Kiryas Joel, NY – A legendary historian who profiled the life of the Satmar Rebbe Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum Zt’l and was known worldwide for his incredible breadth of knowledge on rabbonim, chasidus and Jewish life in Europe died yesterday at age 63.
Rabbi Shlomo Yaakov Gelbman was born to Reb Bentzion Moshe and Chaya Sura Gelbman in Israel in 1952. The grandson of Reb Dovid Biderman, the Lelover Rebbe and Reb Moshe Kliers, the chief rabbi of Teverya, Rabbi Gelbman took pride in his father’s close relationship to the Chazon Ish. Rabbi Gelbman came to New York as a child where he learned at the Satmar yeshiva in Borough Park.
Aron Hersh Freund, a close friend who often accompanied Rabbi Gelbman on many of his trips, described Rabbi Gelbman as “the landmark of Satmar.”
“He was like an encyclopedia,” Freund told VIN News. “Even as a young boy he stared writing down the torahs of the Satmar Rebbe.”
Rabbi Gelbman’s passion for recording all things historic continued throughout his life and he authored many books including nine volumes of Moshiyan Shel Yisroel, detailing the life of the Satmar Rebbe. Several more volumes in the series are set to be released posthumously.
“He was about to go to print,” said Freund. “He was ready to go with another four volumes and the tenth volume is just about to come out, describing when the Rebbe came to the United States.”
Rabbi Gelbman also wrote several other books on the history of the Satmar movement.
“He gave out a sefer called Retzon Tzaddik, the history of building Kiryas Joel,” said Freund. “It was an amazing book on how the shtetl was built and came out less than a year ago.
Another book called Avir Haroyim describes the connection between the Satmar Rov and gedolim in Eretz Yisroel and some Chasidishe rabonim in America after the war. That is just the first volume. The second is about Litvishe gedolim and has conversations and documents.”
Rabbi Gelbman also sought out pre-war divrei Torah from the Satmar Rebbe for a two volume set titled Tuv Leyvav.
“He was looking for some torahs that no one really knew,” recalled Freund. “He spoke to many talmidim, had many conversations that gave him all the torahs.”
In addition to being an avid historian, Rabbi Gelbman was also a gifted speaker.
“He was the rosh hamedabrim, the main speaker at all events,” said Freund. “Any dinner, any banquet, anything in Satmar, he was the rosh hamedabrim, not because he wanted to be, but because we wanted him to be. When he spoke it was always exceptionally quiet because everyone would be listening and amazed.”
“I don’t believe he ever prepared for a speech,” added fellow historian Moshe Tabak of Lakewood. “It was just natural for him. He was a phenomenal orator.”
While Rabbi Gelbman’s passion was the Satmar kehilla, he had a rightfully earned reputation as a human treasure trove of knowledge.
“He was a wealth of historical information,” said Tabak “There wasn’t a question that he couldn’t go on and on about, without even cracking open a book. Any historical question in the world you wanted to know about you could just pick up the phone and he would know not just the rabbonim in each city but the simple people as well. It was like he worked in the office of vital statistics.”
Sruli Besser, an editor at Mishpacha Magazine, recalled his first meeting with Rabbi Gelbman.
“He knew my grandfather was a Radomsker chosid and he gave me the history,” said Besser. “Then he asked me about my mother, where is she from and he knew historical facts and biographical facts for her family a well. There was nothing I would write about that he didn’t knew, even obscure facts and dates. He had a pre-war map of Europe in his mind and it was as if he had a White Pages for Eastern Europe in his mind as well.”
Rabbi Gelbman’s historical knowledge, coupled with his unique ability to connect with people, gave him a powerful ability as a fundraiser for Satmar.
“He sparkled with life and when he would meet people who were no longer affiliated with Satmar, he could tell them instantly about their Satmar roots,” said Besser. “He could go to the Five Towns, Toronto or Los Angeles and he made people feel that their roots were really theirs and that his cause was their cause.”
“He had an incredible talent when it came to sitting down with a person,” added Tabak. “He was like a can opener and I remember him asking me once about a particular person. I told him that they didn’t usually give but when he sat down with them, they did.”
His magnetic personality made Rabbi Gelbman the key to opening many doors when it came to soliciting donations for Satmar projects.
“He had special cheyn,” noted Freund. “Everyone loved to talk to him. You felt like you were going back 100 years when you spoke to him, like you were in Hungary or Romania. Any donor would give to him and he helped raise millions and millions for Satmar.”
“He would walk into a room and electrify it and put everyone in a great place,” added Tabak.
Rabbi Gelbman also had the ability to engage with people whose views were far different than his own.
“I remember introducing him once to the Ponovitcher Rebbe, Reb Berel Povarski,” said Tabak. “Politically they were at two ends of the spectrum but they spoke for close to an hour and he told me afterwards how much he enjoyed the meeting.”
In another instance Rabbi Gelbman heard of a particular individual who had been close with Reb Aron Kotler and had carried a special message from Reb Aron Kotler to the Satmar Rebbe about Chinuch Atzmai, a cause that opposed Satmar’s views. The two gedolim shared a special relationship and the Satmar Rebbe told his gabai to write out a check for $500 to Chinuch Atzmai.
“That was a nice sum of money in those days and the gabai asked to give the donation in cash so that people wouldn’t know that the Satmar Rebbe had made a donation to Chinuch Atzmai,” said Tabak. “The Rebbe insisted that a check be written and upon hearing the story, Rabbi Gelbman made the trip from his home in Monroe to Lakewood to confirm the story. He could have done it by phone, but he wanted to meet this man, to see his facial expressions so that he could get so much more of the story.”
Known as the definitive authority on Satmar, Rabbi Gelbman was quoted by the New York Times in an article on the death of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, but his breadth of knowledge extended far beyond the Satmar chasidus.
“He loved knowledge for the sake of knowledge and loved learning about lineage, yeshivos and Sefardim as well,” observed Besser. “He was both interested and interesting and would soak up information.”
Always amenable to talk to anyone who reached out to him, Rabbi Gelbman’s phone rang frequently.
“Any questions about yichus or shidduchim, the address was Rabbi Gelbman,” said Freund. “If you wanted to know about someone’s great-great-grandfather, he would know. He had a cheilek in a lot of shidduchim.”
Fascinated by gimatriyas, roshei taivos and even a good joke, Rabbi Gelbman’s quick sense of humor earned him the role of Satmar badchan.
“Even when he spoke about the politics, it was always with a joke,” said Besser. “There was no bitterness, no acrimony. He was an energetic person who was always looking for a chidush and was never boring. He sparkled with life and is a very hard person to envision sick.”
Rabbi Gelbman had taken ill in recent months but his death on Shabbos was unexpected.
The levaya for Rabbi Gelbman began last night at the main Satmar shul on Rodney Street in Williamsburg and continued at the Vayoel Moshe shul in Kiryas Joel, where Rabbi Gelbman resided.
Rabbi Gelbman was buried in the Satmar bais olam in Kiryas Joel and is survived by his wife Rebbetzin Pearl Gelbman, his sisters Mrs. Milka Rosenberg, Mrs. Nissy Fisher and Mrs. Esther Greenfeld, his sons Reb Yoeli, Reb Elisha and Reb Zalman Gelbman and his daughters Mrs. Devorah Leiberman, Mrs. Esther Stern, Mrs. Milka Steinmetz and Mrs. Reizel Laufer.
“Anyone who considers themselves a writer lost a precious resource,” observed Besser. “I don’t know that there is anyone with the same biographical, geographical and historical knowledge.”
“He started having difficulties over the last few days,” added Freund. “This is a very, very big loss for Satmar. We lost such a person who had everything and anything.”