A Life Apart - Hasidism in America Image Loading...

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    When the Hasidim set to work quite consciously to create islands of Orthodoxy, erecting barriers to secular American culture and acculturated Judaism, they created a paradox that still characterizes American Hasidism. In the words of Samuel Heilman, "They could only take root where they were allowed to take root. America offered them a fertile ground and open society, particularly New York, which allowed them to create a variety of institutions. They exist where they are allowed to, in an open society, which paradoxically offers the greatest threat." Among the many "threats" to Orthodoxy, especially in America of the late forties and fifties, were powerful pressures toward social conformity.

    Approximately two million Jews arrived in the United States during the years of the greatest pre-war Jewish migration, between 1881 and 1914. Most of these immigrants were not traditionally observant, and many of those that were, soon abandoned elements of practice--keeping the Sabbath, for example--in the face of economic and cultural pressures and the lack of a strong and visible Orthodox leadership. A few others, of course, went much further, such as the anarchists in Brooklyn who celebrated on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and the holiest day of the Jewish year in 1890 by announcing a:

    • Grand Yom Kippur Ball with theater
    • Arranged with the consent of all new rabbis of Liberty.

      from The World of the Yeshiva by William B. Helmreich

    Arriving in America after the Holocaust, the Hasidim encountered a world where Jewish Orthodoxy as they understood it was mostly nonexistent. There had been small numbers of Hasidic immigrants to the United States, who formed several small groups scattered in New York City, Cleveland, Milwalkee, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles, even before World War I. But these Hasidic immigrants had not created strong communities of their own nor had they usually succeeded in passing on their way of life to their children.

    There had been greater numbers of non-Hasidic Orthodox Jewish immigrants, but even those who remained Orthodox had usually bowed to some of the assimilating and acculturating pressures of the new world, where "being a good American" meant learning English and following social norms. Some of the traditional practices and customary strictures that defined Orthodoxy in Europe had been relaxed: most women no longer wore the sheitl (a wig worn for modesty) or went to the mikveh (the ritual purification bath); most children attended secular schools, with perhaps some supplementary hours of religious schooling, and boys rarely wore yarmulkes(skull caps)in public; many of the few remaining yeshivas(religious day schools) had added sports and secular subjects to their curricula. The newly arrived Hasidim were shocked to find rabbis without beards in America. This "bad example" of the earlier Jewish immigrants only strengthened what the Hasidim saw as their commitment to full maintenance of their traditional ways, and zealous avoidance of the slippery slope of mainstream American, and modern Jewish, culture.

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