Magic Jewball

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Jew & A – Hassidism

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism
On May 15, 2008
At 5:20 pm
Comments : 4

This answer is long so I won’t dilly-dally, let’s get right to it.

MsZula (from Missoula – get it? MsZula? Hee) writes:

Late last week I was in Manhattan seeing attire on folks that was new to me. I assume, because of side curl (sorry don’t know official name for this) and yarmulkes, that they are Orthodox? I googled this and didn’t find much. The men were all wearing a silk like coat and the women and girls were all in black skirts and hats.

They almost looked like the Amish version of the Jewish religion. From what I could tell they were speaking English, but with an accent. Are they most likely all immigrants? I was fascinated, but managed to not stare.

So can you tell me a bit more about this? Are they the most strict of this faith. Are most Jewish people in Israel this strict? Are the women considered equal? Other people’s lives and faiths fascinate me. Where I live (Montana) is pretty much Wonder White Bread when it comes to things like this.

TIA from the girl that needs to get out more often. 🙂

I write about Hassidim from time to time and I just throw the word around like everyone knows what I’m talking about. And then I see questions like this and I realize I’m a dumbass for thinking that. Or a New Yorker. Or both.

But who are the Hassidim and why do I immediately know that’s who MsZula is talking about? I’m going to start with a Hassidic story. Once there was a poor peasant boy (all Hassidic stories take place in Eastern Europe) who lived far from any town. One year on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement which is the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar, his father took him to synagogue. But the boy knew no prayers and couldn’t read the siddur, the prayer book. All day (Yom Kippur prayers last all day), the boy felt a spiritual need to pray to God but did not have any way to express it. In his pocket he carried a whistle that he used to gather the sheep he tended and as the final, most important Yom Kippur prayers started, he reached for it and whistled loudly. Naturally, everyone was shocked. But the Baal Shem Tov, who was the founder of Hassidism, was there and told everyone that the boy’s prayer had been the purest and the one which opened the gates of Heaven for everyone else’s prayers.

That’s the essence of Hassidism, that knowledge isn’t the important thing, heartfelt love of God is the road to a good and meaningful life. The Baal Shem Tov lived in Eastern Europe in the 18th century and passed down his teachings to the leaders of the various Hassidic sects we know today. Hassidism comes from the Hebrew word hasidut, or piety. Hassid is singular, Hassidim is plural.

So why do they dress so funny? The Hassidic sects are known for their insularity and devotion to their Rebbes, or the leaders of the sects. Those in the United States came over from Europe at various times, mostly around the time of Holocaust, and reestablished their communities here. Many went to Israel and did the same thing there. The sects are known mostly by the name of the town in Europe from which they came. The Lubovitch (a.k.a. Chabad), for example, which is the largest sect, come from Lyubavichi in Russia. The Satmar, who are the people at B&H Photo, came from Satu Mare, Romania. The Skver come from Skvira, Ukraine and now live in a place they call New Square. Seriously! Other famous ones are the Belz, Bobov, Breslov, Ger, Puppa, and Vizhnitz. We had matzah made by the Puppa (pronounced poo-pah) on Passover. This led to many “every party has a puppa” jokes, but I digress.

The Hassidim sought to preserve the culture and values they knew in Europe. Because of this, much of their clothing stems from the period of time Hassidism was founded. Some also have distinctive meanings that correspond with Jewish values of modesty and Hassidic values of communion with God. The shtreimel, or furry hat, was probably the fashion of the day in 18th century Russia and Poland. The long, silken coat is to cover the body. A special sash some wear is to separate the upper and lower parts of the body, that’s for personal modesty. Some wear slipper-type shoes so that they don’t have to defile their hands by touching their shoes during the day. Additionally, the clothing styles of different Hassidic sects differ.

Re: the sidecurls, those are called payes (pronounced pay-ess – in Sephardic Hebrew, payot – pay-oat), which are worn due to the Biblical command not to shave the face. (In case you were wondering, the prohibition is against using a blade, which is how many Jews justify shaving; they use an electric razor).

Hassidic women, and many Orthodox women in general, dress to unimpress. That is, modesty is the most important thing. Skirts below the knee, often to the ankle, and tops that cover the elbows and sometimes wrists, are the standard. Married women cover their hair. Hassidic women, like the men, tend to dress in dark colors. Becca once went to a Hassidic synagogue in Baltimore by mistake in a bright floral dress. Awkward!

Let’s get to your specific questions.

They almost looked like the Amish version of the Jewish religion
Hassidim are like the Amish in that they keep to old traditions in order to preserve their religion and culture. Hassidim do use electricity but don’t have TV’s or computers.

From what I could tell they were speaking English; but with an accent. Are they most likely all immigrants?
As mentioned in a previous Jew & A, Hassidim mostly speak Yiddish, the language of the shtetls (small Jewish towns) from which their ancestors came. They were most likely born here in America and speak English with a Yiddish accent.

Are they the most strict of this faith. Are most Jewish people in Israel this strict?
Hassidim are part of a larger, very traditional group, called Heredim (literally “those who tremble [before God]”). They don’t belong to sects specifically but are very conservative religiously. I would say they are the most strict of the faith. There are Hassidim in Israel. There are also regular old Orthodox (that is, observers of traditional Jewish law living in the secular world) in Israel. But most of Israel is secular, actually.

Are the women considered equal?
This is a tough question to answer. I’m going to give you my personal feelings on the topic. In Judaism in general, men and women have different roles and different spheres. They are different and thus hard to compare. By today’s standards, people often think the women’s roles are lesser but I would argue that it wasn’t designed that way. In Hassidism and right-wing Orthodoxy, women’s roles are pretty proscribed. But “equal” has many meanings and I would say, by the strict definition of your question, in Hassidism, as in all Judaism, all people are created in the image of God and are therefore equal. But in the way I think you mean the question, like, can a woman do everything a man can do, no. But men can’t do things women can either. Everyone has a role, it just depends on which role you give value to. For good or bad, our society tends to give more value to the roles traditionally performed by Hassidic men.

Thanks for asking!