A Life Apart: Hasidism in America

Day one in Brooklyn: Lots of hipsters. Day two in Brooklyn: LOTS OF HASIDIC JEWS. I spent the last week in New York, on vacation, and thought I had seen everything, until I realized I hadn’t ever come in contact with these curious folks. (The Hasids, that is. There are hipsters bloody everywhere in San Francisco.) And so, an actual Brooklyn resident recommended I check out this documentary, streaming on Netflix and available to answer at least some of my endless questions.

I’m a generally religiously curious (though generally non-believing) person, so this documentary was like weird kosher candy for me. I do wish the film had interviewed a few more members of the faith, perhaps from more varied groups, but I do understand that it probably wasn’t possible, given the Hasids’ mistrust and avoidance of the media. But I was absolutely fascinated to hear about the faith largely from the perspective of its members. (Sidebar rant: I hate most documentaries these days. Especially those that air on TV. They’re a Ken Burnsian loop of the same images and voice-overs.) I suppose I didn’t know what to expect; walking down the street in Brooklyn on my first day there, I just assumed they were Brooklynites like any others, except dressed ridiculously for the weather. But it turns out they sort of shun most of the people they interact with in the public. That isn’t to say everyone, as the film interviewed several happy, jolly Hasids who were more than happy to answer questions. But those dudes are the exception to the rule. The movie underscored what my friend had experienced: These folks avert their eyes to many non-Hasids, those of us dressed in regular (read: whorish) clothing who interact with the opposite sex and go to college. I find it at once forwards and backwards for them to live right alongside us, yet to refuse to accept us as true neighbors.

The Hasids were persecuted in Europe, which is why they came to America, but they just don’t embrace America and its freedoms the way that most immigrants escaping prejudice do. They live lives of purity and chastity, they isolate themselves from the rest of the world, and they impose their beliefs on their children without really giving them a choice. While I commend that they generally seem happy and keep to themselves, and basically don’t proselytize, I have to wonder how happy they actually are. I’m not sure that’s something that the documentary could have covered, or that anyone could really find out easily, but it’s just one of the many unanswered questions. Thanks to the pictures, interviews, and narrations provided by Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker (WTF?) I did get a few answers. But this is probably the most we’ll get for awhile. That is, until someone else decides to spend 7 years infiltrating the Brooklyn lair.