December 10, 2018

An American Story

A chassidic boy recites his prayers in “A Life Apart:Hasidism in America.”

An American Story

At the heart of ‘A Life Apart: Hasidism in America’ is aculture war that mirrors the conflict in today’s Jewish community

By Naomi Pfefferman, Senior Writer

First we had the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival (Oct.23-Nov. 1), then the Israel Film Festival (Nov. 5-20), and now comesthe third annual Laemmle Theatres Jewish Cinema Series, Nov. 21through Dec. 24.

The opening film, “A Life Apart: Hasidism in America,” adocumentary by Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, is both powerful andcontroversial. At its heart is a culture war that, in some ways,mirrors the conflict in today’s American Jewish community.

We are presented with some of the following scenes: Agirl’s-school principal says that her charges never watch television,and that the library books are censored to preserve “the purity oftheir nashumes, their souls.” Bearded men hide from the filmmakersbehind their hats or walk briskly by the camera.

Contradictory images depict Chassidim in shtreimels strolling pastrollerbladers and even triple-X pornography shops. A Manhattanelectronics-store worker helps a scantily clad female customer andconcludes, with that quintessentially American banality, “Have a niceday.”

The story of how the Chassidim came to America begins before WorldWar II, when the Rebbes of Ger, Bobov, Skver, Satmar and Belzdenounced the States as the “treifine medina.” In astonishingblack-and-white archival footage, the Lubavitcher Rebbe visits NewYork in 1929 to raise money for his underground yeshivas, but herefuses to leave the Soviet Union. America is an unholy place, whereeven rabbis shave their beards, he insists.

And, so, his followers suffered Stalin’s purges and also theHolocaust, which annihilated four-fifths of Chassidic Jewry. Only thebroken remnants arrived here in 1946 to rebuild their ravagedcommunities outside the melting pot.

While speaking in Yiddish, Mayer Horowitz wistfully examinesphotographs of his dead family and recalls how he came to New Yorkpenniless and alone after the concentration camps. He was lost untilthe Bobov Rebbe found him a job and a wife and taught him to live ashis parents once did in Europe. Horowitz blesses the Chanukah candleswith his small grandsons, who are named for his dead relatives. “Fromthe lights which survived, a great miracle occurred,” he chants, asthe camera zooms back to reveal the figures swaying in a brightly litwindow, framed by black night.

Many other moments depict the fervent, joyous singing and dancingthat has set Chassidism apart from mainstream Judaism since the BaalShem Tov preached his populist message in the 18th century. A3-year-old boy is ebulliently wrapped in a tallit and carried to hisfirst aleph-bet lesson, where every letter is covered with a candy toconvey the sweetness of learning.

The Bobov Rebbe, dapperly dressed in a black-and-gold robe,ecstatically dances at the wedding of his great-granddaughter. Anaffable, portly Satmar, wearing curly pais and a stained apron,speaks of spiritual joy as he chops carp. He’ll help the filmmakers,he says, but he will never see the documentary, because he stronglydisapproves of TV.

We also meet the unusual character of Ben Zion Horowitz, whohardly spoke to a girl before his mother chose him a wife. When hisrebbe tells him to follow his heart, he quits teaching yeshiva tobecome, of all things, an antiques appraiser.

“A Life Apart” also introduces individuals who are outspokenlycritical of Chassidim. Early in the film, we learn the sects “arousecontroversy among other Jews, no less than among Gentiles.”

A black Prospect Park employee complains of “spiritual arrogance,”of children who are taught not even to say “Hello.” A hospitalchaplain, a Reform rabbi, is forbidden from visiting a Chassidic boybecause she does not cover her hair. Pearl Gluck, a thoughtful youngwriter, says that she left the Chassidic fold because of its narrowconfines for women.

Zeldy Abromowitz, whose clothing shop sports only modest dress,offers a sharp retort. “A Chasidishe girl takes pride in being amother,” she says. “In 100 years, who’s going to remember who ranWestinghouse, and who cares? Your children will be alegacy…forever.”

The filmmakers, for their parts, say that they struggled to offera balanced view of the Chassidim. They achieved unprecedented accessto brises and other rituals because Daum, 51, is the son ofGer Chassids and part of the Borough Park community. Daum the insiderspoke to the Chassidim in Yiddish and “assured them I was not goingto trash them,” he says.

Rudavsky, 40, the son of a Reform rabbi, is assimilated, lives onthe Upper West Side, but has fond memories of his gentle Chassidicgrandfather.

Together, the filmmakers hoped to “humanize” the Chassidim, butthey say that they encountered bias along the way. A Manhattantheater owner refused to show the acclaimed movie because it was notan exposé of Chassidic wrongdoings; a film festival in Israeldeclined for similar reasons, Daum believes.

Sometimes, the Chassidim themselves were hostile: Dozens refusedto speak to the filmmakers, and one tried to knock Rudavsky off aladder while he was filming a Sukkot celebration.

Nevertheless, actors Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker likedthe movie so much that they agreed to narrate the documentary atunion scale. The National Endowment for the Humanities funded most ofthe $700,000 budget because it saw the movie as universal — anAmerican immigrant story. Mayer Horowitz, one of a few Chassidim whoactually saw the film, had tears in his eyes after the screening.

But if some believe the film glosses over the more controversialaspects of Chassidism, Daum staunchly disagrees. “I am tolerant oftheir intolerance,” he says, for the Chassidim have heroicallystruggled to survive without being swallowed up by American culture.They have had to live lives apart, to become our “urban Puritans.”

“So I give them slack,” Daum says.

Above, filmmakersOren Rudavsky (left) and Menachem Daum. Left,a Chassidic man prays for his sins to be absolved before YomKippur.

Photo by Yale Strom

Coming Attractions

“A Life Apart: Hasidism in America,” which screens from Nov. 21to 27 at the Music Hall Theatre in Beverly Hills, kicks off the 1997Laemmle Jewish Cinema Series.

“My Mother’s Courage” (Nov. 28-Dec. 4), the new film from MichaelVerhoeven (“The Nasty Girl”), confronts the Holocaust from an ironic,postmodern perspective — part absurdist comedy, part grotesquenightmare. The film is based on the true story of a day in the lifeof playwright George Tabori’s mother, for whom the atrocities of warremain an unimaginable reality.

“Dogs: The Rise and Fall of an All-Girl Bookie Joint” (Dec. 5-11)is Eve Annenberg’s quirky comedy about a woman who convinces herunderemployed roommates to join her in a life of disorganized crime.

For information about the more than 30 additional films that willscreen from Dec. 13 to 24 at Laemmle’s Music Hall and at the TownCenter 5 in Encino, call (310) 274-6869. — N.P.