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A Life Apart - Hasidism in America
A Life Apart - Hasidism in America
Actors: Leonard Nimoy, Sarah Jessica Parker
Director: Menachem Daum;Oren Rudavsky
Genres: Indie & Art House, Drama, Special Interests, Television, Documentary
NR     2001     1hr 35min

In New York City, the Hasidim are a common sight, but even here their way of life remains a mystery to those outside their community. With their use of Yiddish, their distinctive clothes and their strict observance of Jewi...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Leonard Nimoy, Sarah Jessica Parker
Director: Menachem Daum;Oren Rudavsky
Genres: Indie & Art House, Drama, Special Interests, Television, Documentary
Sub-Genres: Indie & Art House, Religion, Religion & Spirituality, Television, Documentary
Studio: First Run Features
Format: DVD - Color
DVD Release Date: 07/17/2001
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/1987
Release Year: 2001
Run Time: 1hr 35min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 3
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

Lawyeraau | Balmoral Castle | 08/18/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This wonderful documentary by Oren Rudavsky and Menachem Daum, which is narrated by Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker, offers the viewer a birdseye view of an interesting, insular, and little known, yet often misunderstood, sect of Judaism. Founded in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century, it is characterized by mysticism, prayer, and religious zeal. It is not a lifestyle for everyone, but it is certainly a lifestyle about which everyone should know.Hasidim are singular in their way of living. The men wear the same type of clothing that was worn in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century, hats, which often serve to distinguish one Hasidic sect from another, black pants, black jackets, and white shirts. The men are bearded and sport the traditional "payess", or side curls. The women cover their heads with scarves or elaborate wigs and are always modestly clothed, covered from head to toe. The Hasidim adhere to the same customs as when they were first founded, speak Yiddish, seem to have a universal, collective mind, for the most part, and adhere to a strict, ultra-orthodox interpretation of Judaism. The Hasidim came in large numbers to America sometime after World War II, peaking in the nineteen fifties. The narrators explain some of the reasons why the Hasidim, strangers in a strange land, were able to flourish. Many settled in New York City, and there are large communities of Hasidim in Brooklyn, where they try to co-exist with their non-Hasidim neighbors, not always successfully. They chiefly occupy the neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Boro Park. They even have their own town in upstste New York, Kiryas Joel. The documentary films the Hasidim in their downstate milieu and gives token recognition to how they are perceived by their non-Hasidim neighbors, who tend to view the self-imposed seclusion of the Hasidim as exclusion of themselves. To some extent they are correct, though not in the way one might think.While there are a number of sects, such as the Bobovs, the Satmars, the Lubavitchers, just to name of few of the most prominent here in America, each sect is ruled by its own Rebbe who is the acknowledged leader of the sect and highly revered. The film dwells upon the commonalities, rather than differences, that exist among the various sects. Their differences, however, are a story for another documentary. This film focuses more on giving the viewer a somewhat loving view of the Hasidim, touching only briefly upon the differences between the Hasidim and the non-Hasidim. Quite frankly, in some neighborhoods, there is a cold war going on between these two factions. One need only come to Brooklyn, New York to see this. The Hasidim tend to shun the media and do not watch films or television, for the most part. In fact, in watching the film, the viewer can see many Hasidim shielding themselves from the eye of the camera, so as not to appear. Some who did appear, however, expressed a justification for doing so. The Hasidim do not, as a whole, send their children to college to pursue a higher, secular education. The lack of higher education, however, precludes them from professional jobs such as lawyers, doctors, accountants, pharmacists, etc. They tend to work at jobs within their community where possible, though they will venture out into the larger non-Hasidic community for employment, when necessary. This is a source of concern for them and a test of their strength and resolve to adhere to their own ways, as such employment forces them to interact with a community with whom they normally would not.The film also takes the viewer into one of their schools or Yeshivas, allowing the viewer to see how the children are acculturated from early on. The Hasidim are essentially fundamentalists, and, as are many fundamentalists, they are extremely narrow in their world view. The film also interviews Paula Gluck, an obviously intelligent and articulate, young woman who left the Hasidic community to live her life as she chose, to write and seek a higher education among the non-Hasidim. The film balances this defection by interviewing a man who affirmatively chose to become Hasidim, though his Jewish parents, holocaust survivors, were not. It is an even handed handling of two issues germaine to the Hasidim, those who leave and those who join. The Hasidim are not part of mainstream America, nor do they wish to be, though they cherish many of the values cherished by other Americans: family, home, hearth, and community. Marriages, however, are arranged by the parents, often through a matchmaker. This documentary memorializes a Hasidic wedding and illustrates the division of the men from the women, even during such a joyous occasion. Whether one agrees or disagrees with their chosen way of life, however, this documentary is a most interesting film. Working in Brooklyn and finding myself often having to interact with the Hasidim, I absolutely loved this documentary, even though it was a bit of a white wash, leaving out some of the darker aspects of this segment of the Brooklyn community. One of the most important issues with respect to this community was entirely omitted. This was on the issue of their importance politically, as a group with which to be reckoned. This group holds a great deal of political power, because they will follow their Rebbe's lead and vote as a block. Politicians in New York do not hesitate to curry favor with this group and court them because of it. Most recently, the Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel in upstate New York made headlines for the way they voted in the race for U.S. Senator from New York and was the subject of much heated debate. Still, for those unfamiliar with the Hasidim, this documentary will be an interesting and delightful revelation and will hold the interest of the viewer throughout. The documentary is well done, beautifully filmed, and clearly, a labor of love. Those viewers who are interested in other cultures, ultra-orthodox Judaism, or the religious beliefs of others will have a deep appreciation for this wonderful and informative documentary."
If you teach "The Chosen" you need this video
Rabbi Yonassan Gershom | Minnesota, USA | 03/17/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This documentary is currently my #1 recommendation to students, teachers, and others who want a good visual presentation of Hasidic culture. I highly recommend it in my well-used Hasidism FAQ, and it is the #1 best-selling educational video on my website. Whether you are teaching a unit on "The Chosen" in some remote area where there are no Hasidism, or living in New York City where you see Hasidim every day on the streets and have always wondered about them, this video is for you. It's an excelent multi-cultural tool and, because of its PBS documentary style, it can be used in public schools without violating the separation of church (synagogue, actually...) and state.
My one complaint is that the producers fell for the ubiquitous "obligatory" politically-correct need to include a dissatified woman (poet Pearl Gluck) who left the Hasidic community. I realize that PBS wants to be objective, but why not balance this with a story about a "modern" woman who left that world to become Hasidic (of which there are MANY!!!)
I also felt that the segment about the black guy who was offended when he asked about a Jewish holy day and was told "we are praying for you, too" was not well explained. The black guy thought the Jew was being paternalistic toward blacks by praying for "the poor black guy" (his assumption) but that was not it at all. Since the Jewish group was gathered around the water saying prayers, I assume it was Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and they were doing the tashlich service. The THEME of Rosh Hashanah includes prayers for the whole world --it has nothing to do with race. It would have been nice if ths had been explained somehow.
Still, this is the best documentary on Hasidism currently available on video and, in spite of these flaws, it is well worth buying as an educational resource. (I currently recommend it on my Hasidism FAQ site). The video also has an interesting trailer interview with the producers, who discuss various reactions to the film, how and why it was made, etc."
Great Introduction but Left me with more Questions...
Colleen McMahon | Atlanta, GA | 01/11/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)

"Some of the other reviews here are by people with much more knowledge of the Hasidic way of life than I have, and point out problems with things said in the movie that went right by me. So my perspective in reviewing this is as a curious outsider with some understanding of Judaism, a little understanding of the Hasidic path, and the curiosity to know more.

A Life Apart: Hasidism in America is a window into the insular Hasidic communities of New York City. Narrated by Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker (I was rather shocked by the choice of SJP--could they have found anyone more a polar opposite of the women portrayed in this film than the woman who brought Carrie Bradshaw to life? But both Nimoy and Parker do a very good job and have excellent "documentary" voices for narrating) the film is an overview of the Hasidic way of life as a whole, focusing on a few representative members talking about their own paths.

On the whole I found it very enjoyable and educational, and learned a lot from it. For someone with little to no knowledge of Hasidim but some curiosity, it is a great introduction. There is a historical overview of the origination and philosophy of the Hasidic way and the destruction of much of it in the era of the Soviets and the Nazis. I was surprised to learn that Hasids steadfastly refused to emigrate to America, viewing it as a place that endangered their souls with its secularity, even up to the brink the Holocaust. I had sort of thought that there was something of a Hasidic community in New York pre World War II, that grew and deepened with the arrival of postwar refugees. But in reality, it was entirely a movement of postwar refugees and a few charismatic rebbes who gathered in the traumatized survivors and helped them recreate communities on this side of the ocean. The size and fervor of the communities that have emerged after 60 years is a testament to their work and to the will to survive as individuals and people.

I found Jack Gold, the patriarch of a large Hasidic family, to be one of the most interesting people in the documentary. He looks like an Orthodox rather than Hasidic Jew, wearing a kippah but without the hat, beard or side curls that his sons and grandsons wear. But like them, his appearance is as much a testament to his own journey--from concentration camp survivor who had lost all religion, to someone who began to embrace it again in order to give his children something, but who still wears the scars of his own life. As one of his sons says, he may not look it on the outside but he has a Hasidic heart.

While the glimpses of the various ceremonies and festivals were fascinating and give a hint to the level of joy in the Hasidic style of worship, the lack of explanation as to what was going on and what festival was being celebrated could often be confusing. Footage jumps from Sukkot to Purim to a wedding to Shabbos to Chanukah with no explanation as to what you are seeing and what it all means. I recommend watching the documentary once through and then with the directors commentary because it adds a lot to the understanding of these scenes. But I shouldn't undermine the accomplishment that having any of these scenes is, because as a rule the Hasidim keep to themselves and do not like to interact with or be filmed or photographed by outsiders.

But even with the commentary I was often left with more questions--particularly about the roles of women. The relatively few glimpses of the Hasidic women and insights into their lives left me wanting more, and I was also interested in the hints in both the documentary and commentary about the family members who had left the Hasid community (they had one female representative but even here there wasn't enough detail--I could have enjoyed an entire documentary just about her and her life) and people who had been raised less religious who had joined the Hasid community (again, there was one representative but I was particularly curious about the women who have done so and what the attraction and the result was for them).

On the whole this is a good introduction to both the joys and the difficulties and tensions of this way of life and is recommended for anyone curious about it.

Joseph Winktay | 09/08/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I was given this Video to look at by a friend who had converted to Judaism. Since much of it was filmed where I live and I know personally some of the people in it, I have a different perspective. I have suggested to a number of people to see this in order to see what real chassidim are like. It is the closest you will ever get to it unless you actually live in the community. It is NOT perfect, and there are a few things that I would like to point out. 1. Most of what the scholars say is funny, and not to be taken seriously. They seem to show an uncanny ability of not understanding.
2. Some of the critiques of chassidim show a non-Jewish perspective. (The feminist views were funny. I find it hard to believe that a man who has to rise early and go to work in the cesspool of Manhattan is exposed to more spirituality, then a women who stays home in a pure enviornment raising pure holy children. It seems women get more spiritual benefit from that lifestyle then the men.)
3. I never got an understanding of why Pearl Gluck left the community. In general they did not point out that people leaving is very rare, and women leaving is even rarer.
4. Some of the Yiddish translations are not so correct.However, the positives far outweigh the negatives. And in any case, there really is nothing out there that gets as close to the truth as this does."