All at home with the Hasidim: Books

BOYCHIKS IN THE HOOD by Robert Eisenberg, Quartet pounds 9
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The Independent Culture
Afew years ago in Jerusalem, a striking tableau vivant presented itself to me: three young men, all roughly of the same age, standing at the edge of a street within a few feet of one another.

This trio consisted of an Israeli soldier, an Arab and a Hasidic Jew. The soldier and the Arab were both dark and curly haired. The young Hasid's blond hair was twisted into traditional sidelocks beneath a large black hat. The others were tanned, he was pale. They were swaggering and muscular, he was thin, bespectacled and withdrawn, a ghost from old, cold Europe under the Middle-Eastern sun. Who was the odd one out?

The whole of this week's newspaper could be devoted to the question without arriving at a definitive answer. Suffice to say that in the Jewish world family, unity and division are inseparable twins.

One of the many nuggets produced by Robert Eisenberg in his engaging and informative journey into the strictly Orthodox, mainly Hasidic, Jewish heartland is the disclosure that some Hasidim belonging to the Satmar sect (originating in 18th-century Hungary) tore down posters congratulating the son of the Belzer Rebbe (of Polish antecedence) on his recent marriage. What had incurred the Satmar wrath was that the Belzer Rebbe had invited Binyamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres and the former mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, to the wedding. For the poster-rippers and a good many other Hasidim, this was tantamount to acknowledging the State of Israel. Even though a number of Satmar and other anti-Zionist Hasidim live in Israel, they do not recognise it because, according to their reading of the Torah, there can be no Jewish state until the arrival of the Messiah.

The picture is further complicated by the fact that a minority within the most outgoing Hasidic sect, the Lubavitch, believe that the Messiah has come - in the person of the high-profile Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The fact that the Rebbe died in 1994 can be seen as an example either of the unshakeable nature of Hasidic faith or of a tenacious clinging to outmoded superstitions.

Either way, the Hasidim - and the equally fundamentalist Mitnaggedim, among whom Eisenberg also roams - are out of step with the majority of Jews in today's world. Though the ultra-Orthodox Jew enjoys tobacco and alcohol (the latter mostly in a ritualistic context), he rejects television and all secular pursuits including sport, history and the great classics of literature and art. So, while his educational institutions are centres of the most intensive study, this will not involve anything outside the Bible or the Talmud.

Such exclusive and inward-looking concentration on Judaism ensures that Hasidic children are not lost to the faith through assimilation or marriage into non-Jewish cultures. And we're talking about a great many children here. Eight or nine offspring are unexceptional in a Hasidic household, and Eisenberg postulates a situation in which these fervent and exotic family networks, now very much on the periphery, could one day form the Jewish majority.

Be that as it may, his description of his meetings with them is both entertaining and instructive. The attitudes he uncovers are occasionally frightening - as when a Lubavitcher says of Baruch Goldstein's massacre of 40 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron, "He only had to kill one - Rabin." But the warm welcome that Eisenberg, a self-confessed secular Jew, received almost everywhere says something about Hasidic hospitality, although his fluency in Yiddish - courtesy of a distinctly anti-Hasidic grandmother - enabled him to breach the walls of distrust more easily.

His visits to various centres in America, Israel and Europe (including a celebrated seminary in the unlikely English setting of Gateshead) reveal a galaxy of vibrant microcosms in which it is impossible to be passive. He explores some of the distinctions between the different groups - the Bratslaver Hasidim, followers of Nachman of Bratslav, for instance, are "nature lovers and meditation freaks", while the Karliner-Stoliners are known as "the screaming Hasidim" because of their tendency to yell as they pray.

As for the differences between Hasidim in general and their less extrovert brethren, the Mitnaggedim, Eisenberg presents some that are intriguingly esoteric. His own stance throughout is that of the sympathetic neutral, refreshingly free both of the unquestioning deference and of the patronising condescension so often shown by mainstream or non-religious Jews towards the strictly religious Haredim. But the psychology of men and women (among them a significant sprinkling of baale teshuvah or "born again" Jews) who resolutely turn their backs on much of the world around them, and who find fulfilment by surrendering their individuality to the throng, has to be teased out from between the lines of Eisenberg's account.

His basic discoveries are perhaps unsurprising. The joyful, celebratory family life does not leave the communities free from taint. Deep learning and spirituality are offset by alarming ignorance and insensitivity. Differences between the sects often lead to vicious hostility, not to mention contempt for many fellow Jews. And, while the rapid population growth represents a victory over Hitler, some of the views held about non-observant Jews who perished in the Holocaust are breathtaking in their callousness.

But Eisenberg's survey has its insights and, as a child of American popular culture, the analogies he makes with rock musicians and movie characters are vivid and, more often than not, apposite in a lively introduction to this colourful and neglected subject.