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Hasidism, in Living Color

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

Menachem Kaiser
November 15, 2012

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.

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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Menachem Kaiser is a Helen Zell Fellow at the University of Michigan, as well as a Wexner Graduate Fellow.

Menachem Kaiser is a Helen Zell Fellow at the University of Michigan, as well as a Wexner Graduate Fellow.