Hasidism, in Living Color
Jerusalem’s Israel museum persuasively shows that Hasidism is not only, or even really, about religion
With all due respect to the impressive collection of circular fur hats, the best and most revealing exhibits at “A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses Into the Life of Hasidic Jews,” the Hasidic-themed show now at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, are the videos. In one of a half-dozen such offerings, mitzvah tantz (difficult to translate beyond “mitzvah dance”), a bride, dressed and veiled so that the only skin you see are her hands and a flash of bare jawline, grips a long sash that serves both as an umbilical attachment and a barrier to the dancing rebbe at the other end: From a modest but breached distance, the two circle each other at mismatched tempos in front of a pulsating wall of Hasidim.
It’s a weirdly intimate moment, in a different spiritual key than we’re used to: There are no other women in the frame. Although the bride’s movement is restricted to stepping in time with the way-more-excited rebbe, they are without question dancing together. (If you don’t appreciate how momentous that is, may I suggest the excellent Roman archaeology exhibit across the hall?) In tish (literally “table” in Yiddish, it denotes a kind of semi-mandatory rebbe-centric get-together), an enormous table surrounded by waves of sitting and standing and screaming Hasidim is headed by the rebbe, who stoically dispenses fruit from towering platters. Everyone is clamoring for a piece, like it’s manna. A boy walks on the table—it’s the width of a one-way street—and with all of his weight drags one of the platters closer to the rebbe.
These videos, along with much of the photography, are poignant and surreal, in equal parts compelling and confusing, as edifying as they are mystifying—and, for precisely these reasons, make for great art. There’s an uneasy beauty to the rituals and their opaque choreography, to the masses of identically costumed men, to the fierce devotion to customs that most of us probably can’t relate to. Hasidim, say what you want about their sartorial sense, make for very arresting visuals.
The best of the exhibit illuminates and artistically leverages the tension between rituals’ normalcy (on their end) and strangeness (on ours). We are uncomfortably transfixed—maybe because we can stare without shame or reproach. “I can’t believe we’re of the same religion,” I overheard a non-Hasidic American Jewish tourist mutter to his wife. There are photographs of Hasidic rituals I’d never heard of, like pouring water from an urn into a pan to ward off the evil eye, or that I had thought were no longer performed, like the redeeming of a firstborn donkey (delightfully decked out for the occasion in, yes, a black hat). Photos of Hasidim in full garb in a wheat field, reaping for their matzoh; dressed up as Cossacks on Purim; in crowded family portraits; and firing arrows at a target representing the yetzer harah, the evil inclination: There is humor, joy, weirdness, pride, death—the constant is celebration of the extraordinary nature of everyday life.
But the exhibit, however compelling, is arguably less interesting than the fact that there is an exhibit at all, because Hasidic culture a) isn’t lost or dead, and therefore isn’t an obvious suspect for museum treatment; and b), is extraordinarily insular and suspicious of the outside world. Here’s an overlap of two worlds—hoity-toity secular museum culture and the beard ’n’ sidelocks crowd—that pretty much never get along, and yet somehow the result has been a runaway success, even among Hasidim, who’ve been literally lining up to see it (including, amazingly, some rebbes, one or two of whom, I’m told, went incognito). But to understand how a Hasidic exhibit avoids the social and artistic politics you’d imagine would have plagued it, and why it was not only not shunned by the Hasidic community but even on some level embraced, you have to understand that the exhibit—and Hasidism in general—is not only, or even really, about religion.
In contrast to the religious signification of “Haredi,” or ultra-Orthodox, Hasidism is actually an extra-religious demarcation: It’s a separate world, built upon but distinct from the “regular” religious world of halakhah. Hasidic rituals and customs, like the dress and tish, receive their obligatory force less from heaven than from something like a complicated set of spiritually imbued social mores. Hasidism is a robust culture—with its own textures and complexity and kookiness and jargon. A Haredi exhibit would never work—not politically, not logistically, not without garbage-burning protests and the like; the Hasidic one is a near-masterpiece (if flawed) because it can and does de-focus the strictly religious in order to explore, with a very effective combination of deference and curiosity, a wider cultural space. (This is why the Hebrew title of the exhibit, which translates to “Not Black and White,” isn’t great—it just lumps all the strangely dressed Jews together.)
Within the Hasidic world, there is a colossal extra-religious significance imparted to objects, individuals (usually, but not exclusively, the rebbe), food, and occasions. Many of these are fruitfully explored in the exhibit: The upsherin, a Hasidic boy’s first haircut; the intricacies of shtreimel-making; the architecture of historical and current Hasidic headquarters; the dollar bills famously doled out by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In fact, Hasidism responds extraordinarily well to the mission of any decent museum—the actualization, exploration, and celebration of a defined cultural space. Far more than the vanilla Haredim, Hasidim put enormous spiritual stock in things and, more broadly, in their representations: A photo of a rebbe—and the exhibit has about a dozen, which are remarkable both individually and in aggregate for capturing just how significant the rebbe is in this world—is treasured, as is anything that once belonged to him. The exhibit picks up nicely on this idea of infectious holiness. The inclusion of a fork that belonged to the Rebbe of Rashkov, which I assure you is no more interesting than it sounds, does admittedly nail the extent of rebbe-veneration.
Which is all part of the larger reason why the Hasidic community loved the exhibit—this is stuff they really care about and appreciate. And a museum isn’t as foreign a forum as you might think. The Hasidic museum-goer has a profound admiration for the art, though perhaps with different criteria than his secular counterpart: The aesthetics are less an end than a means to capture and glimpse—and thereby experience—holiness. There is, also, a deep Hasidic pride. The curator, Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, told me that not only did no Hasid complain about the exhibit, but many asked why there wasn’t more footage of their own particular sect. And the exhibit, as is immediately and abundantly clear, is nothing if not respectful. (In fact, the only criticism the exhibit received, from some on the Israeli left, was that it was too respectful, that it didn’t use the opportunity to criticize the ultra-religious.) Plus, many Hasidim had the chance to see up-close sects other than their own; this world isn’t just insular, it’s highly fragmented, with around a couple dozen major sects, and scores of lesser-known ones, many of them barely overlapping. It’s hard to catch a different sect’s tish when you’ve always got your own to go to.
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