A Life Apart - Hasidism in America A Hasidic Boy

  • Synopsis
  • Format and Approach
  • Significance to a Broad National Audience


    A LIFE APART aims to present many aspects of American Hasidic life on film, exploring underlying struggles such as tensions between modernity and traditionalism. We aim to convey the Hasidim's sense of purpose and meaning, their sense of humor, and their often quite foreign ways--such as the sharp traditional divisions between the roles assigned men and women--while examining how they manage to maintain and adapt their traditions in an urban environment that might seem hostile.

    The ninety-minute documentary is a vibrant portrait, as Hasidic life is extraordinarily rich musically and visually, with numerous rituals and gatherings that will be accessible to our cameras. The film combines documentary sequences of contemporary American Hasidic life; interviews with Hasidim and others; commentary by scholars; narration; historical sequences that use archival film and photographs; and re-tellings of thematically relevant Hasidic tales. Together these elements provide an in-depth portrait and analysis of the spiritual, cultural, and material worlds of Hasidism in America. The film constitutes a dynamic "case study" of a closely-knit American community centered on shared values of religion, traditionalism, community, and family.

    In the course of discussions with our advisors, we chose to rule out some potential areas of coverage so that the film's focus is not lost. For example, the project advisors endorsed the producers' plan to focus mainly on Hasidism in Brooklyn, New York City--the center of the Hasidic world--but also recommended that we include mention of, and some experience of, the many other Hasidic communities both in the United States and elsewhere. Accordingly, the film includes a visit to Moscow where Lubavitch Hasidim are very active and Ukraine, where Hasidism originated. (The film does not include consideration of Hasidism in Israel, Canada, Western Europe, or Australia, beyond mere mention.)

    Taking place mostly in the different focal points of Brooklyn's Hasidic neighborhoods--the home, the workplace, the streets, the schools, the besmedrash (central synagogue), and the shtibl (prayerhouse)--A LIFE APART lends an immediate sense of the texture and the cyclical ritual rhythms of Hasidic life.

    Discussions with our advisors have led us to build the film around families, as opposed to individuals without a family context. This approach seems more appropriate and useful as family life is central in the Hasidic ideology and lifestyle. And, because women are less visible in the public Hasidic world than men are, the film's focus on family will help us achieve our goal of creating a film that is as much about Hasidic women as it is about Hasidic men. Throughout the film, the viewer's perspective will shift between these two alternating Hasidic vantage points--as well as, on occasion, to the point of view of one of several outsiders, including scholars, non-Hasidic Jews, and non-Jewish neighbors.

    The film focuses mainly on three Brooklyn Hasidic families, whom we have selected in consultation with our advisors. As one of our aims is to give a sense of the range and overlap of different courts, with their different styles and outlooks, we have selected a representative assortment. One of the three families is Lubavitch, one Bobov (with a Satmar branch), and one Belz. Because of their proselytizing efforts, the Lubavitch (originally from Russia) are the most visible and best-known Hasidim to the non-Hasidic world. Yet in many important ways--from their stress on outreach to a recent surge of messianic fervor around the Lubavitch Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson--they differ from other Hasidim. The Bobov (with roots in Galicia), on the other hand, represent what most consider to be more historically "typical" Hasidism. The Hungarian Satmar, who are zehemently anti-Zionist, have a reputation as the strictest sect: Satmar women, for example, shave their heads and wear a head kerchief instead of the more commonly worn wig. The Belz represent a community that was prominent in Poland before the war, that today has a modest following in the United States. Other courts in Brooklyn will receive only passing mention in the film.

    Besides representing different courts, the families we have chosen include all kinds of members, allowing us to meet Hasidim from a variety of class backgrounds, levels of education, personal experience, age, and belief. In other words, these families, like most, include their share of successes and failures, their "black sheep" and their enthusiasts. Our cameras follow a few members from each family, people the filmmakers have chosen for their contrasting and complementary experiences and perspectives. Thus we will retain the thread of a story and the sense of characters, while also entering the lives of Hasidim of three generations, from children to grandparents; of men and women; newcomers to Hasidism along with descendants of long Hasidic lines of ancestry; dissidents as well as the contented.

    Through our principal families as well as secondary characters, A LIFE APART presents a multi-layered analysis of the Hasidic community. The film is not a one-sided, sanitized or merely celebratory, portrait of Hasidism. We aim not to shy away from conflict and contradictions, but to create dialogues between insider and outsider voices, including critics within the community, and from among neighbors, and scholars.

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