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This week's portion: Water from the rock

A Life Apart

Svend White, of Akram's Razor, recently  posted about the documentary A Life Apart: Hasidism in America.The film is a collaboration between Oren Rudavsky and Menachem Daum. (I reviewed Daum's second movie, Hiding and Seeking, here.) Here's how A Life Apart is described on PBS:

A 90-minute film, A Life Apart: Hasidism in America, is the first in-depth documentary about a distinctive, traditional Eastern European religious community. In an historic migration after World War II, Hasidism found its most vital center in America. Both challenging and embracing American values, Hasidim seek those things which many Americans find most precious: family, community, and a close relationship to God. Integrating critical and analytical scholarship with a portrait of the daily life, beliefs, and history of contemporary Hasidic Jews in New York City, the film focuses on the conflicts, burdens, and rewards of the Hasidic way of life.

In his blog post, Svend writes:

There's so much to comment on in the movie and so much that resonates very deeply with me as an American Muslim....

In addition to providing a truly engrossing window into this poorly understood community, the documentary raises a number of stimulating questions about modern American life, especially from the point of view of a religious person.

Reading Svend's post made me want to see the film, and I happen to have a copy on-hand, so I watched it tonight.

"Hasidim are a minority within a minority. They arouse controversy among other Jews, no less than among Gentiles. Who are the Hasidim, and why have they stubbornly refused to join America's mainstream?" asks the voiceover (the voice belongs to Leonard Nimoy), at the beginning of the film. These are the questions filmmakers Daum and Rudavsky seek to answer.

The primary orientation of a Hasid, one scholar explains, is toward serving God. Allegiance to any nation-state necessarily pales beside the joyful obligation of living out that covenant. Nimoy's voiceover tells a story about how once a Torah scroll wouldn't fit into its cover, and someone suggested cutting it down to fit. Ridiculous, right? It is the cover which must be tailored to fit the Torah. This is how Hasidism historically sees America: as the cover which must be tailored to fit the Torah, not the other way around.

"Hasidim believe that God can be encountered within us, and in all that is around us," explains Nimoy. "The ultimate goal of a true Hasid, like the goal of all mystics, is to lose oneself in a transcendent cleaving to God, a state that Hasidim call devekus." Hasidism began as a spiritual movement that emphasized prayer, joy, and charity. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, wanted to make God accessible to everyone. He taught that "every day life could be sanctified. That God could be served through everything one did. Eating, working, raising children: even sex could become a spiritual act." The female voiceover (Sarah Jessica Parker) continues, "The Baal Shem Tov taught that sadness creates a barrier between us and God. Gladness and joy open the gates of heaven."

The film touches on Hasidic history, explores Hasidic movements and sects within America, and explains some of the touchstones of Hasidism -- like, for instance, the institution of the rebbe. "When a Hasid looks at his rebbe, he sees the embodiment of his community," explains a professor from Queens College. The rebbe is always in a state of devekus with God. By being in his presence, his hasidim can partake of a taste of that union with God.

The Hasidim, notes professor David Fishman, came here like the Pilgrims in the 1600s: not in search of the American dream, but in search of the freedom to live in their own way. Creating insular communities and enclaves was the way they devised to do that.

The Satmar rebbe, when he came to America -- Nimoy's voiceover explains -- saw many empty synagogues, and few religious schools. He chose to do the exact opposite: to get by with small synagogues, and to pour resources into large schools, filling them with children learning Torah. The film shows us the first day of Torah study at a Hasidic school, the excitement of both children and parents as formal learning begins. There's a beautiful scene of a child learning the alef-bet, and removing from the page small candies which represent the sweetness of learning and of text.

One of the aspects of the film that struck Svend most was the part dealing with the economic implications of the Hasidic choice to remain apart from mainstream American life. He notes:

I'm reminded of how some Sufi sheikhs instruct their dervishes to work as petty salesmen, both because this line of work is normally honorable and free of any shariah compromises, and because such hard work is inherently humbling and an occupation in which one rarely makes much beyond than what is needed for basic subsistence.

That there is overlap between Sufism and Hasidism doesn't surprise me, but I hadn't known about Sufi sheikhs instructing their disciples to make these same kinds of choices. That fascinates me, and I had that comment in mind as I watched this part of the film.

Naturally, one of the most interesting parts of the movie for me was the section relating to gender. One Hasid explains the importance of girls in their community thus: "The mother is the one who instills everything the child will remember all his years." We see a mother teaching her small children to wash hands with blessings in the morning, to begin the day with modeh ani (the morning blessing for gratitude), to light Shabbos candles. "We say that the wisdom of a home is based on the woman," one woman explains.

Of course, outside observers ask: if women are so important, why aren't there women rebbes? Why are women pushed to the back of the synagogue? Rabbi Meyer Schiller explains that in the Hasidic world, there are roles, and there is no agony in which people who are in one role want to be in another. That perspective simply doesn't seem thinkable.

The film introduces us not only to people who are intensely grounded in Hasidic community, but also to people who turned away. Pearl Gluck, for instance, talks about how for her, the boundaries of the community weren't ultimately bearable. She was educated in a Bais Yacov school and a Hasidische environment; today her hair is uncovered and her bookshelves are filled with poetry. She needed to know, she says, what was the outside world like?

The film asks interesting questions, about the possibilities of friction between insular Hasidic communities and the other communities that surround them. For instance, how does the Hasidic community interact with the Black community in New York, and what are the implications of those interactions (or lack thereof?) It's easy to cause offense, one scholar points out, when you don't invite outsiders in. Daum and Rudavsky don't offer answers, merely good questions. (The interview with the directors, one of the special features on the disc, also touches on this question in a fascinating way.)

"Hasidim are also threatened by Jews whose interpretations of Judaism differ from their own," Nimoy notes. Pearl Gluck, it turns out, works now as a chaplain in New York; she works with all kinds of Jews, and all kinds of non-Jews, too. She tells a difficult story about a parent forbidding her to pay a pastoral care visit to a Hasidic child -- her skirts weren't long enough, she didn't cover her hair, it was "too confusing," and therefore she was barred from offering care. That struck right to my heart. (She's also a filmmaker, and her film Divan is now high on my  list.)

Relationship with the secular world is often fraught with difficulty, but it does happen. "Despite their efforts to live apart in America, they have nevertheless become American Hasidim," the voiceover notes. A professor talks about seeing a Hasid working in an electronics store, interacting with women who are not dressed modestly, and how that very reality makes the enclave permeable in certain ways. One man who works in the outside world (as an appraiser of antiques) talks about how he derives great satisfaction from his work, but all week he doesn't feel like a Hasid -- not until Shabbos, when he can return to his deepest self.

"The Rebbe asked his Hasidim, where is the dwelling of God? What a thing to ask, one of them replied. Isn't the whole earth filled with His glory? The Rebbe replied, God dwells wherever man lets Him in."

In one scene that really struck me, one Hasid talks about working with teenagers who aren't part of his world, and how difficult it is for them to imagine the choices he so joyfully makes. "Their spiritual antenna have been cut by modernity," he says. "I'm trying to repair that antenna apparatus, so that they can feel what it means, understand what it means, to live a life of meaning."

My own relationship with Hasidism is complicated. On the one hand, I derive both intellectual and spiritual sustenance from studying Hasidic texts. There's a lot that I respect and admire about Hasidism. And my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was reared and ordained as a Lubavitch rabbi; there's more than a little Hasidism in Jewish Renewal.

On the proverbial other hand, I am a liberal Jew and a feminist, so my own Jewish life and choices are very different from Hasidic life. Hasidism's insularity saddens me, even though I recognize its value within its own community context. There are inevitably aspects of Hasidism which feel foreign to me or make me uncomfortable.

One of the strengths of this film is that the filmmakers offer a window into Hasidism without offering judgement. I suspect there are aspects of Hasidism that Daum and Rudavsky admire greatly, and aspects of Hasidism which trouble them...but that's not what this film is about. A Life Apart trusts viewers to grasp what makes this community complicated, difficult, valuable, and real. As it says on the film's intro page:

Through our principal families as well as secondary characters, A LIFE APART presents a multi-layered analysis of the Hasidic community. The film is not a one-sided, sanitized or merely celebratory, portrait of Hasidism. We aim not to shy away from conflict and contradictions, but to create dialogues between insider and outsider voices, including critics within the community, and from among neighbors, and scholars.

I'm glad our friend Nate sent this film to us, all those months ago, and glad Svend's post spurred me to finally watch it. This movie is thought-provoking and fascinating, and is worth watching regardless of your relationship with Hasidism, Judaism, or American religious life.

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