirs from lapsed Orthodox authors (not Satmar), far more critical of their own corners of the charedi community. Frankel’s book also arrives when the city is investigating charges of substandard secular education in certain charedi yeshivas (though not Frankel’s Bais Rochel). He mentions that there were, in fact, Satmar families “who refused to have their children study secular subjects,” but the rebbe responded, “If people don’t want to send their children to ‘English’ [some frum Jews, similar to the Amish, use “English” as a catch-all for everything secular] let them go to the M’lochim,” a chasidic group whose schools don’t teach secular classes.
Frankel is still principal, but the book ends with the rebbe’s death in 1979, sparing Frankel from having to explain, or implicate higher-ups, in the 1999 federal fraud case (regarding the misuse of government funds) that saw Bais Rochel fined $1 million, and Frankel sentenced to three years of unsupervised probation. The community stood by him.
Even so, Frankel’s book offers a rare peek into the Satmar world from someone intimate with its inner sanctums, and yet slightly apart, even nicknamed “the goyish principal,” for such is “English.” Indeed, Frankel remained clean-shaven for years into his tenure.
A graduate of Brooklyn College (few Satmars go to college), Frankel spoke a fluent English, a skill eluding the rebbe’s interest and proficiency. He became not only the principal but, informally, the rebbe’s “secretary of state,” an intermediary with government officials and non-Satmars.
Settling in Williamsburg, the rebbe’s first project was childhood education, writes Frankel, but in a community of mostly destitute survivors, young Satmar men were told “to go to work … make a good living and be able to support their families and the community.”
The rebbe, said Frankel, directed that “a yungerman should wake up at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning, learn for two or three hours, and then go to work to earn a living. When he comes home from work, he should learn for another two or three hours. On top of that, he should also help his wife at home.” In Israel, the rebbe insisted that no Satmar individual or organization take any subsidy from the “Zionist” government; the safety net should be Satmar’s responsibility alone.
The rebbe was strict about the Bais Rochel yearbook, as well. There could no be pictures of the girls, and nothing about a girl’s appearance in any of the anecdotes.
Textbooks, writes Frankel, were censored, to avoid “inappropriate” influences. Frankel, though, soon recognized that the girls needed additional reading material, perhaps even a subscription to The Weekly Reader (a secular elementary-school news magazine), for current events. He even raised his voice to the rebbe: “How do you expect me to do my job?” One of the rebbe’s associates told him to calm down, but the rebbe disagreed, “Let him get excited. He has to get excited. He has to represent his department. If he doesn’t get excited and work hard for his department, then he’s not doing his job!” The rebbe gave permission for The Weekly Reader. “After all,” the rebbe said later, “he got so excited … we have to give him something!”
Frankel doesn’t deny that some children “go off the derech” [religious path]. “Approximately 7 to 8 percent of the students … [could be classified as] problematic,” he writes, mostly referring to behavioral and emotional problems, leading to “a small percentage of dropouts.” Almost no one was ever expelled, and Frankel recalls the rebbe, with no surviving children, speaking with tenderness, one-on-one, to each student in trouble.
For the orphaned survivors flooding into Brooklyn after the war, the rebbe and rebbetzin (Feige, the rebbe’s second wife) became their father, mother and best friends. They quietly distributed money for tuition and Shabbos meals. The rebbetzin “married off countless orphans,” writes Frankel, “taking care of everything from matchmaking to finding the couple an apartment.” She would visit people “that had been neglected and forgotten about,” talking to the lonely, bringing food to the sick. The rebbetzin “was a role model for all the girls,” writes Frankel. In her memory, every morning dozens of Satmar women take subways and busses from Williamsburg to hospitals in every borough, bringing home-cooked Shabbos-style meals to any Jew (Satmar or not) who would like one.
The rebbe was famous, or infamous, for his relentless anti-Zionism. But over the phone, Frankel jokes, “Your friends on the Upper West Side ought to love Satmar. We were anti-Zionist before it was cool.”
The rebbe’s attitude toward Israel was complex. When Hubert Humphrey avoided the subject when meeting the rebbe in 1968, the rebbe later said, “Had Humphrey spoken to me in support of the Zionist state, it wouldn’t have bothered me in the least. We Jews have a Torah, which forbids us to have a state during the exile, and therefore we may not ask the Americans to support the state. But a non-Jew has no Torah, and by supporting the state he feels he is helping Jews. So, on the contrary, if an American non-Jew is against the Zionist state, it shows he is an anti-Semite.”
Frankel says, despite Satmar’s street demonstrations against Israeli religious policies, the rebbe “always insisted” that Satmar never demonstrate alongside Arabs “who sought Israel’s destruction. ‘We have nothing in common with these anti-Semites,’ he would always say. ‘Their cause is not ours.’” Frankel says the rebbe would never have approved of the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta going in 2007 to an anti-Israel and Holocaust-denial event in Iran.
The rebbe, though, blamed the Holocaust on the “sin” of Zionism. On the eve of war, the rebbe scolded Jews against escaping to the Yishuv (pre-state Israel), before the rebbe escaped on a train (with 1,680 non-Satmar Jews), to Switzerland, as arranged by Rudolf Kastner, the leading Zionist (Jewish Agency) official in Budapest. Not only did Kastner bribe Adolf Eichmann with a small fortune for the transport, but Eichmann said in 1960 that part of the deal was Kastner keeping quiet about where all the other trains were going. Frankel doesn’t discuss the rebbe’s choices in the ethical fog of 1944, saying only, “I wish I had the courage to speak to the rebbe about the subject. I simply wasn’t brave enough …” The rebbe would only say that he was never saved by Kastner, only God — “to rebuild Yiddishkeit.” He landed in Brooklyn, where he turned nine men, less than a minyan, into 150,000 Satmars, the largest chasidic group in the world.
The story is told that when Noah was in the ark, the lion bit his hand when Noah was slow to feed him. The lion roared, “Do you know who I am? I am the last lion. Respect me.”
That was the Satmar rebbe, says Frankel, the last lion, with a bite and a roar that’s heard still.