A shell of what would have been one of the largest synagogues in the world stands abandoned at 540 Bedford Avenue Williamsburg, in the heart of the Williamsburg. From the site, we can see the luxury Williamsburg waterfront and the Manhattan skyline, and at two blocks from the Marcy Avenue subway, this monstrosity sits on prime real estate. It’s nearly a square block, although the main residence of the Satmar Rebbe Zalmen Teitelbaum cuts out a corner of Ross and Bedford.

The rusting behemoth at 540 Bedford:
the rusting behemoth at 540 bedford
The Rebbe’s home on the corner of Ross. The younger brother, Reb Zalmen, occupies this building:

Construction began in 1998 when the congregation was granted a city permit to build the three storey synagogue. But it came to a halt in 2001 when the dispute between the sons of the late rebbe Moses Teitelbaum, over which of the two should lead the flock, blew up into full scale internal drama and chaos. The stormy succession feud was well-publicized then, and it fizzled out only after the sects split in two.

The Satmar congregation that owns the property. The problem however is that there are now two Satmar congregations and the American courts have been unable to figure out how to decide which of the two brothers should inherit this particular Satmar property.

The feuding sons: Aaron and Zalmen Leib:

In 1998 construction of what was meant to be one of the biggest synagogues in the world began.  But it stopped in 2001 when the succession feud really blew up, and devolved into incidences of slashed tires, estranged families, brawls in the streets, arrests, and many, many disputes in the American courts.  Many of the questions of who should inherit which piece of valuable dynastic real estate were resolved eventually one way or another, for instance, the older brother inherited the father’s home in Kiryas Joel (where I grew up) and the younger brother inherited this one, on Ross corner Bedford. Like a messy divorce, many pieces were split based on which of the brothers had been more closely associated with that neighborhood or institutions. But this 199,251 square foot baby could not be split. I didn’t follow the process of construction from the beginning, but my guess is that the people deeply involved in the project ended up split on two sides of the divide, both claiming to have invested money or energy or focus in this building.

In 2008, when the divorce had been fairly complete, the construction was renewed when building permits were issued in Aaron’s name. In 2010 it was again stopped when Zalmen’s followers filed complaints that the Aaron camp was unauthorized to receive permits for the building. Authorities decided that this showed that nobody really controlled the project and revoked the permit till a resolution could be found.

The building sits unfinished to this day, almost twenty years since its construction began. It is one of the only things in Williamsburg that have stood unchanged over the six years that I’ve been a tour guide here. Everything is changing so quickly in Brooklyn — but the skeleton sits, a monument to the Satmar feud.

Here’s the Google Maps street view from June 2009:

Here’s the Google Maps street view from September 2018:

We pass this site on our tours and occasionally the big garage door is raised and we are privy to what’s inside, mostly storage for the Zalmen faction; bleachers and sukkah boards. But most important of all (:) the scaffolding makes this one of the few places in the area where we can find reliable shelter from the rain.

I am so very grateful to Marcin Wodzinski for this Historical Atlas of Hasidism — and for his generosity with the material: he allowed me to use some of it in a printing for my tours. This book is the most helpful reference for anyone interested in the history of Hasidism. And it’s beautifully put together too.

The best bet for learning about the History of Hasidism is to buy this alongside the other major new tome (lots of activity in a sleepy field, ey?): Hasidism: A New History

Together, these books can be referenced again and again as our understanding of this unique history deepens.

With the Atlas, you get a really solid breakdown of the geographic movement of the dynasties, both within specific major dynasties as well as within Hasidism as a whole. I also came away with a better sense of Hasidism regionally rather than divided by dynasty.

Illustration of origins of sects. See how far north the Lubavitch dynasty began, in contrast to Satmar.

For the Hasidic history buff in your life (ehhem, lol), surely a great gift.

Among Satmar Hasidic Jews, women never smoke. It’s really unheard of. But quite common for men, even though it’s officially frowned upon. Smoking is seen as deviant and often a way men try to be “cool”, but it’s not the kind of transgression that can push someone out of the fold.

The reason Hasidic men often smoke probably goes back to ‘tabik’, or tobacco. Hasidic rabbis famously thought favorably of tobacco and often smoked/snuffed it themselves.

For example, Shivhei Habesht, [3] the legendary biography of the Baal Shem Tov, refers to the famous lulke [4] which the founder of the hasidic movement used to smoke. While recent scholarship [5] tends to treat this work with less skepticism than did earlier scholars, even if all references to the Baal Shem Tov smoking tobacco [6] are fabrications, it is true that hasidim were known to smoke, for their early opponents, the mitnagedim, repeatedly castigated them for wasting time on smoking, which the hasidim believed prepared them for prayer.[1]

As you can see, the early Hasidim not only didn’t reject tobacco but believed it prepared them for prayer!

I grew up in the US in the 80s in a Hasidic family, and by then it was well known that smoking wasn’t a-okay. It was no longer a part of Hasidic life the way coffee is. Even with cigarettes now seen as a vice, there were remnants of earlier embrace of tobacco. I remember that people still had tabik pishkelech, which were Snuff Boxes. Here are some antique Jewish samples:

Here is a rabbi sniffing tobacco:

In the book “Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge”, which is about a little American Jewish boy who lived with his Hungarian Hasidic grandfather in Williamsburg in the 1950s, the author describes getting curious about the ‘tabik’ that all the Hasidim carried around. He asked to try. He was offered a snuff by one of the men in the synagogue and when the tobacco hit him he responded in such shock, all the adults had a good laugh. (this was long ago, even before Mad Men parenting days.)

I don’t know that Hasidic men really carry tobacco anymore except maybe on fast days, when you are allowed to smell it. It helps ease the hunger pangs. It helps with fasting.

In spite of some objections, snuff-taking was permitted at any time—Sabbaths, holy days, fast-days, and Yom Kippur [2]

On the Yiddish forum Ivelt, in a discussion in 2013 about preparation for a Jewish fast, someone wrote: “און לאמיר לויפן קויפן טאביק!”

“Let’s run and buy tobacco!”

What does the permissiveness vis a vis tobacco in pipe or snuff box mean for men smoking?

Well, once upon a time, back in der heim in Europe before the war, cigerattes made their way into Jewish shtetl life.

When we were Hasidic kids, I knew this Yiddish song, called “koyft zshe papirosen”, which means “buy cigarettes”.

Buy cigarettes…

Dry and from not ruined…

Buy very cheap…

Buy and have mercy…

Save me from hunger now.

Buy matches that are old…

With it you will nourish an orphan…

For naught is my screaming and my running…

No one wants to buy from me…

I will perish like a dog…

Here is an ad from Warsaw, Poland in Hebrew where a Chaim Leib Shpitsz advertises that over the last five years, cigarettes in his factory substantially improved.

Obviously, the papirussen and tabik made its way to Americhke with our immigrant grandparents, albeit not for all of them.

And while in America it became increasingly problematic as its health consequences were understood, relics remain.

Here is a Hasidic rabbi lighting another’s smoke. Although not a common sight, I found it on the Ivelt thread on smoking. All the men there drool as they speak of their next tsigeret’l.

Last I heard (a few years ago), the tradition is still that when a boy gets engaged at about age eighteen, he goes to his yeshiva and to celebrate and share his mazel tov with his friends, he hands out pens and cigarettes. The cigeratte is called a חתן ציגרעטל…A groom cigarette. I’m not sure if the majority people even light it or just throw it out.

Of course there are those who smoke it or their own packs. Young men of marriageable age who want to look cool and be rebellious will often take up smoking.

When I was a still a kid my oldest brother came home one day with his long Hasidic coat drenched in the smell of smoke. We were all sent to our rooms. I remember how terrified I was of what was to come next, fearing my brother was on the road to self destruction. I worried that this was the beginning of his downward slide from smoking to a small yarmulke to trimmed sidecurls to a downward slide into an unrecognizable brother.

I was so relieved when he soon got engaged and didn’t smoke again.

I recently asked a Hasidic restaurateur who was smoking outside his shop why he smokes.

“Why I smoke? You know, because I can’t stop.”

“Why did you start?”

He knows I’m ex-Hasidic, so he nodded like it was obvious. “I was a bochur, nu.” Meaning, he was a young boy of marriageable age. He might have started as a small act of rebellion, but those things from our youths follow you, and now he’s grown and I’m sure hoping his kids won’t do the same.

So Hasidim are more lax about smoking than about many, many other things. And often when that’s the case, you can often look into its history and see that long ago, a seed was sown that made it okay. And once it starts to flow in the cultural veins, it’s much harder to remove.


[1] Tobacco and the Hasidim – Friends of Louis Jacobs

[2] TOBACCO – JewishEncyclopedia.com

This bagleiten video is from June 30, 2016 in Williamsburg, Bedford Avenue corner Ross Street, on the streets around the residence of the Satmar Rebbe Zalmen Leib Teitelbaum.

On the evenings culminating any of the three holidays, Passover, Shovuos and Sukkus, Wiliamsburg streets around the primary Satmar shull of each of Satmer’s two factions swell into crowds for the bagleiten procession, a ceremonial final walk home by the the rebbe, who’s accompanied by men dancing to blasting music and women spectating from behind police barricades.  This marks the end of the holiday with the rebbe.

The bagleiten ends with the rebbe’s short address to his followers from the balcony of his residence, in which he’s summarizing a spiritual takeaway of the holiday, calling for invigorated spiritual focus in the individual’s and families’ lives, and for standing guard against influences hampering such commitments. The address is traditionally followed by a call-and-response of Yechi adoneinu moreinu verabeinu (long live our master, teacher and rabbi), after which the men resume dancing for a while.