The house of Satmar

The Jerusalem Post/September 6, 2007

When the Edison Cinema on Rehov Yeshayahu at the corner of Rehov Belilius opened its doors in 1932 as the city's third and largest movie house - with a performance of Felix Mendelssohn's Elijah, sung in Hebrew - it stood in the heart of the secular city. The cinema immediately became a popular venue for British troops and officials.

Amos Oz's The Hill of Evil Counsel detailed the playing of the British anthem "God Save the King" before the screening of movies. Now the bagpipes, khaki and red berets of the "anemones" - as the Mandate soldiers were called - have been replaced by black satin robes, flat fur streimels and calf-length hosiery.

The Edison, for decades a citadel of secular European culture and site of political party conventions until fancier locales were built, has had a long history of conflict. On May 16, 1936, at the beginning of the three-year Great Arab Revolt, terrorists bombed the moviehouse killing three Jews - a doctor, baker and Hebrew University student.

Katamon notable Khalil al-Sakakini, whom the British appointed inspector for education for Palestine, wrote of the attack: "There is no other heroism like this, except the heroism of Sheikh [Izz ad-Din] al-Qassam."

The sheikh, today immortalized by the rockets bearing his name fired from Gaza, was tracked down and killed in 1935 by the British. He had initiated a general strike in Jaffa and Nablus, and launched attacks on Jewish and British installations.

After the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Edison - which stood on the geographic rift between Jerusalem's secular and haredi twin cities - became the symbol of a different struggle. While agreements not to screen films on Shabbat were signed between the haredi community at the time and the operators of the city's two other theaters, the Edison refused to close on Friday nights and Saturdays.

For years, starting in the 1950s, the movie theater was the scene of violent clashes between police and residents of nearby Mea She'arim who opposed the screening of what they considered to be lascivious, degenerate films - mostly Hollywood classics - that violated the holiness of the Jewish people's most sacred city.

A leading rabbi told demonstrators at the time, "You have nothing to be worried about - Edison will be ours."

With poetic justice that haredi prophesy has now come true; thanks to changing demographics and tastes, and the building of modern multiplex cinemas in suburban shopping malls, 15 years ago the Edison stopped showing movies and closed as a theater, and was finally knocked down last year.

Today no cinemas remain in downtown Jerusalem. The city's burgeoning haredi population has long since expanded south and west, pushing secular life to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem's suburbs.

For symbolic reasons the previous Satmar Great Rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum, who died last year, insisted his followers purchase the Edison site that had been a thorn in the side of the haredi community for years, even though it was $500,000 more expensive than similar plots at the Satmars' disposal.

In 2004 the growing economic clout of the virulently anti-Zionist Satmar sect finally achieved what a generation of demonstrations had failed: The hassidic group purchased the derelict building.

Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, who arrived from his home in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood on a flight via Frankfurt to avoid flying on the Zionist El Al, laid the cornerstone on August 15 for the new community housing project.

At that ceremony in the deep pit where the cinema once stood, Teitelbaum took a jab at the despised State of Israel, stating that the Satmar project was "proof that we can build without the help of the profane government."

But the Edison seems destined to continue to serve as a magnet for controversy; the site of the former theater is now part of a succession feud that has split the Satmar world.

That world originated in Transylvania, for centuries a remote corner of the Austro-Hungarian empire and today part of Romania. After the Holocaust, survivors relocated to Williamsburg, New York. Satmar today is the largest hassidic court in the world, totaling some 20,000 families. In Israel, however, Satmar is a relatively small group consisting of some 1,200 households.

Following the death of the previous Grand Rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum, three of his sons and one of his sons-in-law were declared the leaders by their respective congregations. Citing a verbal will, dated from 1996, in which the rabbi is purported to have passed the leadership to his eldest son, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum became the Satmar rebbe in Kiryas Joel, Monroe, New York, and for his followers in Wiliamsburg.

Based on a signed will from 2002, the third son, Rabbi Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, became Satmar rebbe in Williamsburg and head of the giant Satmar Boys High School in Queens, New York (widely known as the Queens Yeshiva). Aaron Teitelbaum dismissed his brother's document saying their father was suffering from dementia when he signed the will.

Ostensibly, the split between the Aaron and Zalman camps is ideological. The Zalmanis accuse Aaron of breaching the strict anti-Zionist Satmar ideology set down by their father and dating back to Rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum of Ujhel (1759-1841), known as the Yismach Moshe - who founded the Satmar sect.

Aaron married the Viznitzer Rebbe's daughter, who learned at the Hebrew-speaking Beit Ya'acov School for Girls. Satmar refrain from conversing in Hebrew, the holy tongue, in protest against Zionism. They strongly oppose Beit Ya'acov schools that teach in the language of modern Israel.

"Aaron is not fit to be the next Satmar rebbe because he broke the Satmar rule against speaking Hebrew in the home," said Yitzhak Weiss, the editor of the Satmar Yiddish-language newspaper Der Yid. "After the death of our rebbe, we will continue to wave the anti-Zionist flag. That is one of our main goals."

The rival Zalman camp publishes Das Blat.

At stake in the bitter dynastic feud are both the leadership over the large hassidic sect and property worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

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