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  • An Inside Look at 'Hasidism in America'

    Friday, October 31, 1997
    Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Critic

    A LIFE APART: Hasidism in America: Documentary. Directed by Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky. Written by Menachem Daum and Bob Seidman. (Not rated. 95 minutes.)

    In the United States, where immigrants are frequently transformed into "Americans" with few traces of their original culture, the ability of Hasidic Jews to resist that kind of wholesale assimilation -- and essentially retain the values and rituals that they practiced in Europe -- is amazing. "A Life Apart: Hasidism in America," now playing at the Opera Plaza, is a rare up- close look at Hasidic Jews that admiringly portrays their sense of community and their cultural tenacity, but also examines the costs of living separately within the dominant American culture.

    Co-directed by Menachem Daum, who comes from a family of Hasidic Holocaust survivors, and Oren Rudavsky, the son of a Reform rabbi, "A Life Apart" goes inside the Hasidic world, largely in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn. It allows the Hasidim to speak for themselves and their culture and gives the critics of Hasidism, who see it as sexist, rigid and spiritually elitist, a voice as well. Mayer Schiller, who grew up "vaguely culturally Jewish," says he converted to Hasidism because he needed its community and traditions to resist the spiritual emptiness of "shopping mall America." Writer Pearl Gluck, who chafed at the strict boundaries of Hasidism and left it at the age of 15, says, "I felt I always had to censor myself" and resented the notion that gentiles and non-Hasidic Jews were inferior and worthy of suspicion.

    "A Life Apart" goes inside a yeshiva, shows a Hasidic wedding and interviews a matchmaker (all marriages are arranged). It also measures the legacy of the Holocaust and questions the reduced role of Hasidic women -- who are denied a role in public prayer, hidden behind curtains at the synagogue and expected to find spiritual fulfillment through motherhood.

    Professor Arthur Hertzberg of New York University calls Hasidim "urban Puritans" and compares them to the first Pilgrims who fled religious persecution in their homeland. One price of their insularity, he says, is economic disadvantage: Since Hasidic boys are forbidden to attend university (where, presumably, they're exposed to heretic thinking), they can never become doctors or lawyers.

    Is the Hasidic sense of home, community and spiritual continuity enough, Hertzberg asks. Hasidic families, he says, "make the decision to deny their children the great opportunities of America. You have to decide that your children are going to be poor or at best middle class."

    "A Life Apart," which was shown at this year's Jewish Film Festival here, is fairly conventional in its technique, and the narration by Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker is a bit flat. Still, its even- handed look at a largely unknown culture makes it worth seeing.

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