The Hasidim and the real American Dream

I really ought to be hitting the hay, but I’m too inspired by a beautiful and unusually thought-provoking documentary called  "A Life Apart – Hasidism in America" that I just watched on the history of this fascinating ultra-orthodox Jewish community, which has only been in America in significant numbers since the mid-20th century.

The PBS website sums the documentary up succinctly and accurately:

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 think they succeeded admirably.

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

The tragedy, savagery and devastation of the Holocaust is well known, but I did not realize the even greater devastation it visited on Chasidic communities.  This unspeakable calamity claimed the lives of a shocking four fifths of the world’s Chasidic Jews.  Which, incidentally, helps one understand why some Jews have struggled to retain belief itself in a post-Holocaust world.   Some Orthodox Jews have controversially applied to the Holocaust the traditional theological explanation for past calamities that befell the people of Israel–namely that Hashem (God) sometimes punishes His servants collectively with terrible defeats when their worship and observance of the Torah become lax–yet here you have one of the most seemingly religiously observant of all Jewish communities being brought to the brink of annihilatation.

Tales of immigrants overcoming the odds and successfully integrating themselves into American life are always heartwarming, but the shadow of that tragedy adds a singularly inspiring dimension to the triumph of these transplanted Chasidic communities, taking root in completely foreign soil and after an unimaginable trauma that would undoubtedly overwhelmed most other communities.  For a Holocaust survivor who lost his parents, siblings and most of his relatives in the death camps living to see all his lost family members reborn in children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren bearing their names is about a dramatic a victory of the human spirit over evil as can be imagined.

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. 

What is successful integration?  By many standards, the Chasidim are exceedingly
poorly integrated.  Their’s is a self-consciously insular community which discourages mixing with, much less assimilating into, the outside world.  It is poor–also by choice–and actively discourages its youth from the universal stepping stone to material and social betterment in American life, a university education.  Most of its members work in low-paying jobs.

The documentary really brings home the many profound ways these seemingly problems seem to be more than made up for in terms of a sense of community solidarity, cultural literacy and sense of self and identity that most Americans  would envy. 

Speaking of their economic situation, I realized that Chasidic Jews consciously limited themselves to professions that are kosher from a halakhic perspective, but I’d never given much thought to how this collective decision to essentially be poor–this is a sizable community that chooses to live in the city and eschew all occupations that require a higher education, since higher education tends to secularize people–represents the only instance of white immigrants in a sense foregoing white privilege.  These is a group that is culturally, linguistically and racially extremely well positioned to assimilate quickly into American life–and at a time when Jews were thriving in American life to an extent never seen before in Western history–but it consciously chose to remain on the margins of American economic life.

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.

Incidentally, for all the sincere talk one hears among Muslims about their commitment to shariah-appropriate occupations, when’s the last time you heard any Muslim arguing we should forego universty education entirely to avoid contact with sin and corruption?  How many take these ideas to what are arguably their logical conclusion and consciously embrace permanent poverty?  It is a profound and courageous stand, regardless of whether one ultimately agrees with it.

Another really stimulating and thought-provoking aspect to the film is a fascinating interview with a Jewish academic, who carefully analyzes the paradoxical cultural and religious implications of a Chasidic Jew working in a video store and warmly wishing a lightly clad American woman customer "nice day".  He reflects on the ways that, to the orthodox worldview of a Chasidic Jew, all the seemingly "harmless" concessions of modern life and the force of conformism are ultimately corrosive and insidious.   

By most standards, it’s socially unacceptable and unprofessional for a male shop clerk not to  freely and warmly answer the questions of a female customer, but what if your religious tradition and way of life depend on you not interacting with outsiders or members of the opposite sex, much less ones that are scantily clad?  And what if the ethical system of your religion and way of life strongly valorize modesty of dress, stigmatize immodest dress and view those who dress immodestly as sources of great temptation and corruption?  In that context, is it appropriate to expect them to deal normally, much less warmly, with a woman? 

There’s so much more to ponder in this beautiful documentary, so  I highly recommend it. 

It makes you think about what the American Dream really is about, or what it ought to be.  As one interviewee points out, for all its material privations this community seems to be far ahead of most us in terms of finding personal  meaning in life.

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