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September 9, 2014 6:51 am

An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

avatar by Steve Wenick

A Chasidic Jew modeling for American Apparel. Photo: American Apparel.

The sight of young girls in pinafores and young boys wearing peyos – sidelocks – dangling over their ears is a sure sign that you have entered the enigmatic precincts of the Hasidim – the pious ones.

Veteran New York Times journalist Joseph Berger’s new book, THE PIOUS ONES: The World of Hasidim and their Battles with America, takes the reader on a journey into the enclaves where various sects of Jews live a seemingly outmoded way of life in an ever changing world; a life instilled with immutable values and unalterable practices.

The experiences and insights Berger shares resonate as authentic because they were gleaned from interviews with a variety of Hasidim like Yitta Schwartz, who boasts of having 2,000 living relatives. And many of the characters are colorful. Mendel Werdyger, an acknowledged leading light in the world of re-mastering 78 rpm records, and Shlomo Koenig, the first Hasidic police officer in the United States, are two Hasidim whose occupations are not exactly what you would expect.

To outsiders most Hasidim look alike. Their distinctive but outmoded manner of dress harkens back to 18th Century Eastern Europe, which makes them easy to identify. But, as the reader will learn, their outward appearance exhibits uniformity only to the unschooled eye.

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Berger notes, in his brief flirtation with levity, that it’s not unusual for the casual observer to mistake Hasid and Amish men with one another because of their similar mode of dress. Both sport beards, wear black pants, black jackets, black vests, and black hats, garnished with contrasting starched white shirts.

The old saw, “Clothes don’t make the man,” may be true but in the world of the Hasidim, their attire often reveals to which sect they belong. For example, hats worn by Bobov Hasidim have tall crowns, those worn by Satmar Hasidim sport wide brims, and Lubavitch Hasidim wear hats with their brims rakishly turned down.

There are dozens of Hasidic sects worldwide but the majority of them are situated within the boundaries of insular communities in New York and Israel. Only the names of their sects, Bobov, Ger, Belz, Satmar, Vizhnitz, Skverer, and Lubavitch, survived the ravages of the Holocaust. The communities in Europe, from which their names were preserved, did not.

Manner of dress, prayer, strict observance of rituals, and community are important to all Hasidic sects, but the Skverer Hasidim have decided to take upon themselves the additional obligation of caring for and educating learning-disabled students from other Hasidic sects who are not equipped to handle them.

Understandably many of these practices, which define the Hasidic esoteric lifestyle, are unknown to the Gentile world. But surprisingly they are also unfamiliar to the vast majority of Jews, as well. Berger illuminates many unusual customs practiced by Hasidim that will surprise most readers. Here is just a smattering of them:

  • There are Hasidic owned stores that sell special modestly tailored dresses for maids. That is because the Hasidim find it unseemly to have a maid, Gentile or Jew, traipsing around the house wearing immodest attire.
  • Some Hasidim are willing to purchase digital cameras only if they lack video capability because they fear that watching their recorded videos could lead to watching TV, which they regard as a waste of time.
  • The Satmar Hasidim find it necessary to offer children born and raised America, “English as a Second Language” classes because they only understand Yiddish.
  • Rabbis have ruled that pregnant woman, the elderly, and those who are ill are excused from fasting on Yom Kippur. Nevertheless there are Hasidim who are so averse to eating on Yom Kippur that they resort to taking nutrients intravenously.
  • Bloggers have managed to crop up even in the environs of the anachronistic world of the Hasidim. ‘A Hasid and A Heretic’ and ‘Hasid Rebel’ are the names of two of them. As one might guess by their handles, the content of their blogs do not fare well in their communities.

Unfortunately, like the rest of society, the Hasidic communities are not immune from scandal and Berger does not shy away from divulging them.

Recently shame and dishonor have been heaped upon some Hasidic communities involving spousal abuse, food stamp fraud, and deceptiveness in obtaining unwarranted public subsidies for housing and education. For the most part they try to handle those problems within the confines of their own communities. However that has not always been possible, thus resulting in very embarrassing publicized legal battles.

Hasidim who question or resist the Hasidic way of life find themselves isolated by their communities. They are perceived as a threat to the Hasidic lifestyle and often shunned by family and friends alike. Support groups have sprung up in response to what is tantamount to banishment. A group, fittingly named ‘Footsteps,’ has been organized in Brooklyn. The group lends support to those who have chosen to walk away from the Hasidic way of life or have reluctantly resigned to live with it.

Because Hebrew and Yiddish terms are dispersed throughout THE PIOUS ONES, Berger thoughtfully translates them as they occur. He also provides a convenient glossary of terms as well. The book is laid out in easy to read chapters that are comprised of a series of cameos and vignettes, which hold the reader’s attention as Berger describes the daily comings and goings of those who live in what some would describe as a world of their own. It’s a book not to be missed.

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