Last Shabbat saw the passing of one of the most astonishing Jewish historians of our time, although he was almost entirely unknown to the guild of university-trained scholars. Rabbi Shlomo Yankel Gelbman was the omniscient and prolific chronicler of the Satmar Hasidic movement and its founding rabbi, Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979). He lived in Kiryas Joel, N.Y., the Satmar “shtetl” founded by Teitelbaum that has been a legally recognized village in New York for 38 years.
Gelbman was born in 1952 in Israel, but came to the United States as a child and studied at the Satmar yeshiva in Borough Park. He was one of the first Satmar settlers to move to the development in the Town of Monroe in 1974 that had been planned, purchased, and built by associates of Joel Teitelbaum—and that would come to be known as Kiryas Joel. Moving frequently between Kiryas Joel and Brooklyn, the two centers of the Satmar world, Gelbman developed a reputation as the most knowledgeable authority on the history of the Satmar movement, as well as a favored speaker at Satmar functions, such as the annual celebratory dinner for thousands on 21 Kislev that marked Rabbi Teitelbaum’s liberation from Nazi captivity.
With his traditional yeshiva training and no trace of a university education, Gelbman became a master historian. A first key asset was that he had an encyclopedic—and photographic—command of the life of Joel Teitelbaum and the history of the Satmar community. When talking with him, one got the distinct sense that he might well have known what Joel Teitelbaum did on every day of his life after bar mitzvah. He could recall not only Rabbi Teitelbaum’s whereabouts, but identify those with whom he prayed, ate, talked, and argued at any point in time.
To the extent that Gelbman had an overarching mission, it was to compile a complete history of the Satmar movement. Toward this end, he had a global network of sammlers, collectors who would search for any and all documents relating to the history of the Satmar movement and the life of Joel Teitelbaum. By the end of his life, Gelbman had accumulated a trove of hundreds of thousands of sources from major archives and small private collections.
Although his preferred spoken language was Yiddish, Gelbman wrote most of his works in Hebrew—or as Satmars would call it, loshn koydesh (to distinguish traditional Hebrew from the modern Israeli version). His major work is the nine-volume biography of Joel Teitelbaum, Moshi`an shel Yisra’el (Redeemer of Israel). Beginning with the first volume in 1987 that discussed Teitelbaum’s origins and early years in Hungary, Gelbman exhaustively traced the teachings and movements of Joel Teitelbaum up through volume nine, which left off in Palestine in 1946 where the Satmar Rebbe briefly resettled after the war. Another volume due out soon discusses the American chapter in Teitelbaum’s life, to be followed by four additional volumes on Satmar in America.
Followers of Gelbman’s work are also familiar with his one-volume history of Kiryas Joel from 2006, Retson Tsadik (Will of the Righteous Leader), which is the single best source to date on the history of the development of this community. It included important documentary material on the clandestine efforts by Satmar Hasidim, under Teitelbaum’s guidance, to purchase land for the community without revealing who they were. He also discussed in great detail the events that prompted the Satmar community to overcome its initial hesitations and seek legal incorporation as a village. It must be said that Gelbman’s approach as a chronicler was highly reverential; his sub-chapter and chapter headings were often biblical verses. There was also a hagiographic quality to his treatment of Joel Teitelbaum. But one always finished reading his books far more informed than before.
Perhaps an even greater reward was to sit with Shlomo Yankel Gelbman in his home on Satmar Drive in Kiryas Joel. He was a warm, inviting, and exceptionally generous person. Although he had no idea who I was when I first called him, he was happy to meet me. On numerous other occasions, he welcomed me into his home to discuss the history of the Satmar community. Always fielding phone calls and eternally late for his next appointment, he would sit for hours to share details, anecdotes, and even sources. The fact that I was decidedly not of the Satmar or haredi world seemed to make little difference to him. He readily greeted those with whom he had a common interest in Satmar history.
A good deal has been written about the Satmar community in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English. Among the scholars who have devoted themselves to Satmar, university-trained or not, Shlomo Yankel Gelbman stood at the top; his mastery was unmatched, as was his collection of source materials. He will be sorely missed, both as a mensch and as a researcher. Moreover, his premature loss leaves a gaping hole in the effort to tell the story of one of the most important groups of haredi Jews in the United States and Israel. One can only hope that his work will be published posthumously and his rich personal archive be made available to researchers. That would be the greatest tribute to the work of this great, though unrecognized historian. May his memory be for a blessing.
David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history and the Robert N. Burr Department Chair of the UCLA History Department.