Hasidism are Judaism’s ‘pious ones’

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By Judi Siegal

They are characterized by their distinct mode of dress and ultra-conservative approach to Judaism. They are often the brunt of prejudice and scorn but their influence extends even to pop culture. They are the Hasidim and their story is a fascinating one.

Hasidism (from the Hebrew word meaning “pious ones”) was born in the late 1700s. It was founded in Poland by Israel ben Eliezar, more commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov or Master of the Good Name.

Israel was disturbed by the prevailing rabbinical thought of his day with its strict rabbinical authority and influence of the wealthy and what he perceived as austere worship. He founded his new movement within Orthodox Judaism, with medieval talmudic and mystical ideas and much emphasis on joyous worship of God. Ben Israel’s ideas were ridiculed by the rabbis of the day because he was acting against the religious establishment.

The movement became popular with the poor and less educated people, and they were attracted to their charismatic leaders called rebbes who, according to local lore, performed miracles and could intercede with God on their behalf. In the close-knit society of the shetls or little villages of Eastern Europe, Hasidism continued to flourish up to the time of the Holocaust.

The Hasidim believe in a close relationship with God. They follow Jewish ritual very carefully, keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath, among others.

They believe that God is everywhere, even in the evil in the world,  so that the hasid must strive for goodness and the performance of good deeds to bring about peace and righteousness in the world. They pray, study, and act out of compassion for all of creation.

Their worship services include much singing and dancing and swaying of their bodies in rhythm to the liturgy. The women sit separate from the men in services and in public events.

Their daily life revolves around the myriad prayers and Jewish rituals which comprise the life of an Orthodox Jew. Even mundane actions take on special holiness when accompanied by the proper blessings.

Many of their rituals and customs date back 300 years ago to Eastern Europe and sometimes clash with modern living. For this reason, most Hasidim today live segregated in enclaves called “courts” and are served by their leader.

Large concentrations of Hasidim can be found in America, Canada, Australia, Western Europe and Israel, with New York laying claim to 160,000 mainly in Williamsburg, Boro Park and Crown Heights. There are about 250,000 Hasidim in the world today. Some groups, like the Lubavitch, send emissaries all over the world, such as the rabbi and his wife who were recently killed in Mumbai, India.

Within the Hasidic world are “sects” or groups led by a rabbi. The names of these sects are taken from the villages or towns where they originated.

For instance; the Satmar from Satu Mar in Hungary, the Belz, from Poland, and the Lubavitch from Russia, The Lubavitch have a local court in Gainesville where they minister to the “Jewish Gator Nation” at the University of Florida. Each of these groups have distinct dress and local customs.

Often mistaken for the Amish, the Hasidim wear long black coats and with ritual fringes dangling out of their shirt corners. Their heads are covered at all times as a sign of respect to God. Their beards are not shaved and their side locks, called payes, are not cut in accordance to ancient Biblical command.

The women also dress modestly in long skirts or dresses, legs covered by long stockings. Married women cover their hair with wigs or kerchiefs. Sleeves of their outfits must come to the elbow or beyond.

Women are often married by age 18 and having large families of eight or more children is considered a mitzvah, commandment. Both sexes know their place in society and what is expected of them.

From its earliest beginnings, the Hasidic movement had to battle the establishment that rejected the Hassidic ideas of spiritual renewal. Later their opponents joined hands when the haskalah or enlightenment movement with its modern thoughts began to take hold in Europe in the mid 1800s.

When the Nazis stormed through Europe, the hasidim were often the brunt of cruel anti-Semitic racial profiling. They were ridiculed in the streets by the Nazi officers and their minions and many perished in concentration camps. Those who survived made their way to America and other countries where they were able to preserve their heritage and language, Yiddish.

While the Hasidic lifestyle, with its strict adherence to Jewish law, may not appeal to mainstream Jews the Hasidic influence can be felt in modern Jewish life as well as American pop culture. Nigunim, songs without words, usually sung to nonsense syllables like bim bom, are popular even with Reform Jews.

Matisyahu, a Hasidic reggae-rock star, complete with Hasidic garb, appeared on Jay Leno not long ago. Works by authors Martin Buber, Eli Weisel and Isaac Bashevis Singer all reflect stories and ideologies from the Hasidic culture. In their own small way, the Hasidim have managed to preserve a part of Jewish life practically annihilated by the Nazis.

Not bad for a people who shun TV.

Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Sun Valley with her husband, Phil.