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

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    "They conduct themselves like madmen, and explain their behavior by saying that in their thoughts they soar in the most far-off worlds .... Every day is for them a holiday. When they pray ... they raise such a din that the walls quake ... And they turn over like wheels, with the head below and the legs above ... "

    -From a denunciation of the Hasidim by traditional Eastern Europe Rabbinic authorities, circa 1772


    The Hasidim, or "pious ones" in Hebrew, belong to a special movement within Orthodox Judaism, a movement that, at its height in the first half of the nineteenth century, claimed the allegiance of millions in Eastern and Central Europe--perhaps a majority of East European Jews. Soon after its founding in the mid-eighteenth century by Jewish mystics, Hasidism rapidly gained popularity in all strata of society, especially among the less educated common people, who were drawn to its charismatic leaders and the emotional and spiritual appeal of their message, which stressed joy, faith, and ecstatic prayer, accompanied by song and dance. Like other religious revitalization movements, Hasidism was at once a call to spiritual renewal and a protest against the prevailing religious establishment and culture.

    The history of Hasidism, which encompasses a variety of sometimes conflicting outlooks, is a fascinating story. The movement survived a century of slow decline--during a period when progressive social ideas were spreading among European Jewry--and then near-total destruction in the Holocaust. After World War II, Hasidism was transplanted by immigrants to America, Israel, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe. In these most modern of places, especially in New York and other American cities, it is now thriving as an evolving creative minority that preserves the language--Yiddish--and many of the religious traditions of pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jewry.

    The Hasidic ideal is to live a hallowed life, in which even the most mundane action is sanctified. Hasidim live in tightly-knit communities (known as "courts") that are spiritually centered around a dynastic leader known as a rebbe, who combines political and religious authority. The many different courts and their rebbes are known by the name of the town where they originated: thus the Bobov came the town of Bobova in Poland (Galicia), the Satmar from Satu Mar in present-day Hungary, the Belz from Poland, and the Lubavitch from Russia. In Brooklyn today, there are over sixty courts represented, but most of these are very small, with some comprising only a handful of families. The great majority of American Hasidim belong to one of a dozen or so principal surviving courts. Hasidism is not a denomination but an all-embracing religious lifestyle and ideology, which is expressed somewhat differently by adherents of the diverse courts (also called "sects").

    The Hasidic way of life is visually and musically arresting, with rich textures, unusual customs, and strong traditions of music and dance. Hasidic tales, intriguing and memorable doorways into a complex world of Hasidic thought, religious themes, and humor, are fruits of a long and continuing oral tradition. Popularized in the non-Hasidic world by writers such as Martin Buber, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Elie Wiesel, they are famous for their particular wisdom and wit.

    Yet this world is virtually unknown to most Americans, who are apt to confuse Hasidic men, who wear beards, sidelocks, black hats, and long coats, with the similarly-dressed Amish. This shared style of dress does indeed reflect similar values of piety, extreme traditionalism, and separatism. But where the Amish are farmers in rural communities, the great majority of the approximately two hundred thousand American Hasidim live and work in enclaves in the heart of New York City, amid a number of vital contemporary cultures very different from their own.

    Most of the approximately 165,000 Hasidim in the New York City area live in three neighborhoods in Brooklyn: Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Boro Park. Each of the three neighborhoods is home to Hasidim of different courts, although there is overlap and movement between them. There are approximately forty-five thousand Satmar Hasidim in Williamsburg, over fifty thousand Bobover Hasidim in Boro Park, and at least fifteen thousand Lubavitch in Crown Heights. The population of each of these groups has increased dramatically since the first American Hasidic communities were formed in the late 1940s and 1950s, with especially rapid growth in the last two decades.

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