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

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    Culturally, the relationship between Hasidim and other Jews is ambiguous and ambivalent. Many American Jews feel a kind of cultural revulsion towards the Hasidim, who represent to them an atavistic narrow-mindedness. The Jewish community, for example, was slow to respond to violence in Crown Heights, leading some to comment on the uneasiness Jews feel toward their Hasidic "brothers."

    On the other hand, the Hasidim have influenced other American Jews to become, in some ways, a bit more like them. Hasidic enthusiasm, mysticism, storytelling, dance, and music, have held much appeal for other Jews. Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews have incorporated Hasidic melodies into their worship; unaffiliated Jews attend concerts of Hasidic or Hasidic-style music; and study with neo-Hasidic teachers of meditation techniques and ecstatic spirituality who claim to offer Hasidic-style transcendence without the rigors of separation and ritual stringency. And scholars such as the sociologists Egon Mayer and George Kranzler argue that Hasidism's arrival after the war may have revitalized faltering American Orthodoxy by challenging it to reverse its cultural assimilation, especially secular schooling.

    Assessments of the impact of Hasidism on American Jewry vary widely and usually beg the question of cultural bias on the part of the observer. Certainly, relations between Hasidim and other American Jews are dynamic and evolving, especially in the recent past, with the recurring violence in Crown Heights, the Hasidim's aggressive involvement in the upcoming New York City mayoral race, and the increasing strain of Messianism among the Lubavitch.

    Professor Eli Lederhandler raises some interesting questions:

    Why is it that non-Orthodox Jews donate money to Hasidic causes and institutions? Are the Hasidim seen as an "endangered species" that needs to be supported in a kind of nature preserve or living museum?

    Hasidic communities, on the other hand, do not participate in the mainstream Jewish organizational structure, which is based upon a dual commitment to subgroup identity and integration in American society. Are the Hasidim unwilling or afraid to participate under those terms; and if so, isn't this an indication of how their basic message has changed radically since their origins as a mass-appeal movement? In other words, are they today more like a sect, or a monastic order than a broad-based religious revivalist movement? And if this is the case, what does this bode for their future?

    Nevertheless, Orthodox Judaism in general, including Hasidism, is currently gaining adherents in the United States. It is clear that Hasidism did not just survive the war. Now, transplanted and Americanized in Brooklyn, fifty years after almost utter devastation, the movement seems to be thriving.

    Many Hasidim, and some outsiders, see the surmounting of all the obstacles, and the successful creation of a thriving community, as a miracle. On the other extreme, the same history can also be interpreted as a kind of testament to human folly. To Samuel Heilman, for example, in view of the rebbes' "bad advice," the reconstruction of the courts around the transplanted surviving rebbes after the war is "a pure case of cognitive dissonance, and shared survivor guilt." Most, however, would agree that the success of Hasidism in spite of the Holocaust in post-war American is evidence that Hasidism provides its followers with community, identity, and meaning.

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