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

  • Synopsis
  • Format and Approach
  • Significance to a Broad National Audience


    A LIFE APART is a film about a small and distinctive minority, but the issues it raises are universal and of significant interest to a broad national audience.

    A LIFE APART is first of all a film about the values of religion, traditionalism, community, and family. The film explores the spiritual center of the religion--experiences of God--and the social values surrounding that inner core. Hasidism stresses what have become known as "family values," for example: raising large families, within lasting marriages, is a central commitment of Hasidism. This commitment is accompanied in theory by anti-materialism and anti-careerism: although many fall short of the acknowledged ideal, most Hasidim do not place work and money at the center of their lives.

    As project advisor Lis Harris, author of Holy Days, wrote in an early letter to the filmmakers: "When so many films are about getting and spending, violent passions and human cruelty,... a film about a powerfully connected group of people cultivating their moral perceptions and attempting to think about the purpose of their lives would be a most welcome addition to current American culture."

    A LIFE APART focuses on the creation and maintenance of community, and thus treats issues of importance to all Americans. In the face of a growing national sense that we as a nation have lost touch with the meaning of community, A LIFE APART provides the viewer with an in-depth case study of how a community with strong group ties functions. This case study, which will not be presented as necessarily a model case, will explore how shared values and norms of behavior are transmitted and maintained through:

    • an educational system;
    • distinct social structures and leadership, such as the central role of the Hasidic rebbe;
    • cultural expression, including storytelling, dance, and music;
    • ritual life;
    • a consciousness of group history and tradition.

    The film explores the Hasidim's sense of self and their relationships with ever-expanding circles of larger communities, including the family; the court, or sect; the community of all Hasidic courts; other American Jews; and their non-Jewish urban neighbors.

    The film thus brings the audience a direct appreciation of several major themes and issues of anthropology and ethnology, such as the creation and maintenance of group identity and community; how the notion of self differs in different cultures; and the multiple social and personal functions of ritual.

    A LIFE APART challenges the audience to consider the virtues and limitations of religion and religious traditionalism--what human needs they fulfil, what values they embody, and what sacrifices they require. The film implicitly poses such universal questions as: Is it possible to live a fully religious life? What is gained? It is rewarding? secure? joyous? What are the personal burdens, and what is given up?

    A LIFE APART gives the American public a knowledge and appreciation of many aspects of Judaism. As the film explains what the Hasidim share with other Jews and what they do not, the audience gains an understanding of a number of core beliefs of Judaism.

    The Hasidim's relationship to other American Jews is highly charged. Since their arrival after World War II, the Hasidim by virtue of their "extremism" have had a cultural impact on American Jewry as their presence often causes other Jews to define themselves against, or align themselves with, the Hasidim. Exploring this ambivalent relationship will help define the nature of the Jewish experience in America, not only that of the Hasidic minority.

    The Hasidim, as traditionalists, are in a sense preoccupied with the past. Their understanding of the history of Hasidism, and indeed, of Judaism, serves as a powerful myth that informs their contemporary sense of identity. History will be an important element of the film, although it will be presented primarily to elucidate, and to contrast with, the self-portrait that contemporary Hasidim create of themselves, as part of a long Jewish historical line stretching back to Moses. Like other religious conservatives and traditionalists, the Hasidim tend to use history to invoke a better, purer, mythical time. Hasidic men, for example, dress as in eighteenth-century Poland to align themselves with this time. This response has many parallels among other religions.

    The film also confronts how Hasidic culture has "Americanized" itself, incorporating aspects of modernity, and cultural innovations into traditionalism. That Hasidism has changed and evolved is indisputable. How and how much, however, are questions that provoke debate. Here again we confront the Hasidic self-image or mythos: it is typically Hasidic to insist that it is only the world that has changed, while they have not; that the Hasidism of late twentieth-century Brooklyn is virtually the same as that of the villages of Galicia two hundred years ago. However, as Professor Forman puts it, "At best, there is a family resemblance."

    Directly and by comparison, A LIFE APART considers issues in the history and sociology of religion. The history of Hasidism illuminates the periodic pendulum of similar religious revivals and reactions against orthodoxy, revitalization movements that often, as in the Hasidic case, undergo a process of rationalization and routinization, evolving in the direction of--and eventually even forming a sort of alliance with--their original orthodox opponents.

    Along with history and religion, the film engages other disciplines of the humanities by presenting a living experience of the arts. Folktale, music, and dance are central elements in the film, as they are important parts of almost every gathering in the Hasidic community. As our advisor ethnomusicologist Ellen Koskoff puts it: "The Hasidic relationship to music seems almost magical"--each Sabbath brings intense sessions of song and storytelling, and dance is an integral part of many communal celebrations, including weddings and holidays such as Simchat Torah.

    The meaning of America's cultural diversity has never been more hotly debated than in recent years. A LIFE APART contributes to an understanding of issues in that debate by bringing a broad national audience inside a community that chooses to be radically different, and exploring some of the points of conflict between Hasidim in Brooklyn and their African American neighbors. The film will challenge us to deal with enduring problems raised by culturally homogeneous groups in a pluralistic society. As Humanities Advisor Vincent Crapanzano predicts in his attached letter of commitment, we hope the film "will improve inter-cultural relations" and understanding.

    Although the realities of Hasidism are relatively little-known to the American public, there are several indications of public interest in the subject. Hasidic tales, as interpreted by writers such as Elie Wiesel, are popular with American readers. Among the recent in-depth explorations of Hasidism for the general reader are Samuel Heilmanís Defenders of the Faith (Harvard, 1993), Jerome Mintzís Hasidic People (Indiana, 1994), and Robert Eisenberg's Boychicks in the Hood *** Lis Harris' critically-acclaimed book Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family (Summit, 1985), continues strong sales in its paperback edition. As she writes in her attached letter of support, "Judging from the entirely unanticipated overwhelming response" to the book, "there is a strong interest in all segments of the population in closely observed spiritual life in general, and in Hasidism ... in particular." And perhaps a recent Hollywood feature film set among the New York Hasidim--Stranger Among Us, directed by Sidney Lumet--has also increased public awareness and interest.

    No scholarly, in-depth, documentary about American Hasidism has yet been made, in part because of the difficulties of gaining access to a community that is usually closed to outsiders. The filmmakers have extensive personal and professional ties to several different Hasidic groups. We believe there has recently been an increase in openness due to a growing sense that, in the wake of continuing violent incidents in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and the messianic fervor unleashed by the death of Rebbe Schneerson, Hasidim need to better explain their ways to the outside world. In addition, many members of the projects advisory board have shared their contacts in the community. Therefore, the filmmakers are confident that A LIFE APART will enjoy unprecedented access to the Hasidic world.



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