It Takes A Satmar Village
Wed, 12/17/2008
Associate Editor
The Gemara says, half-comically, half-tragically, that in a second marriage there are always four people in the house. When the Satmar rebbe, Joel (Yoilish) Teitelbaum, sat down for dinner in Brooklyn in the early 1950s, there were six people at the table: The rebbe, his rebbetzin Feige, and also the spirits of the rebbe’s first wife and three daughters who all died natural deaths. On the one hand, to die in a bed, as the rebbe’s first wife and daughters did, was a gift, compared to the way most Jews from Satmar died after the Nazis entered that Transylvanian village in the Holocaust night. On the other hand, to watch daughters die is to become acquainted with another sort of night, as well as to the kindness of a village in times of personal trauma. Every shtetl, to be sure, had bikur cholim (“caring for the sick”) societies, sometimes formal, sometimes not, to arrange visitation, solace, and support. After the war, in Brooklyn, many refugees sat down for dinner with more ghosts than family. While there are an estimated 50,000 Satmar chasidim in New York City today, with nearly 18,000 children, there were only 12 children in the Satmar’s first Brooklyn yeshiva in 1947. The rebbe used to stand on the street to find men for a minyan. Rabbi Hertz Frankel, a leading principal in the Satmar school system and a frequent spokesman for the group, pointed out that “after the churban [the great destruction], there were several holy tzadikkim [the most pious] who had lost their children or who were childless — the Satmar rebbe, the Lubavitcher rebbe, the Belzer rebbe, the Chazon Ish, the Bais Yisroel of Gur,” as if their post-Holocaust mission was to be parents, not to their own children but to an orphaned generation. If someone was sick, Rebbetzin Feige, their “mother,” brought soup and a kind word. There are now more than 100 women, affiliated with the Ladies Bikur Cholim D’Satmar, bringing freshly cooked meals, from soups to cakes, to more than 15 hospitals, from Washington Heights to Coney Island, daily. Another 50 meals, or so, are prepared for Williamsburg’s homebound. What started out in Rebbetzin Feige’s kitchen now occupies a full-sized kitchen in the basement of a brownstone on Ross Street. In mid-afternoon, little Satmar children bounce down the steps into the brownstone, carrying a bag of challahs that their mother cooked after the older siblings went to school. (The mom was waiting outside with a double stroller that couldn’t navigate the steps to the basement kitchen). Another young mother comes by with a big sheet of marble cake Did I say we couldn’t use real names? We were able to see a list and use the real names of women who helped the rebbetzin in the 1950s. These are the names: Malku, Rifchu, Erzee, Yutka, Mocky, Yoli, Mugda, Branchu, Gita, Shaiyndee, Piru, Zlatee, names given to Satmar girls in the distant Carpathian Mountains. Judith Leventhal, one of the few contemporary Bikur Cholim women who will allow herself to be identified, is Malku’s niece. Leventhal, who says she is “very Orthodox” but not Satmar, explained that her mother’s family was from the actual town of Satmar (now Romania’s Satu Mare), although they were not chasidic. Nevertheless, in Brooklyn after the Holocaust, “my father loved the Satmar rebbe. We had the rebbe’s picture on the dining room wall.” A few years ago, after a woman affiliated with the Bikur Cholim helped Leventhal with a private tzedakah project, the woman spoke to Leventhal about assisting the Bikur Cholim. Leventhal is a wife, mother of young children, lecturer, and co-author (with Yitta Halberstam) of “Small Miracles of the Holocaust,” the most recent volume in the “Small Miracles” series. She’s busy, considered writing a check, but something in her Satmar DNA gave her the idea that actually joining the Ladies Bikur Cholim D’Satmar would be more satisfying. “It’s my legacy,” she says. Almost every Friday, she picks up about two dozen meals from a Satmar satellite location in Flatbush, where she lives, and delivers them to patients in Coney Island Hospital. “Sometimes I just drop off the food and leave,” says Leventhal. “You can tell if a patient or the family isn’t up for talking. But sometimes you walk into a room and enter into a moment. “The other week, I brought food into a room where a woman was sitting with her mother; the mother was dying. Her tubes were being disconnected. The daughter looked at me, and said, ‘It’s over. It’s over.’ And then the daughter looked at her unconscious mother, saying, ‘Mama, I love you, it’s OK, I love you,’ while stroking her mother’s hair. “What I am supposed to do,” recalled Leventhal, “just drop off the food and run? Are you kidding me? So I stayed there, put my arms around her, just one Jewish heart reaching out to another Jewish heart. The daughter just hugged me. That a Jew was there for her, that was the real bikur cholim. “Another time,” continues Leventhal, “I walked in on this man with a big burly chest, no yarmulke, nothing, but by his side was a big stack of books by Rabbi Abraham Twerski and a chumash [Bible] and a siddur [prayer book]. He just didn’t seem the type to be with those books but he tells me, ‘I used to be a big gonif [thief].’ Those were his exact words. ‘I was the biggest gonif. I could swindle the pants off anyone. Now I have heart trouble, I’m in pain, it’s a tikkun [a fixing] for me. God is paying me back, and I’m OK with that. The more I learn, the more I read these books, the more I get it. Whatever God wants, I’m OK. It’s all for the good.’ “I thought to myself, wow, this patient, no yarmulke, a gonif, is teaching me,” says Leventhal. She realized that she was the one who was also being healed, being visited by her mother and aunt’s Satmar spirits; by visiting and helping the sick, she herself was being blessed, better understanding God’s world in new and profound ways. Another Satmar woman, in a pediatric ward, was seen taking out a wind-up dancing chossen and kallah (bride and groom) to make a child smile. One Bikur Cholim woman, Goldie, says that the Bikur Cholim once brought a salami sandwich for a boy who was donating his bone marrow to his brother. “A salami sandwich it was,” says Goldie, although Satmar usually doesn’t send such food. “I was really happy,” says Goldie, “to see with my own eyes what people we have, Mi kamcha Yisroel [who is like you, the children of Israel]!” A woman in the kitchen on Ross Street answers an incessantly ringing telephone, each call bringing another patient’s name and room number. We ask the woman answering the phone what her official position was with the Ladies Bikur Cholim. “I have no position,” she says. “No one has positions.” The phone rings again, 80 to 100 times a day; another name, another room number. After hanging up, the Satmar woman told us, “We don’t ask any questions of the caller except the patient’s name and room. We don’t ask where the patient belongs, or doesn’t belong. All we care about is that a yid wants kosher food. The Satmar rebbe would say, you have to help like we’re one big folk, one big family. He would help everybody and anybody, as long as you had a Yiddisheh neshama, [a Jewish soul]. It didn’t matter what kind of Jew, a Yiddisheh neshama is a Yiddisheh neshama. “It happens once in a while that a non-Jewish patient sees us delivering the food and says, ‘Oh, it smells so good, could I have some?’ So sure, we give, it’s a kiddush Hashem [a glorification of God’s name]. But, of course, there’s not that many of us in the Bikur Cholim; we have to take care of the really kosher patients first, otherwise we’d never get done.” “Shabbos is the one day, of course, we don’t deliver,” says a woman, so on Fridays the patients get extra food, gefilte fish, kugel, challah, chicken. In the kitchen were rolls of stickers to identify meals as meat, dairy, pareve; stickers to identify destinations — Lenox Hill, Memorial, Roosevelt, Rusk, Staten Island, NYU, Cornell, Staten Island. “Today we have 85 patients. I come in the morning and there can be 15 more,” says a woman in the Ross Street kitchen. “I don’t know that in advance. How do we know how much food to order? It’s pretty much siyata d’shmaya, God helps us. For some reason, we always have enough. This Bikur Cholim was founded by such good people, the Satmar rebbe and Satmar rebbetzin,” who died in 1979 and 2001, respectively, “and so from them we have the strength to keep going. They help us and God should heal all of us.” Donations to Ladies Bikur Cholim D’ Satmar can be sent to 545 Bedford Ave, Brooklyn, NY,11211.