Sons of The Father

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 4, 2006

NEW YORK "There he goes! There he goes! Follow him!"

We bounce, five ultra-Orthodox Jewish Satmars and me, through Williamsburg in a white SUV late one Sunday night in hot pursuit of Moses Friedman, the white-bearded gabbai (royal adviser) to Rebbe Zalmen. The gabbai drives his Cadillac down a tenement canyon. We tailgate him, fishtailing around corners, braking, accelerating.

The gabbai stops and squints at us in his rearview mirror.

The five Satmars, who are followers of Rebbe Aaron, who happens to be Zalmen's brother and rival, go motionless. A minute passes and the gabbai's Cadillac slips off into the night. Giggles fill the SUV. There was no point to this pursuit, other than messing with the gabbai's mind.

Now they've got a new idea. "Here! Listen to this!"

A young Satmar, his payes (curled sidelocks) shaking with excitement, cues up on his laptop a recording of Zalmen's followers, Zalis, talking to the grand rebbe. The tape allegedly reveals the Zalmenista nogoodniks tricking the senile rebbe into denouncing Aaron.

All you can really make out from the stream of Yiddish is a faint voice -- allegedly that of the grand rebbe -- asking: " Ver zeinen de menschen?" ("Who are these men?")

Where did this tape come from? Conspiratorial smiles. Husky Abe Rubin leans in and confides: "A worker in the grand rebbe's house is a real schlemiel. He recorded the conversation and sold it to us."

Richard Nixon's "plumbers," that shady crew of burglars, would have found many soul brothers among the Satmar partisans. Everyone "knows" of secret tapes, forged signatures, election chicanery and bribes. (An Aaron supporter passes along a photo of a Zalmen party in which the same face appears twice -- proof the Zalis are inflating the head count! The Aaronis dub the photo "The Two Saddams").

These are strange times for the Satmars, the world's largest and most powerful Hasidic sect.

Their leader, Grand Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum, died April 24 at 91, laid low by dementia and cancer. But the king's death brought no peace to his sons, the middle-aged Aaron and Zalmen. Their biblical battle for his crown has no clear end.

Their followers trade punches and kicks in shul, snatch kosher wine and substitute grape juice, swap slanderous rumors. Did you know David shakes hands with women? And Chaim, he talks on the phone on Shabbat? It's relayed in husky whispers, with clucks and smiles, like Merry Pranksters gone meshugeneh (crazy).

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