Courting Hasidim

‘A World Apart Next Door’ sets out some of the hasidic lifestyle for all to see.

Orthodox men prepare matza 390 (R) (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / Reuters)
Orthodox men prepare matza 390 (R)
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / Reuters)
The title of the exhibition “A World Apart Next Door” spells out the “so near yet so far” context of the new show at the Israel Museum. “It’s about something that’s actually in our midst, but it’s about something that not very many of us know very much about,” noted museum director James Snyder prior to the tour.
“Very few people have ever been in the homes of hasidim,” says the curator of the exhibition Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, “We see these people, especially in Jerusalem, on the streets on an everyday basis, but so few of us have any personal or business contact with them.”
Muchawsky-Schnapper is hopeful that “A World Apart Next Door” will help to redress that social imbalance. “the plain fact is that there is no wall between us or closed door.”
The exhibition does set at least some of the hasidic stall out for all to see. The exhibits are loosely split into four categories – men, women, children, rebbe and history. There are some attractive and highly evocative photographs, dating back to the beginning of the 20th century and up to the present day. One of the oldest prints on show is a delightful 1930s shot of the Gerer Rebbe, Avraham Mordehai Alter, accompanied by his sons and other hasidim during a vacation at Marienbad, now in the Czech Republic.
The rebbe is in a playful mood and aims a pugilistic stance at the photographer.
In his opening remarks, Snyder mentioned “some quite stunning footage” of events from the hasidic way of life. The director could not be accused of hyperbole with regard to the clip that shows a mitzve-tantz (mitzva dance) in which the father of the bride dances energetically around his daughter.
The two each hold opposite ends of a long white piece of cloth, while the young bride’s face is hidden by a veil from the thousands of, mostly male, onlookers. It is a case in point, and a prime example of a side of hasidic life of which most of us would not normally be aware.
Elsewhere in the exhibition there is a portrait photograph of a fine young man sporting his brand new streimel.
The caption in the exhibition catalogue notes that the streimel has “a crown, in the latest style,” and that fashion-consciousness aspect, presumably, is not something one would normally associate with hasidic attire. There are sumptuous examples of men’s ritual coats – bekeshes – including one particularly impressive dark blue silk specimen.
While Muchawsky-Schnapper was keen to point out that the exhibition, in fact, portrays a contemporary community, visitors looking for some historical value will delight in some of the older items on display.
These include study and prayer books, and a fine example of a kroyn – a coronet of pearls, gold, wool and silk dating to the 19th century. The kroyn was originally worn atop a shterntikhl headdress.
And just to keep us up to date, the exhibition includes a color photograph of three women wearing a shterntikhl, albeit a somewhat downmarket version compared with the antique kroyn, taken at a wedding in Jerusalem just six years ago.
Intriguingly, “A World Apart Next Door” sheds some light on some of the various courts within the cloistered hasidic world, and the poster for the exhibition features two little boys who come from the Nadvorna and Rachmstrivke courts. “A World Apart Next Door” is certainly an eye opener.