Who Will Lead Us?

The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America

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Samuel C. Heilman
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , June
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This detailed study of changes in leadership in European Ḥasidic communities translanted to American shores in the mid-20thcentury is acutely researched by Samuel C. Heilman, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY. Attempts at factual history and analyses of in-group dynamics on “the patterns and processes of contemporary Ḥasidic succession” permeate this religio-sociological study of five major communities of the Ḥasidic movement—Munkács, Boyan and Kopyczynitz, Bobov, Satmar, and ChaBaD Lubavitch. The Hasidic communities are parsed into chapters that cover history, geography, culture, language, literature, personalities, philosophy, and religion. Primary and secondary sources are consulted, and personal interviews are included when possible. 

Chapter 1 sets the pattern for the investigative reporting, including key words and concepts that utilize the world of the rebistive (being a Ḥasidic rebbe, with all that entails) and the complexities of Ḥasidic empowerment and succession. Chapter 2 tells the tale of leadership succession among Munkács Ḥasidim, which underwent upheaval and destruction during the Shoah, and its subsequent relocation to the new State of Israel, North America, and elsewhere in the diaspora. Featured is the wrenching narrative of an heir who abdicated, then later wrestled with his decision, and could not make peace with a son who took the title. Chapter 3 evaluates the continuity of the Ḥasidic lines of Boyan and Kopyczynitz, which originated fromthe Ruzhin dynasty founded by Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin (1796-1850), a descendent of Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezherich, one of the founders of European Ḥasidism. Solving the dilemma of a scarcity of worthy successors is the focus of this chapter, which mentions established Jewish academics, the late Menachem Brayer (Yeshiva University), father of Nachum Dov Brayer, and current Boyarin Rebbe and renowned scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel (JTSA), cousin and brother-in-law of Kopyczynitz Rebbe Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (1887-1967). The arranged endogamous marriage between Shoshana, daughter of Zyshe Heschel of Kopycznitz and granddaughter of Kopyczynitz Rebbe, and the reluctant rebbe-in-waiting, Nachum Dov, boasted the union of two withering and interrelated Ḥasidic courts. 

Chapter 4 enumerates how the Third Bobover Rebbe Shlomo Halberstam (1907-2000) brought the Bobov Hasidic dynasty to the US after World War II and established a very successful court in Brooklyn’s Borough Park. Alas, fame and prosperity birthed inner family strife, discontent, and separation. Upon the death of the Fourth Bobover Rebbe, Naftali Haberstam (1931-2005), a bitter near-decade-long rivalry to the throne ensued in the community and courts (religious and secular) between Benzion Aryeh Leib Halberstam (1955-present), youngest son of Shlomo and half-brother of Naftali, and Mordechai Dovid Unger (1954-present), son-in-law of Naftali. The final rabbinic beit din decision was to establish two separate Bobover constituencies: Benzion was crowned the Fifth Bobover Rebbe, and Mordechai Dovid was appointed the Rebbe of Bobov 45 (“45” was wrongly listed as the headquarters’ address in Brooklyn). 

Chapter 5 masterfully chronicles the descent and ascent of the Sighet/Satmar dynasty, identified as the largest and most influential Ḥasidic dynasty in the United States, headquartered in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was founded by Moshe Teitlebaum, Rebbe of Ujhel, Hungary (1758-184), who was uprooted to Drohobych, Ukraine, and later relocated to Sighet, Hungary. The official appointment of Yoelish Teitlebaum (1879-1926) as community rabbi (rav) of Satmar, despite opposition, cemented his role as the First Rebbe of the Satmar dynasty. This also set in motion a series of disputations, transitions, and leadership changes that characterize the movement. There is currently a nasty argument between Aaron Teitlebaum (1947-present) and Zalman Leib (1952-present) over who is the rightful Third Rebbe of Satmar. 

Chapter 6 delves into the dire circumstances and challenges of turmoil, survival, and resettlement of CHaBaD Lubavitch in America. Founded by Schneur Zalman of Lyadi (1745-1812), one of the earliest Ḥasidic followers of the Besht (Israel ben Eliezer, Ba`al Shem Tov, d. 1760), the movement is physically rebbe-less since the death of the Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-94), cousin and son-in-law of the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson (1880-1950). Jewish outreach to bring Jews everywhere to a life of Torah, coupled with a believer’s messianism in Judaism restored, propels and sustains CHaBaD (the Kabbalistic acronym for wisdom, understanding, and knowledge). 

Themes of rabbinic dynasty survival from without and succession of family leadership from within interweave in Heilman’s chapters. Is the world of Ḥasidism in America a throwback to the European shtetl Orthodoxy exhibited, for example, in the Pale Settlement, extending from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea? Or is it a real-life Fiddler on the Roof or a Jewish Amish brotherhood? Yes, if opposition to Western lifestyle and culture is meant; probably no if community and institutional survival are compromised. This is strongly reflected in Heilman’s analytical insight on the rebistive, the authority of leadership, and the charisma of the rebbe. Strong attachments to the past, mysticism, community, tradition, and charismatic leadership enable Hasidism to swim in the sea of the Talmud and not sink in the melting pot of American assimilation. Issues of isolation, separation, assimilation, and integration are effectively discussed. For the most part, Heilman’s wellspring of facts and tidbits conveys empathy and sympathy to the old/new Hasidic yore on the American shore bounded by memory, defined by family genetics, and guided by a religion of law. Helpful to the non-specialist are discussions of rebbe-devotees’ reciprocal claims and behavior patterns. For example, the effect of uncompromising devotion and attachment to the rebbe is rewarded by larger-than-life blessings, health, and livelihoods, or so it is taught and so it is believed.

This is a well-researched tome on five chosen Hasidic dynasties mainly headquartered in Brooklyn, NY. The seedy side of ultra-Ḥasidic Orthodoxy is investigated. Heilman mentions but does not focus on Ḥaredi ultra-Orthodoxy. He also ignores opposition to Zionism and the American way to walk the walk and talk the talk of Torah, commandments, and redemption. Rather, he spins an Oedipal maze entrapping zaddikim (saintly individuals), authoritative gabbaim (assistants, influencers), dowager rebbetzins, and so on, to explain the continuity of the rebistin substantiated in the personality and leadership of the rebbe. This accounts for the obsessive emphasis in the book on leadership and succession, explicitly in family unions, marriages, encouraged divorces, and remarriages to ensure the viability of zera kodesh (”holy seed”). Mission accomplished.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Zev Garber is Emeritus Professor and Chair of Jewish Studies and Philosophy at Los Angeles Valley College.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Samuel C. Heilman is Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY. He has written eleven books, including, most recently (with Menachem Friedman), The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, winner of the National Jewish Book Award.


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