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

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    Concerned with keeping themselves spiritually clean, the Hasidim are preoccupied with ideas of biblical concepts of purity and contamination. In this ordering of values, separation from outsiders is inevitable and understandable: it is a mode of self-protection, as well as a keeping straight of categories. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas notes in Purity and Danger, the Hebrew language itself recognizes this affinity between apartness and hallowedness: the Hebrew words for separate and for holy share the same root.

    Orthodox neighborhoods in some cities are demarcated by an eyruv, a wire strung high above the streets, outlining the boundaries of the community. Eyruv means blending: the border serves to "blend" the neighborhood into one ritual space, while erecting a ritual boundary between it and the world. Within the delineated space, special liberties--such as carrying objects, or pushing a stroller--that would otherwise violate the ritual laws of keeping the Sabbath are allowed. Just as this border marks the boundaries of the sacred community, so distinctions in language, dress, hairstyle, and demeanor serve Hasidim as personal boundaries, protecting the separation of an individual Hasid from the secular world.

    Hasidim also maintain a language barrier against the non-Hasidic world. Just as Hasidic dress serves as a visual marker of separation, so the sound of Yiddish serves as an aural one. A favorite Hasidic saying states, "A Jew speaks Jewish," and a prominent Yiddish sign at the Bobover girls' school reads "A proud girl speaks Yiddish." Most American Hasidim have little use for modern spoken Hebrew, which they consider debased by its divorce from the holy context of prayer and study. They reserve Hebrew for textual study and use Yiddish for much of their daily speech. The rebbe communicates with his Hasidim in Yiddish, Yiddish is taught in school, and used for explication and study of Hebrew sacred texts. The Hasidic home is bilingual, with English and Yiddish sometimes mixing together (many English words have found their way into Brooklyn Hasidic Yiddish, and a Hasid speaking English will often lapse into Yiddish). The stricter sects, Satmar, for instance, place little value on the study of English. Although all the subjects of A LIFE APART are bilingual, and usually speak English in the film, the soundtrack also reflects the pervasive use of Yiddish, and its use as an audible marker of separation, among the Hasidim. (No extended portions of the film are in Yiddish, and the occassional Yiddish that is included will be subtitled in English.)

    Hasidim also preserve their separation through a separate school system. One of the very first things the Hasidim did upon settling in America was to found schools and yeshivas. Although the Hasidic schools fulfill minimum requirements set by state authorities such as the New York State Board of Regents, they do not teach basic scientific knowledge such as the theory of evolution, for example.

    Boys and girls receive separate and quite different educations, beginning with pre-school. Girls attend all-girls schools through the age of seventeen or eighteen, normally from eight in the morning to around three in the afternoon. Boys, on the other hand, usually extend their school hours at the age of eleven until six in the evening, and after bar mitzvah, the coming-of-age ceremony at age thirteen, return to school after supper for another few hours of study. (Sunday is a regular school day for both sexes, while Friday is a half day to allow preparation for the Sabbath, which arrives at sunset.) There is a current trend towards extending the years of schooling, including more religious education for girls. Some see this as an attempt to further shore up the cultural bulwarks of separation.

    While the girls learn more English and history than the boys, as well as practical religious knowledge such as the laws of kashrut, the boys focus on the Talmud, the great 63-volume compendium of Jewish law and commentary. Early arranged marriages, usually around age twenty, are encouraged, and birth control is generally frowned upon as it is seen as contradicting the biblical commandment to "be fruitful and multiply." After marriage, nearly all young men continue to study for at least a year or two. This study is paid for by parents, in-laws, wives, and grants from benefactors in and outside of the community.

    College and graduate education is now almost totally discouraged, as it is seen as a source of cultural contamination. The generation now reaching college age is in general stricter than its parents; it is common to see children of Hasidic college graduates who would never consider higher education. Most secular education is eschewed in favor of minimal technical training for jobs that keep Hasidim within or close to the community. As a result, in sharp contrast to the case in virtually any other Jewish community, among the Hasidim there is a shortage of professionals: Hasidim have to turn outside for doctors, lawyers, and even sometimes for musicians to play at weddings. It is a matter of some concern and controversy whether this dearth of professionals presages economic trouble ahead for the community.

    Although some Hasidic men work independently, as self-employed computer consultants, electricians, contractors, or estate appraisers--like Ben Zion Horowitz in our film, for example--most work together with other Hasidim. Concentrated mostly in small retail, import/export, and manufacturing businesses in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, many are involved with providing goods and services to the community, such as teaching, or the manufacture and distribution of kosher food items, religious articles, publications, or Hasidic clothing. Hasidim are also involved in the diamond, garment, and discount retail electronics industries.

    Most Hasidic women who work outside the home (usually after their children are grown) are employed by close relatives in their small businesses, or by the community as teachers, administrators, community social workers or other functionaries. There are also women who run small businesses, usually services or small manufacturers, themselves.

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