BOB ABERNETHY: It's easy to think of modern America as it's usually represented by Hollywood and commercial TV, shopping malls and slick magazines. But within that "anything goes" world, there are enclaves of rules and faith that stand in astonishing contrast to the rest. We take a rare look now into the lives of some Hasidic women, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, New York, leading an 18th-century way of life on the eve of the 21st.
Hasidism began in the late 1700s in Eastern Europe, where it flourished. It was almost extinguished during the Holocaust, but was reborn in the U.S. by survivors who came here after the war. Hasidism is characterized by strict observance of ritual law, joyous worship expressed in song and dance, and mysticism. There are several Hasidic groups in the U.S.; the best known are the Lubavitchers, headquartered in Brooklyn. Their way of life, as we've said, is strictly defined by religious commandments, in a very particular way for women. Mary Alice Williams paid a visit to the Lubavitcher community of Crown Heights.
MARY ALICE WILLIAMS: What you are watching is a celebration of the Jewish holiday of Sukkoth and of a ritualistic way of life that may appear to outsiders more misogynistic than mysterious. The men dance; the women can only watch, walled apart by a (Yiddish spoken), a barrier that is as rigid psychologically as it is physically. They are Chabad Lubavitcher, a sect of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim, the most conservative branch of Judaism today. Their entire lives are circumscribed by (Yiddish spoken), the law for gender separation they believe God himself designed.
Ms. SARAH KANEVSKY: We have the law that they have to be separate. The underlying thing of Judaism is that because God says something, that's how we do it.
WILLIAMS: Women are constricted by a list of "thou shalt nots." They may not read sacred texts from the pulpit or even sit with their sons in synagogue. They may not sing or dance or pray or even shop in the presence of men. They must conceal their bodies in long clothing and their hair with wigs and wraps, all for fear their sexual energy could arouse men. It may sound sexist, but the women accept all this without complaint.
Ms. RUTI COHEN: You look at it as a limitation. We look at it as it's a privilege doing it, you know, doing what God says.
WILLIAMS: The women around Sarah Kanevsky's table say knowing your place and staying in it gives them real power. These women run the family, have full discretion over finances, have sole authority over their children.
Ms. CHAVIE COHEN: Women have and hold power -- that the woman without the man is -- is not incomplete and the man without the woman is incomplete. We need them, they need us to build the complete whole. Actually, the husband and the wife are two halves of one soul. When they marry, they are completing the completeness.
Ms. BASHA OKA: Well, in Judaism, the relationship between men and women is a highly charged relationship. I mean, the whole point of Judaism is to sensitize yourself to life in all of its manifestations, and one of those manifestations is men and women. We do function in different worlds. We really do. I mean, women speak to women and socialize with women. And men speak to men and socialize with men, as if they're very different spheres; they really are. And it's -- for some reason or other, it's very, very comfortable. It's very comfortable this way. And it works.
Ms. KANEVSKY: We feel fulfilled. You wake up in the morning, and you have a purpose, and you don't feel like, "I have to search for something." You have a meaning in life.