A Life Apart

A Life Apart, directed by Menachem Daum and Orem Rudavsky, is a thought provoking and insightful glimpse into the history and culture of the Hasidic movement within the wider Jewish community.

The documentary touches on all aspects of Hasidic life, from religion and education to marriage and social structure. Narrated by Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker, A Life Apart tries to peel back the layers of isolation that Hasidic communities traditionally build around themselves.

The documentary interweaves the history and origins of Hasidism with the dilemmas that modern Hasidic Jews must grapple with every day. Hasidism was founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer in eighteenth century Poland. During this time there was a strong negative reaction to the traditions of Rabbinical Judaism, which was increasingly felt to be academic in nature and not spiritual. Hasidism is a response to this and is based in the more mystical and Kabbalah traditions.

Practioners of Kabbalistic rituals, such as Hasidic Jews, believe that God can be found in all things and spiritual enlightenment does not have to come only from reading the Torah, but can come from everyday life. Among Hasidic Jews eating, sleeping and even sex can have spiritual significance.

The majority of Hasidic Jews are of East European descent. This was the case because after Hasidism was established, many Orthodox rabbis excommunicated practioners of Hasidism and expelled them from their communities. As a result, Hasidic Jews are sometimes called “a minority within a minority.”

In addition to examining the history of Hasidic Jews, A Life Apart also examines the difficulties that Hasidic Jews have faced in trying to maintain their way of life. When Hasidic Jews began immigrating to the United States after the Second World War, they made a conscious decision not to send their children to college. As a result they have remained poor, or at best middle class.

The filmmakers contend that this decision has isolated many Hasidic Jews from mainstream American culture and society. The directors further expand on this point by pointing out the fact that many Hasidic enclaves are located in predominantly black or Hispanic neighbourhoods.

The film includes interviews with some of the people who live side by side with Hasidic Jews. These interviews are both surprising and illuminating, especially in a city as large and ethnically diverse as New York. The Hasidic community in New York City can seem to outsiders to be aloof, arrogant and culturally backwards.

This has to do at least in part with how Hasidic Jews, see their community leaders, or Rebbes. For Hasidic Jews, the Rebbe has a special connection with God. No decision, great or small in taken without the Rebbe’s blessing. The Rebbe is consulted Even after death. His tomb may be covered with handwritten notes and prayers asking him intercede with God on behalf of the community. The sense of community among Hasidic is so strong that they will not move out of their community unless the whole enclave decides to move.

Hasidic Jews have been described as “urban puritans.” Even in the face of the Holocaust, they steadfastly clung to their way of life, despite the obstacles they have encountered over the course of their history. It has been estimated that four of five Hasidic Jews were sent to the gas chambers during the Second World War.

A Life Apart is a balanced, even-handed and insightful film that tries to demystify a poorly understood, yet highly admirable group of people. It casts them as flawed and imperfect human beings with a strong sense of community and a deep belief in the importance of family who living in, and trying to adapt to, a world that seems to have passed them by.


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