Who are the Satmar Jews: An Introduction

27th April 2020

Most people are aware of the existence of so-called “ultra” or “strictly” Orthodox Jews. Some may know that these communities are divided into a variety of sects of varying strength and size, and that some are part of the “chassidic” movement. But there is still little understanding of the history of these groups: who they are, how they came into being, and their customs and practice. 

This article, and those which follow it, focus on one part of that religious world: the Satmar. This is the community in which I was born and brought up, and which I was a part of until I chose to lead a life outside it.

In this first article in my series, I will lay down some historical background on the history of Satmar and the manner in which it fits in with other chassidic and orthodox groups. This article is, in essence, a brief sketch on the history of ultra-orthodoxy and chassidism. Whole books have been written on this subject, so by necessity I will be painting the picture with very broad brushstrokes.

As my audience is diverse, I will be assuming no prior knowledge of chassidism or the history of Judaism.

Chassidism originates in early 18th century Eastern Europe. During this period, Ashkenazi (i.e. of German/European origin) Jewry is traumatised from recent catastrophic events, primarily the pogroms of the Khmelnytsky Uprising and the widespread disillusion after the false hope from Sabbatean messianism.

Chassidism starts with charismatic mystics and miracle workers who travel around the Jewish villages and towns, raising spirits, (allegedly) performing miracles, and teaching that every Jew, no matter his – it is almost exclusively a male movement – status or learnedness, can reach God with happiness, ecstasy and piety.

This movement is faced with fierce opposition from the rabbinic establishment, who see it as a threat to the established hierarchies and to the legalism of Orthodox law (halacha). This group of opposition is called “misnagdim”, which is (Ashkenazi) Hebrew for “opposers”.

A second group of chassidic antagonists emerges in the later part of the 18th century with the emergence of the Jewish Enlightenment in Western Europe. These are the Maskilim (Hebrew for intellectually enlightened). They oppose chassidism for its ecstasy and enthusiasm, which they see as irrational expressions of religiosity and superstition.

Initially the Misnagdim and the Maskilim work hand in hand in opposition to the Chassidim. But after a short period, they realise that they are as opposed to each other as each of them is opposed to their common enemy. Maskilim want to bring down rabbinic structures, increase secular education and integration with wider society, all of which the Misnagdim oppose. It doesn’t take long before the chassidim and the Misnagdim are ganging up against their now common enemy, the Maskilim.

By the second half of the 19th century the Jewish community is split on the lines of new fronts: the separatist orthodox (the forefathers of today’s ultra-orthodoxy) against the modernists and reformers. The orthodox camp now contains a mixture of chassidim and misnagdim. They no longer primarily fight amongst themselves, but devote all their energy to fighting the reformers.

Although the orthodox groups are now working together, they nevertheless comprise several different socio-cultural groups. These groups don’t always see eye to eye and there is a lot of factionalism evident, especially amongst the more fundamentalist groups who accuse the others of not being orthodox enough. Three distinct groups emerge: the German Yekkes follow in the leadership of Rabbi Doctor S. R. Hirsch; the Lithuanian non-chassidim congregate around Yeshivas; and the chassidim are splintered into hundreds of groups, each following their own rebbes. I will talk more about the role of the rebbe in a future article.

The origins of Satmar are with a chassidic dynasty based in Siget, Romania. This is a dynasty that has powerful social, ideological and marital relations with other Eastern European chassidic courts, especially Tzanz and its many descendant dynasties. Bear in mind that marriages in chassidic courts are a bit like the Royal families of 19th century Europe: they’re often about socio-political networking and power

This dynasty is known for its fanaticism and uncompromising fundamentalism. They oppose any concessions to modernity and come out as early opposers of the new emerging Zionist ideology. Whilst some orthodox groups embrace some elements of Zionism in religious disguise, the rebbes of Siget are in total and radical opposition. This environment is where Satmar is born.

Yoel Teitelbaum becomes the rabbi (not rebbe – more about this distinction in my next article) of the Romanian city of Satmar after his older brother takes over the Siget dynasty following their father’s death. He quickly makes a name for himself as a pious tzadik (Yiddish for holy man). A flocking of followers and devotees gathers around him, including many of his father’s old followers who choose him over his brother. In the last years before the Holocaust he builds a name for himself as an uncompromising radical and religious fundamentalist.

The Holocaust sees the destruction of most of the Siget dynasty. Most of Yoel’s family and his brother’s family are murdered in Auschwitz, alongside a majority of their followers. In the late 40s both Yoel and his brother’s son Moshe try to rebuild their respective communities in Brooklyn NY, but Moshe is overshadowed by his charismatic and powerful uncle. The Siget brand does not recover and the surviving followers congregate under Yoel instead, under the Satmar brand.

After the Holocaust many surviving chassidic rebbes, such as Belz, Ger, Vizhnitz etc settle in the newly born State of Israel. Zionism is no longer an ideology, but a political reality. They learn to adjust within this reality and set up political parties to the Israeli Parliament to represent their needs. Yoel is horrified at this wholesale abandonment of anti-Zionism by his fellow chassidic leaders and he embarks on a crusade that will last until his dying day to be a powerful voice against the State of Israel and all those who join it politically. This puts him in tension with most chassidic and non-chassidic ultra-orthodox leaders and Satmar sets itself apart from the rest of the ultra-orthodox community. On the other hand, Yoel’s outspoken fanaticism attracts many other surviving rabbis in leaders with smaller followings and they end up establishing independent satellite communities around Satmar. Satmar ends up being like an Empire with lots of semi-independent colonies.

In the next article in this series I will write more about Satmar’s development after Yoel’s death, its relationship with its satellite communities and the role of the rebbe in chassidism in general and in Satmar in particular.