Hasidism · History · I and Thou · Post-postmodernism · Religious History

Tales of the Hasidim

The grave of the Baal Shem Tov, commonly considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism, in present-day Ukraine
The grave of the Baal Shem Tov, commonly considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism, in present-day Ukraine

A few weeks ago, some friends and I took a trip up to the Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn. It was definitely a must for me, since I’m a student and teacher of American religious history. For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by the complicated, often tense interactions between religious traditionalism and the modern world, and you can’t find a much more overt contrast with modernity than Hasidic Judaism.

I’d already studied and taught a bit about the origins, at least, of Hasidic Judaism in my History 102 classes. Without my recounting an entire history of Hasidism, the movement basically began among Eastern European Jews in the 1700s, partly in reaction to the modernizing, secularizing influence of the Enlightenment, which was in full swing at the time. Jews had often been excluded and ostracized from Christian society in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but the Enlightenment’s emphasis on tolerance meant that Jews now had an opportunity to join with mainstream society, and to shed their distinctiveness if they so desired. Hasidic Jews moved in almost the opposite direction, affirming, if anything, their distinctiveness more vigorously than previous generations.

Early Hasidic masters were a mysterious lot, and their lives, spent in otherwise obscure areas of Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, and Russia, now form the stuff of legend. Hasidic leaders, or rebbes, would often act in eccentric or poetic ways in response to divine prompting, and were sometimes reported to have miraculous abilities. In Martin Buber’s collection of traditional stories, Tales of the Hasidim, the Baal Shem Tov and his followers often disappeared for weeks at a time into the seemingly-endless stretches of forest, plains and farmland that then comprised Eastern Europe, having encounters on their journeys with believers and agnostics alike. Hasidism emphasized devout, sometimes mystical awareness of the divine presence in the world, on the one hand, and stringent adherence to every tenet of Jewish law, or halakha, on the other hand.

This combination of heartfelt pietism and legalistic strictness sustained the Hasidic communities throughout the various upheavals of modern Europe. Ultimately, a handful of Hasidim survived the Holocaust, although it decimated their numbers, and many of these survivors moved to perhaps the most modern, novelty-obsessed, anti-traditional place possible- the United States.

Today, some of these resurgent Hasidic communities form quite substantial islands in trendy, hipster-filled Brooklyn. You walk a few blocks over from the fast food restaurants, bars, and boutiques, and suddenly all the men are bearded and wearing black and white, and most people are speaking Yiddish.

My friends and I tried to walk around as circumspectly as possible, and were definitely not pointing, snapping pictures of Hasidim on their way to the shul, or doing anything overtly touristy. Nonetheless, part of me felt like I shouldn’t have been scrutinizing other people’s daily lives, even for academic purposes (I was really also feeding my long-time curiosity). I’m hardly alone in my fascination with Hasidism, however– the various groups which comprise Hasidic Judaism have been the subject of a number of documentaries in recent years, and the memoirs of ex-Hasidim, some indignant and some more nostalgic, have become a distinct sub-genre. I think that mainstream Americans, who live in a culture which is pre-packaged, mass-produced, and standardized to the nth degree, are intrigued by a group who seem so blatantly unconcerned about “fitting in.” Hasidim are interesting to many Americans precisely because their lives seem so different from our own. Ironically, this group of pious Jews, whose lives are centered around obedience, have become the ultimate rebels against modernity.

It was a beautiful, clear, late summer day when we went up to Brooklyn, and everything was illuminated as though we had stepped into a documentary ourselves. The Hasidic Jews we saw hardly seemed scared, shy, or caught in an otherworldly reverie, by the way. Some of them ignored us as they walked by, while others openly gave us quizzical, ironic looks, or chatted with us. Children were absolutely everywhere, chasing each other up the sidewalks laughing, or walking hand-in-hand. In a park, young mothers scrolled through their phones as they chatted and watched their children on the playground. I quickly became painfully aware that my long, comfy skirt and long-sleeved t-shirt, which I had deemed eminently modest when I put them on that morning, were not all that modest by this community’s standards. Some women favored a layered, rather bohemian look, with everything covered up to the collarbones, while others wore tailored suit dresses.

Later, as I reflected on the experience, I realized that it was rather simplistic to label the Hasidim (or any unconventional group, for that matter) as the “other,” and ourselves as the “mainstream.” Academics love easy, black-and-white dichotomies: periphery versus center, tradition versus modernity, the sacred versus the secular. By imagining Hasidic Jews as the exotic other, we are basically saying that their lives are strange and unknowable to mainstream individuals, most of whom do not live within the confines of a traditional community. True, to those who are used to the almost unlimited freedom of modern, Western society, such restrictions might be difficult to picture. In another way, however, the lives of all others are more strange and unknowable than we can fathom, although we often take for granted that we “know” someone.

One of the drawbacks of modern society, whose freedoms we all enjoy, is that people no longer spend their entire lives within one community, for the most part. Rather, we move often, relocate to strange cities, and sometimes cut ties with one group entirely and move on to another. Nothing stops us from doing this, other than economic adversity or the desire to stay. Rarely do we achieve the kind of long-term knowledge of one another that people once enjoyed in traditional societies, when many passed their whole lifetimes without journeying beyond a twenty- or fifty-mile radius. With that kind of duration of knowledge, you really had a chance to see each person’s inclinations, strengths, weaknesses, neuroses, and even the faults they tried assiduously to conceal. Now, for many, marriage is probably the only relationship that spans a lifetime, and it’s becoming increasingly common to cut marriage short, as well. There’s definitely much to be said for seeing the world, and for leaving unhealthy relationships, but as a culture we seem to be stricken with a collective attention deficit disorder that prevents us from exploring and appreciating our current surroundings. We’re always looking for something better, rushing on to the next big thing. It’s as though we view interpersonal relationships like clothes, which are trendy one season and out-of-fashion the next.

Because modern society rewards speed and efficiency, we’re always under pressure to size up people quickly, categorize them into those who are profitable to know and those who aren’t, make our judgments, and move on to the next set. We all feed into this mentality, as well, by sorting ourselves neatly into distinct social, occupational, and demographic categories. We transform ourselves into a series of labels (each with a complete, prefabricated meaning) and personae which we present to the world, attempting to convince ourselves that we have form, value, and substance, and are not nothing or ephemeral. Facebook and social media facilitate this shrinking of the self, as well- you scroll through a person’s likes, political and religious affiliation, favorite music and tv shows, and conclude that you know “who he is.” Ah, so he’s a liberal, you think. Or, you investigate someone’s Facebook to find out about them, and conclude that they are Catholic, Jewish, a yoga person, a federal employee, or what not. Maybe, people even fit several categories or defining terms. But this is not them. Our culture of therapeutic talk feeds into this, as we’re constantly told that retreats and seminars will enable us to connect on a deeper level with others, and somehow circumnavigate a lifetime’s worth of knowing.

We can’t get to know someone by looking at their Facebook profile, or by chatting with them in a bar, going to the same yoga class as they do, or by sharing our favorite flavors of ice cream and our most embarrassing childhood memories in an icebreaker exercise. In fact, every person contains a lifetime of experiences of wild diversity, filtered through the lens of their own consciousness, which a documentary entirely dedicated to them could not encapsulate. To really know someone is more complicated than mastering all the knowledge in an M.A. or Ph.D. program. You can only know someone by years of interaction with them, as you peel back the layers of their emotions and past actions and they share themselves with you.

As G.K. Chesterton often pointed out, we don’t find fulfillment by placing ourselves in novel, unfamiliar surroundings, but by rediscovering the extraordinary in our familiar surroundings, and in the people we already know and love. Everyone is the “other,” just as much so as the Hasidic Jews who so fascinate contemporary society, and to really get to know the people in our lives is a journey in itself.


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