Thursday, December 29, 2005

Hasidic Comings And Goings


On the recommendation of Robert Avrech at Seraphic Secret, two nights ago I went to see Ushpizin. Ushpizin, an odd sounding word to ears accustomed to English, simply means guests in Aramaic. Anyway, I loved the film, which does - hands down - the best job of portraying what the spiritual internality of life is like among (some) Bretslover Jews (a sect of hassidic Jews), living in Yerushalayim.

Sure, in some ways the story is neatened up and simplified and idealized, but, then, in other ways it is not at all. The story is about the tests that impede the attainment of a simple faith.

Moshe, the protagonist, is a baal tshuva, someone who was formerly not religious, has repented and has turned his life around to become religious in a strict hassidic sect. At the start of the film, he's broke and childless, someone who collects charity for the yeshivah and lives on charity himself - and is not succeeding very well with either task. It's not fully explained in the film, but I wonder if he takes on this task of being entirely beholden to people's good will, their charity, because in his former life he appeared to be a bully and, there's an implication, somewhat of a thief. Anyway, he hung out with the criminal class. So now, to make up for that, he's putting himself in the opposite existential situation, with a desire not to push or bully anyone into giving him charity, an approach that doesn't work altogether well. His path to repentance, he feels intuitively, is steeper than that of other people.

But as Moshe's rebbe reminds us, the reward for passing a spiritual test is not rest or peace, but to be stuck with another, more difficult spiritual test.

As I mentioned above, this film illuminates the content of the spiritual reality in this corner of the world. People who are engaged in actively trying to make themselves into better human beings on a spiritual plane. Extremely limited externally because the focus is inward. On trying to improve yourself according to the biblical model.

Anyway, I recommend this film, especially for people interested in religious life and/ or expressions of Jewish spirituality. And for people who know nothing about this kind of lifestyle, it's good for an anthropological excursion.

Just as an autobiographical note, I was once quite good friends with someone who married a Bretslover and moved to Safed. And I spent a lot of time up there with them at one point.

I also enjoy reading Rabbi Nachman of Bretslov's collected writings - he was the founder of Bretslov, and he has this very interesting aphoristic style. Profound little nuggets offered up in his collected writings.

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And now for the other side of the spectrum, for hasidic Jews moving into a secular life style, there is now a New York group that receives some grant money to help individuals with this huge transition.
Footsteps, a two-year-old Manhattan-based nonprofit group ... helps dropouts from the haredi world transition into secular society.

No one knows how many American Jews have left the fervently Orthodox fold, although most are believed to have come from the New York area. There are no statistics, and, until Footsteps was created, no organization to help them learn how to make it on the outside.

While the organized Jewish world doesn't usually think of hassidic dropouts as "Jews in need," outsiders can't begin to imagine how frightening and complicated the everyday world can seem to a person who only knows the carefully controlled cocoon of Satmar, Skver or Bobov.

Particularly for a young person, whose departure can be hasty and unplanned, the road out of the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg or Crown Heights is fraught with confusion and loneliness - and sometimes drug abuse.

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