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Hasidism, in Living Color

Jerusalem’s Israel museum persuasively shows that Hasidism is not only, or even really, about religion

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Mitsvah-tantz of the bride with her father, the Rachmestrivke Rebbe, David Twersky, Netanya, 2011 (Yuval Nadel; all photos courtesy of the Israel Museum)
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In truth, it’s a little misleading to go on about how open the Hasidic community was to the exhibit without detailing just how much went into making sure that was the case. The photographers, though all staunchly nonreligious, have been working with Hasidim for years, developing the necessary sensitivities and relationships so that that exceptional ops could be had without breaking religious strictures. None of the photographs or videos were shot on Shabbat or holidays—Hasidim have a lot of celebrations and customs, many of which don’t happen on days that prohibit work (a technical term that includes using electronics). The museum retained a Hasidic consultant during curation—a caption about women’s head scarves, for example, was deemed inappropriate and censored. “There’s just so much,” one of the photographers, Yuval Nadel, explained to me, adding “you don’t have to break any rules to get the shot.” The text, especially, betrays the exhibit’s microscopic level of sensitivity. The museum uses a very careful “it is said” sort of rhetoric in attributing artifacts, as Hasidim are as unscientific as they are unskeptical in their belief that a given rebbe did in fact own a given artifact.

Sensitivity, though, has its limits. The corollary of the exhibit—that Hasidism has been curated and “captured,” and all the passive, critical observation that implies and engenders—does inevitably raise queasy questions of exploitation. And while the exhibit mostly successfully sticks to a sort of morally pareve celebration through art, it does occasionally stumble. The exhibit is weakest when the by-any-measure great art gives way to catalog copy, wherein celebration is overwhelmed by exposition. The walls of propped-up dress and costume, accompanied by explanatory charts, might be on some level “ethnographically relevant” but nevertheless seem a little anthropological. A lovely photo of a Hasidic boy dressed as an IDF soldier is almost ruined by its didactic and patronizing caption identifying the soldier as the “ultimate Other.” The layout, also, is perhaps too textbook-y: divided into themed rooms—of ritual, children, women, men, and the rebbewhich sometimes feels like an attempt to flatten the entirety of the Hasidic world into edu-tainment wall displays. What is so Hasidic or even noteworthy about Yiddish board games, for example, or toys? Art and ethnography, representation and exposition, don’t often mix well—it’s why great art always has an aspect of mystery, or why a joke unpacked isn’t funny—and on occasion the exhibit uncomfortably straddles this line, as does the Israel Museum, with its excellent, edgy contemporary art collection down the hall from its 50:1 replica model of first-century Jerusalem.

But these sentiments are the exception, and any unease you might have is dissipated when you encounter a work that is a whole world unto itself. There is, in an unassuming corner in the second room, an aerial photo of a just-deceased rebbe on the synagogue floor, wrapped in a prayer shawl, in a circle of tea candles hemmed in by praying and grieving Hasidim; here nothing has to be explained.


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julis123 says:

In Israel, at least, it’s one huge scam. What can be bad about not having to go in the army and instead of working, live off the Israeli taxpayer?

“What is so Hasidic or even noteworthy about Yiddish board games, for example, or toys?”

What is so Hasidic about Yiddish board games? Are you kidding? Do you know of Yiddish board games not made for Hasidim – especially in Israel?

Why would they be less noteworthy than a rebbeshe fork? It’s an artifact of a culture.

To all the naysayers, I think you’re quibbling. This is a terrifically original look at Hasidism and it’s exactly this type of writing and analysis that gets me back to Tablet. Great essay.

Please look

Could they have used some material from Chaim Potok’s Hasidic/non-Hasidic novels? He contrasts Hasidic life with ordinary Jewish life, and with aspects of non-Jewish life such as art. Well presented sections of some texts might have gone well alongside some exhibits, bringing literature into the equation.

julis123, so it’s one huge scam. The culture does not exist, the Rebbe didn’t dance with the bride and the fork never belonged to that other Rebbe.
The point of the museum is to see the lives of chassidim as a cultural item. Your judgement of them does not change the facts of their existence.

julis123 says:

Why legitimize their parasitic culture? and more to the point why at the Israel Museum, since they only bring damage to Israel.

anonymous yid says:

you dont understand because just a picture cant capture the entire scene, the mitzvah is that the rebbe and other honorees, including her relatives and groom-who, by the way, will dance with her without the gartel-, are paying homage to the bride, its not about the rebbe and the bride dancing together, the rebbe is dancing for her benefit. also, the audience isnt all male, for the mitzvah tantz in particular, the barrier between the men and women is actually removed, you just cant see it in the pic

If the rebbe is dancing for her benefit, and not dancing with her – why have a gartel at all? He can just dance. And the mechitzah is removed? I’m shocked! And what, she’s going to dance with her husband before the wedding without the gartel? Horrors!

And you’re “anonymous yid” typing like e.e. cummings and with minimal punctuation. Hmm – doing this on a cell phone where you don’t think you’ll be observed?


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A World Apart Next Door

Glimpses into the life of Hasidic Jews
Photographs by Yuval Nadel