Forward (the English-language incarnation of the once-preeminent Yiddish-language פֿאָרווערטס (Forverts), has a fascinating account of the transition of power within the Satmer branch of Hasidism. So far as it goes, it’s pretty unsparing. But it doesn’t go far enough.
Forty-five years ago, Al Lowenstein challenged John J. Rooney for a Brooklyn Congressional seat in a district that included Williamsburg, then the Satmar stronghold. I was one of the hundreds of volunteers who moved to Brooklyn for the summer to work on the campaign. (Huge mistake from the campaign’s viewpoint, but that’s a story for another day.)
The Satmar leadership – in particular, Yoelish Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe – loved Rooney, for a slightly complicated reason. The Satmar brand of misogynistic patriarchy was so obnoxious that girls tended to walk out of the sect when they reached maturity. (That’s since been fixed by miseducating them in Satmar schools in the isolated and Satmar-dominated villiage of Kiryat Joel; the schools turn out girls not merely well-indoctrinated but so ignorant of everything but Talmud as to be unable to function in mainstream society, and the sect so far has managed to beat back attempts to ensure that Satmar children get adequate education. (No doubt Betsy DeVos will be their ally, in the name of “parental choice.”) But back then Satmar schools taught the girls to read and write in English, giving them the option of leaving the community.
This was a problem for the Satmars; where were they to find brides for their young men? The answer was straightforward: the community imported brides for arranged marriages from the remaining Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Rooney, as the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that handled the State Department budget, was able to makes sure that the Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs didn’t look too closely at this (thoroughly illegal) practice.
Teitlebaum – never, in my hearing, referred to by name, but only by title – exercised a different kind of power locally. Forverts was the largest Yiddish-language publication in the country (it had once published stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer and essays by Abba Lerner), and Jewish Williamsburg was largely Yiddish-speaking. But the Satmars were relentlessly anti-Zionist and anti-socialist, and Teitlbaum had put a ban on the sale of the newspaper. Newsdealers who challenged that ban tended to suffer from suspicious fires and other acts of vandalism, so in fact the newspaper was simply unavailable in what should have been its biggest market. And the police found it unwise to defend press freedom against someone who could reliably bring several thousand voters to the polls to vote however they were told to vote, especially given the difficulty of finding witnesses bold enough to testify. (The re-run of the Lowenstein/Rooney primary was on Yom Kippur; buses to the polls left directly from the synagogues.)
In Teitlebaum’s long dotage – thoroughly documented in the article – and under the leadership of his nephew and grand-nephew, who succeeded him, a variety of instances of Satmar misbehavior have come to light, including the usual scandal about clergy taking sexual advantage of children and having their crimes covered up by their superiors and a fairly wide variety of financial scams, some of them rather creative.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Satmar Hasidism has many of the nastier characteristics of an organized-crime enterprise, including the abuse of political influence to acquire impunity. But don’t hold your breath waiting for anyone who has to run for office to speak out about it.