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

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    An outsider visiting a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn is likely to be struck immediately by just how Hasidic it looks. The Hasidic parts of Crown Heights, Williamsburg, and Boro Park are lively islands of traditional Jewishness in the midst of larger, racially diverse, working and middle class neighborhoods. The stores have signs in Yiddish and Hebrew; the men wear long beards and long black garb, while the women wear wigs or scarves and modest, if often quite fashionable, clothing; the fast food restaurants serve kosher food; special Hasidic school buses carry loads of noisy children, and other special buses carry Hasidic men into Manhattan to work. One seems to be in a separate world within the city. Lis Harris, in her book Holy Days, describes it as otherworldly:

    On my first daytime visit to the neighborhood, I felt as if I had wandered into a dream. Pale, bearded, black-hatted, dark-suited men, looking remarkably alike, hurried along the sidewalks with downcast eyes, pointedly avoiding eye contact with civilians. Those who chanced to look up stared stonily into space, like figures in a Magritte painting. Every woman under forty-five appeared to be pregnant. Nineteen- and twenty-year-olds who looked like my baby-sitters pushed their own carriages and strollers, and high-spirited children hopped like rabbits everywhere.

    On closer examination of the community, one is struck almost as strongly by aspects of Hasidic life that sharply differentiate it from mainstream American culture. One is a palpable tightness of community, an almost ever-present consciousness of the group. Another is the extent to which men and women live in different spheres and assign themselves, by custom and by religious law, very different roles. Throughout and overall, there is a high degree of ritual, and religious observance permeates almost every corner of the day.

    The Hasidim are first of all Orthodox Jews. They believe that the Torah, the five books of Moses, is the literal word of God, and that carrying out this word is what gives meaning and purpose to life. For Orthodox Jews, this means following all of the 613 commandments (mitzvot) found in the Torah that are still practiceable. These positive and negative commandments govern ritual and ethical obligations, and concern the Jew's relationship to God, to other people, and to animals. The mitzvot include everything from giving charity to not mixing wool and linen; from keeping the kosher dietary laws, refraining from work on the Sabbath, and following the laws regulating sexual behavior, to studying the Torah and loving and fearing God.

    Orthodox women in particular are charged with a religious obligation to raise children and are "exempt" from all commandments that are considered "time-bound," i.e., those that must be performed at a certain time. These include the obligation to study Torah, and to attend daily prayer services. Men and women thus have considerably different experiences of spirituality and daily tasks. Most observers would not dispute that the Hasidim live in a traditionally patriarchal system.

    In space, the Hasidim's daily life is largely bounded by the neighborhood and its institutions. The landmarks of the Hasidic neighborhood, the prayer house (the shtibl), ritual bath (mikveh), studyhouse (besmedresh), rebbe's residence, and school, are usually all within walking distance of one another. This is not to say that travel itself is uncommon. Hasidim leave their neighborhoods for purposes of worship (pilgrimmages to Israel are popular); or work (many Hasidim, especially men, work in Manhattan); visits to family; or, among the Lubavitch, on proselytizing missions across the country and around the world.

    In time, Orthodox life is bounded by daily and seasonal religious cycles of obligations and events, including observance of the Sabbath and holidays, and, for men, ongoing religious study and prayer three times daily. The Orthodox ideal is to live a life in which every moment reflects a consciousness of God. Almost every action of the day is accompanied by a prayer for the occasion: awakening in the morning, washing one's hands, eating, and going to sleep.

    The Hasidim differ from other Orthodox Jews in several ways. The core of Hasidism is enthusiasm and mysticism, an interest in inner transformative experience, connection with God and others. Hasidism lays a great stress on the importance of inner intent when carrying out ritual obligations (although many Hasidim may not actually achieve these ends in their daily life). The "true" Hasid attempts to invest even neutral activity with pious intention:

    You don't just take advantage of that which is permissible; but everything that is permissible should be turned into part of the service of God. If one has to sleep, one sleeps for the service of God. How? That the strength which comes from the rest, the clearness of mind is used in the service of God ... ordinary activities--earning a living, taking a drink--should be done in the service of God.

    --Informant quoted by Professor Janet Belcove-Shalin

    Learning and Torah study is extremely important in Hasidism, but piety is always meant to come first. In Legends of the Hasidim, Jerome Mintz cites the story of Moshe of Stolin, who, "about to respond to a point of law, caught himself and said, 'I almost forgot.' Pressed to continue, he added, 'I got so involved in my own wisdom that I forgot there's a God in heaven.'"

    The great historical irony is that the Hasidim, now seen as rigid defenders of ultra-Orthodoxy, were once seen as the revolutionaries of Judaism. When the movement was born in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, it turned the values of then-traditional Judaism on their head: it was a stirring call to mysticism and joy, a rejection of asceticism, a populist movement that promised a direct and authentic relationship to God for everyone, including the poor, humble, and unlearned. Hasidism said that endless disputation of biblical commentaries by a scholarly elite was dry religious legalism and that what mattered was faith, feeling, and love--of God, and of fellow men. They called for a religion of faith, a personal relationship to God, and a rejection of long-entrenched social and religious structures.

    Hasidism stresses joy. In an interview with the filmmakers, Ben Zion Horowitz, a Bobov Hasid, cites a Hasidic saying that non-Hasidic Jewish Orthodoxy is as different from Hasidism as "a stick from a caress. By them there's such strictness, but with Hasidim, the whole Jewishness comes with a happiness, with dancing and with singing."

    Another primary distinction of Hasidism is the social and spiritual role of the rebbe. At once a community leader and a zaddik, or holy man, the rebbe acts as a ladder between man and God, and is thus the center of a Hasidic community. Hasidim expect their rebbes to provide a wide range of services, from blessing a proposed marriage or choosing an occupation to providing spiritual inspiration and moral guidance.

    The contemporary Hasidic conception of the rebbe includes elements of the magical. Many of the traditional and more recent Hasidic tales reflect on the nature of the zaddik, a miracle worker who intervenes with God on behalf of his followers. (The common use of the word "rebbe," which means "rabbi" in Yiddish, is typically and almost distinctively Hasidic. The word "rabbi," which means "teacher," is used among the Hasidim to denote a man trained as a teacher and does not necessarily imply a position of leadership, as it often does among Reform, Conservative, and non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews.)

    Generally, a strong strain of traditional folk belief, including beliefs in the "evil eye" or particular omens, as well as belief in more esoteric forecasting from the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical system that dates to the twelfth century, persists among many Hasidim. (In a classically American Hasidic mix of tradition and modernity, one can now buy specialized computer software programs to help discover the Kabbalah's elusive messages.)

    Historically, each rebbe, and his followers, came to be known by the name of the town in which their court was located in Eastern Europe: thus the Lubavitch came from Lubavitch, in Russia; the Satmar from Satu Mare in present-day Hungary; the Bobover from the Polish Galician town of Bobova. Over time, cultural differences and ideological distinctions inevitably arose among the courts. Where one gained a reputation for a rationalistic bent (the Lubavitch), another became known for miracle-working (Belzer), or mysticism (Bratslav) or wealth (Rizhyn-Sadgora). These differences sometimes developed into rivalries, and even open and deep conflicts that continue today, but never so seriously as to challenge a shared Hasidic identity.

    Generally, Hasidism includes two main tendencies, which may be described as the emotional and the philosophical. These two outlooks are reflected in cultural expression and stylistic differences between Hasidic sects.

    Songs, for example, originating from the first branch of Hasidim, are generally more ecstatic. They are called the rikud type, luring one to dance. Hasidim think of dance as an integral part of life, an act that permits every part of the body to serve God. Rikud songs are sometimes repeated for several hours until the dancers and singers are exhausted, or a new melody is introduced. These songs are sometimes, at a wedding for example, accompanied by Klezmer musicians, i.e.: a violinist, clarinetist or other traditional Jewish instrumentalists. Women dance to these songs at a wedding on their side of the mechitzah (partition between men and women).

    The second branch of Hasidism is typified by the Chabad school, which was founded in Russia by the first Lubavitch rebbe at the end of the eighteenth century. Chabad, an acronmyn for "Wisdom, Learning, and Faith" in Hebrew and a favored name the Lubavitch use for themselves, seeks to integrate Hasidic fervor with traditional Jewish intellectual endeavor. Chabad songs tend to be more of the dvaykus type, designed to help achieve mystical union with God through meditation and reflection. The davykus melody is a slow, introspective song, usually lengthy and sung with deep feeling while dancing slowly, often to prepare for hearing a master's teaching.

    Hasidism has elaborated a long and rich tradition of dance, song, and story telling, arts cultivated as aids in the service of God. Two Hasidic concepts play important roles in the elaboration of this culture. Hasidism believes that wholehearted personal participation in worship contributes to "uplifting" the Hasid toward divinity--achieving dvaykus, the state of adhering, cleaving, or becoming one with God--and that each individual has a responsibility to seek out the "divine sparks" hidden within all of creation.

    Thus Hasidic composers, for example, were allowed to hear divinity in the love songs, waltzes, or marches of their non-Jewish neighbors and freely adapted their melodies. Hasidic music is often wordless. Like jazz scat singing, Hasidic song uses otherwise meaningless syllables, such as "aha ha" or "yam bam" or, for a sad song, the traditional lament "oy vey," to convey feelings too delicate or intimate or profound to express in words. Zmiros, songs for the Sabbath and holidays, however, all use words (usually prayers or text from the Bible).

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