West-Side Story, Hasidic-style: The conflict among the two opposing camps in the Viznits Hasidic community in Bnei Brak doesn’t include stealing money or ideological arguments; instead, the Hasidic way of quarreling entails “swiping” shtreimels and bartering their return.
The shtreimel is a fur hat worn by many married haredi Jewish men belonging to the one of the various Hasidic sects on Saturdays and holidays. The hat is usually made out of a young fox’s fur, and a single hat requires 30 of them. A Hasidic man buys one or two expensive shterimels throughout his life for a price range of $2,000 to $4,000.
The shtreimel is worn without fastening, a significant factor in the latest street fights in the Viznits neighborhood. Those looking to humiliate a Hasid snatch his shterimel, forcing him to return home with a lowered head sporting on his yarmulke.
In recent weeks, the brawls between the camps have intensified, with both sides snatching each other’s shtreimels. During the peacemaking, each camp returns the other’s goods stolen in the last strife.
The barters, one of which took place two weeks ago, also include returning torn shterimels that were intentionally spoiled and torn in the heat of battle in exchange for ones in mint condition.
In each fight, the Viznits Hassids try to snatch as many shterimels off their opponents’ heads, so as to have as many bargaining chips as possible ahead of the next barter.
An entire book can be written about the background leading to these street fights in the Viznits community. When Hasidic leader Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Hagar fell ill, a world war was ignited between his sons – the elder Yisrael and the younger Menachem Mendel – on who will succeed him.
Viznits Hasidism is divided between the “Yisraelists” following Rabbi Yisrael and “Mendelists” supporting Rabbi Menachem Mendel. The walls in Kiryat Viznits are filled with defamatory posters. Rabbi Yisrael controls the synagogue and the community institutions while Rabbi Mendel reigns over the neighborhood.
Until about six weeks ago, the status quo between the two camps had the Mendelists come to pray at the central synagogue of “Torat Chaim” only on Fridays. They would stand on their seats during the tish (a Hasidic gathering of Hasidim around their Rabbi) held by the ailing Rabbi.
But then the visiting Mendelists’ seats were broken down, and the Yisraelists prevented their entrance to the synagogue. In response, the Menedlists tried to stand on the Yisraelists’ seats, waging war once again.
The recent street fights – mainly during weekends – included more than 100 participants hitting each other and trying to grab the shterimels. One brawl follows another, sending dozens of people to hospital.
The police claim they are doing their best to calm the atmosphere, but they are ill at hand, as each camp complains the police is siding with its opponent. Legal counseling has recently been applied to the case, when Attorney Moshe Meroz was approached by some Mendelists. Meroz immediately sent a letter to the Tel Aviv Police, asking them to handle the pogroms issued by the Yisarelists against the Mendalists.
In his urgent letter, Meroz claims that the Mendelists’ complaints about the pogroms are not being handled by the police. He further says that hundreds of Yisraelists attacked Rabbi Mendel and his followers, beating them mercilessly – completely overlooked by the police.
Meroz ends his letter by saying that some 20 shterimels have yet to be returned to the Mendelists, and that real danger is at hand due to the police’s continued disregard of the matter.
The police responded by saying they were well aware of the strife and is handling the case without siding with either camp. The police also claim they have arrested Hasidim from both camps after the last fight.