Review: ‘A Life Apart: Hasidism in America’

An even-handed portrait of a community that --- due largely to its extreme insularity --- is often misunderstood or attacked by outsiders, "A Life Apart" examines U.S. Hasidic Judaism's history and contempo culture.

An even-handed portrait of a community that — due largely to its extreme insularity — is often misunderstood or attacked by outsiders, “A Life Apart” examines U.S. Hasidic Judaism’s history and contempo culture. Conventional docu overview lacks the oomph that stylistic distinction or a more personal p.o.v. might have provided, limiting theatrical chances, but suitable fests, broadcast and educational outlets will find this a solid exploration of an intriguing subject.

Hasidism began as a small sect that quickly spread throughout 18th-century Eastern Europe; from an early point, its radical interpretations of the Torah’s teachings were controversial and oft-criticized among more mainstream Jewish populations. That division remains today, as both a “cultural war” within the Jewish community as a whole and the various tensions that arise between Hasidim and their non-Jewish neighbors.

From their physical appearance — particularly the men’s black attire and long forelocks — to their rigorous avoidance of surrounding society’s schools, entertainment media, sports and so on, the Hasidim are most conspicuously “other.” Such refusal to join America’s “mainstream” is lauded as strength-in-traditional-values by some here, while others view the Hasidic way of life as marked by “elitist attitude,” covert racism and archaic sexism in the sharp, lifelong delineation of gender roles (which extends to arranged marriages).

One principal point here is that whether one agrees with the Hasidim’s specific beliefs or not, their disinterest in compromising any for the sake of assimilation into the “melting pot” is unusual among long-lasting U.S. immigrant populations. Indeed, European Hasidic leaders thought this land too morally “wild and woolly” for followers to hazard until well into the 1930s. (They also persevered in the Soviet Union despite harsh religious repression there from the ’20s onward.) Only after Nazi devastation did substantial Hasidim emigrate to these shores at last, slowly building what one observer here calls their “urban puritan” populations, especially in and around NYC.

Docu covers a broad gamut of past and present issues, with some new footage shot in the Ukraine as well as archival fiction and nonfiction clips. There is insight into current — albeit still strictly traditional — approaches to schooling, wedlock and religious leadership, mostly glimpsed in Brooklyn.

Offering criticism are several academics, non-Hasidic Jews, a Hasidic-raised woman who left for greater educational and social freedom, and an African-American man who perceives racism in his neighbors’ “air of spiritual arrogance.” But on the whole “A Life Apart” aims for understanding rather than emphasizing division. Indeed, pic ends with the suggestion that their rapidly expanding populations have at last forced some Hasidim outward — making tentative economic peace with those “shopping-mall America” values they still carefully avoid at home.

Co-directors Oren Rudavsky and Menachem Daum handle various facets in intelligent, cogent form, though pic might well have lent its subject more drama and intimacy by lingering longer on a representative family or a few individuals. Narration is read alternately by Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker, a rather distracting device. Tech package is pro.

A Life Apart: Hasidism in America


An Oren Rudavsky production. Produced by Menachem Daum, Rudavsky. Executive producer, Arnold Labaton. Directed by Menachem Daum, Oren Rudavsky. Screenplay, Daum, Robert Seidman.


Camera (color), Rudavsky; editor, Ruth Schell; music, Yale Storm; sound, Gautam Ghoudhury, William Sarokin, Matthew Sigal; associate producers, Martin Dornbau, Sari Fensterheim, Immy Humes. Reviewed at Roxie Cinema, San Francisco, July 1, 1997. (In S.F. Jewish Film Festival.) Running time: 90 MIN.


Narrators: Leonard Nimoy, Sarah Jessica Parker
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