New York Times, July 25, 1997
The documentary "A Life Apart: Hasidism in America" begins and ends with the complex spectacle of a big, ritualized wedding within the world of Hasidic Jews. It's a tribute to the film's illuminating powers that this ceremony is liable to seem quite different by the end of 96 minutes than it does at first.
The filmmakers, Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, take a while to penetrate the strange and sometimes off-putting aspects of the Hasidic world. Initially accentuating the alienness of Hasidic garb and the public aloofness of Hasidic people, the film states: "Hasidim are a minority within a minority. They arouse controversy among other Jews." (Narration is read variously by Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker.) "Who are they? Why have they stubbornly refused to join America's mainstream?"
Such questions take on added force with the film's first view of Hasidim as strange and stubborn outsiders. But this documentary, with its essentially rosy emphasis on loving families and spiritual joy, gradually develops a revealing overview.
Lucid connections are made between American Hasidim and the post-Holocaust exodus from Europe, at a time when the sect's future might have seemed in doubt. Wary as the rabbinic intelligentsia had once been of America, with its rampant consumerism and libertine ways, it became a necessary refuge. And Hasidim wishing to preserve their culture intact were forced into strictures that look particularly extreme by American standards. "I say to myself, these are the urban Puritans," says Prof. Arthur Hertzberg, one of the articulate scholars interviewed here, as he compares Hasidim to the Amish and to the religious refugees of the Mayflower.
"A Life Apart," which will later be broadcast on PBS, inevitably explores the extreme forms of denial that govern Hasidic life, particularly those that pertain to women. While some women here speak glowingly of their primary duty to be Jewish mothers, others complain about the barring of women from wider roles in religious life. Pearl Gluck, a thoughtful young woman who has left the Hasidic community in which she was reared, is one of several thoughtful critics of Hasidic narrow-mindedness. Another woman wonders why, if motherhood is so exalted, mothers cannot be among the group's rebbes, or spiritual leaders.
In addition, a black Prospect Park employee in Brooklyn cites "spiritual arrogance" and the refusal of Hasidic children even to say hello. "What's that going to mean as far as the community that they live in?" he reasonably asks. Yet this film ultimately fathoms such stubborness, even as it wonders how strict Hasidic men can work in electronics stores where they violate certain religious rules to make peace with secular America. Nowhere in their teachings is there protocol for doing business with good-looking, flashily dressed female customers (for modesty's sake, Hasidic women are required to wear wigs and long hemlines). Or for saying, "Have a nice day."
"A Life Apart" enlivens its history and analysis with surprisingly tender family scenes, with evocations of the Hasidic world's deep mysticism, and with some of the community's most colorfully quaint features, like formal matchmaking. Chips Gold, official matchmaker, shows off her file cards and proudly explains that in a world where men devote themselves wholly to prayer and scholarship, she has to marry off more boys than girls. Either way, the hard sell is one of her basic skills. "What do you mean she's not pretty?" Ms. Gold insists to one dubious client. "She's gorgeous!"
A LIFE APART
Produced and directed by Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky; written by Daum and Robert Seidman; director of photography, Rudavsky; edited by Ruth Schell; music by Yale Strom; released by First Run Features. Running time: 96 minutes. This film is not rated.
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