The Hassidim and We

Presented by David P. Stern on 29 July 1997 in Greenbelt, Maryland


It is the middle of summer, too hot to go out, and the TV is on re-runs.

      I guess there is nothing left but to read a book, and I would like to discuss one with you today--this book which I am holding.

      I will talk about it, and maybe it will give you the incentive to buy or borrow it and read it yourselves. Later, if time allows, we might have a short discussion about it, because I suspect there might exist different opinions on its subject.

      It is a book about the Hassidim, titled "Boychiks in the 'Hood" and subtitled "Travels in the Hassidic Underground", by Robert Eisenberg, published in 1995 by Harper, San Francisco.

      It is essentially a travelogue, moving from one Hassidic community to another, in the US, Europe and Israel. Eisenberg writes well, the story moves briskly and the imagery is vivid--you can almost smell the cabbage soup or hear the davening.

      Let me describe some of his stops.

      Chapter 1 takes you to the epicenter of Hassidic life, to Williamsburg, New York. To those who generally associate the Hassidim with the Lubavich movement, Chabad, it may come as a surprise that there exist many other streams of Hassidim, some larger and older--The Belzer Hassidim, Satmar, Bratzlaver, Bobover... and more.

      We are familiar with the Lubavich movement because it actively tries to convert other Jews, with some success. But the actual situation is much more varied. Some Hassidim have adjusted to the existence of Israel, some are ambiguous--the Satmars are militantly anti-Zionist--and each has its own leadership dynasty.

      Chapter 2 looks at one of those dynasties, with a visit to the chief rabbi of the Bobov movement, vacationing in Saratoga Springs, New York.

      If the old dynasties are at the top of the social order, at the bottom are the "New Hassidim", the "ba'aley tshuvah", the repentant ones, converts from secular Judaism.

      Chapter 3 visits two of these, a married couple in St. Paul, Minnesota--Hannah is 39 with ten children, Nochum is a shochet and a mohel on the side. The chapter is about evenly divided, so the reader can see life through the eyes of each of the two, not an easy life for either.

      The next chapter moves to Los Angeles, to a congregation whose rabbi is in jail for shady financial deals, and then a huge jump to Uman, in the Ukraine, where Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav is buried. The rabbi, a grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov and a leader of his own Hassidic stream, died in 1811, and asked his faithful to visit him each Rosh Hashanah--and even though the Ukraine is in turmoil, an economic basket case, they come, by the thousands. They come even though bribes must be paid as well as high rents for apartments whose owners have moved in with relatives for a week or two, and more money for a moonlighting Ukrainian helicopter pilot who shuttles the devout followers among the graves of the lesser luminaries.

      And because of the old roots, some Hassidim are returning to Ukraina, restoring old synagogues, helping set up Jewish communities. That is part of a pattern--while secular Judaism is retreating or at best holding the line, the Hassidim are expanding.

      Expanding--but not everywhere. Chapter 6 is set in Poland, in Dombrova, visiting some of the last remaining observant Jews in that part of the country, aging holdouts.

      Then to the diamond cutters in Antwerp, a community doing well and getting rich, and on to Postville, Iowa, where some enterprising Hassidim spotted a great commercial opportunity--set up a kosher slaughterhous right where the cattle are being raised, and supply an expanding market for guaranteed kosher meat.

      And so on, even to Israel, where Eisenberg meets a Hassidic rabbi, a "repentant" from Bennington, Vermont who is also a 3rd degree black belt champion in Karate. You might like what you read, you may be alarmed by it--but one thing I guarantee, you won't be bored.

      Again, this is "Boychiks in the 'Hood" by Robert Eisenberg. After the service you can borrow my copy for a while and look at it yourselves.

      Now let me repeat what I just said: you may like what you read, or you may be alarmed, depending what you think about Hassidim. Among non-Hassidic Jews, opinions are definitely divided.

      Some view Hassidim as the last authentic Jews around. They seem to envy their unshakable faith, recalling the old days--but having eaten from the tree of forbidden knowledge, that way is no longer an option for them. Still some do take their kids to New York to show them what "real Jews" are like. The "Beit Hillel" at the University of Maryland [next door to us], I understand, has a Lubavitcher, and some young people are strongly attracted to him and to his way of life. That's the sort of thing that produces ba'aley teshuvah.

      Others look at Hassidim as a living fossil--living the way our forefathers lived 100-200 years ago. Then the Jewish nation split:

  • Some became Zionists and moved to Israel.
  • Some became Americans and their Jewish culture evolved in ways quite familiar to us, through the Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements.
  • And those left in the shtetl perished in the Holocaust, among them many Hassidic communities. Though it should be said that even before that, the hold of old-time religion on European Jewish life was severely eroded by the enlightment and by secular culture.

      And now the Hassidim are expanding again. In part that is because of a high birthrate and strict discipline, Especially the narrow channeling of children's education. In part because this is free country, where any tribe of humanity is free to isolate itself from the rest.

      Where will it ultimately lead? An interesting question. Eisenberg extrapolates current trends to 8-10 million Hassidim and orthodox Jews by the year 2075. Even before that, they will outnumber all other Jews in the country.

      Rather than continue along that line, let me open the floor to your expressions of opinion.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 10 June 2002