Hasidism, in Living Color
Jerusalem’s Israel museum persuasively shows that Hasidism is not only, or even really, about religion
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 rebbe—which 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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