A Life Apart: Hasidism in America

The Hasidic movement started in 18th-century Europe, stressing joy and ecstatic faith, in opposition to the orthodoxy of the time. This is the first documentary to present an in-depth, historically accurate portrait of America's Hasidic community. With moving, beautifully photographed portraits of family and communal life, A LIFE APART illuminates the deep spiritual resonance of Judaism as practiced by Brooklyn's Hasidim. The treatment is always respectful, even when exploring the limitations of Hasidic law. A young woman leaves the fold to pursue her own life in modernity. She is able to reflect on the positive legacy of Hasidism, "a valuation of inner beauty over materialism," and critique orthodoxy's restrictive aspects for women. The film also gives voice to the community's mostly Black and Latino neighbors, who have a strained relationship with a group that keeps to itself. A Hasidic tale provides a central metaphor for the film. The ceremonial mantle that wraps the Torah scroll is too small and a Hasid suggests cutting the Torah down to fit the cover. But the rabbi is wise and tailors the mantle to fit the Torah. Unlike other Jews, Hasidism never sought to integrate. Instead, they shaped their new surroundings to fit their religious beliefs, rebuilding societal structures that were all but destroyed in the Holocaust. Narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker and Leonard Nimoy.
"This film tells the story of my parent's generation of Hasidic Holocaust survivors. They did not allow themselves to be deterred by their unanswered questions and unresolved crisis of faith. They resisted the compelling pressures to "Americanize." They just felt they had to keep the story going, they had to perpetuate a way of life which had meant so much to their parents and grandparents. Our family came to America in May of 1951. Upon arrival we were "adopted" by a very kind American-Jewish family, the Dubbs. They had been recruited by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society as volunteers to help us "refugees" get settled in America. They took us to Schenectady, New York where they got us a nice apartment and arranged a good job for my father. He was making $50 a week of which he was able to save $10. Mrs. Dubb took me to the Riverside Public School and registered me in the first grade as "Martin." She told me it would be much easier for people to pronounce than Menachem. The Dubbs helped us get a TV set so we could learn English. Our TV was such a novelty at the time that many of our neighbors would come over to watch Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. All was going well. One day some of my classmates asked me to join them that evening "trick or treating." I looked forward with excitement to joining my friends in this new and exciting ritual. My father came home and said I couldn't join them, that I was Jewish and Jewish children didn't trick or treat. Until then our Jewishness had meant little to me. I was bewildered by my father's refusal and stormed out onto our stoop. I sat there with tears in my eyes watching my friends delighting in their costumes and bags of goodies. I think at that moment my father realized that if he stayed in Schenectady any longer his children would get swallowed up by America. Almost immediately he moved us to Brooklyn, registered my brother and I in a Hasidic yeshiva and started praying in a small Hasidic synagogue. Gradually, he resumed Hasidic practices he had largely discarded since the Holocaust. He took a job as a textile machine operator and from his meager salary scraped together our yeshiva tuition. He was never able to save $10 a week again. My mother went along with him despite her skepticism. She told me how she had prayed the entire first night she came to Aushwitz. She was certain God would immediately destroy this evil place. Morning came and the chimneys were still smoking. She decided then and there she would give God a piece of her mind when she met Him in heavenly judgment. Nonetheless, she outwardly conformed to the Hasidic standards of observance my father was re-introducing into our home. Before her death, as her mind was being eroded by Alzheimer's Disease, she believed every day was the Sabbath. Her greatest fear was that she might, God forbid, forget to light the Sabbath candles or recite the Sabbath prayers.", Oren Rudavsky, Producer/Director and Director of Photography, is a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio. He has been producing and directing films since 1980. His first documentaries were made in Ohio and were funded in part by the Ohio Humanities Council and the Ohio Arts Council. The subjects of Mr. Rudavsky's films have ranged from mental illness to race relations, the Amish, Jews in Eastern Europe today, to a portrait of the life of modern day nuns in two communities in the United States. His first documentary, DREAMS SO REAL, a film about three mentally ill men who created their own animated films won first prize at the New England Film Festival in 1981 and was broadcast on WNET’s Independent Focus the following year. Also completed that year was a short autobiographical film, A FILM ABOUT MY HOME, which was broadcast in Independent Focus as well, and was then broadcast as a Special called ARTISTS AND MOTHERS on CBS Cable along with films by the artist Joseph Cornell, and filmmakers Martin Scorcese, Jonas Mekas and Mark Rance. Shortly afterward, Mr. Rudavsky produced GLORIA, A CASE OF ALLEGED POLICE BRUTALITY. Several of Mr. Rudavsky’s films have been broadcast on PBS including SPARK AMONG THE ASHES: A BAR MITZVAH IN POLAND (1987), THEATER OF THE PALMS: THE WORLD OF PUPPET MASTER LEE TIEN LU (1990), and as Director of Photography, THE AMISH: NOT TO BE MODERN in every year from 1986 to the present. (The Amish has been one of the most popular independent documentaries ever broadcast on PBS). SPARK AMONG THE ASHES won many awards including second prize at the Chicago International Film Festival, a Blue Ribbon at the American Film Festival and inclusion in the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. AT THE CROSSROADS: JEWISH LIFE IN EASTERN EUROPE TODAY, was broadcast on the Discovery Network. Two other films about Jewish life in America have been nationally broadcast on ABC: RITUAL, a documentary about Jewish ritual incorporating scholarly commentary with portraits of individuals; and an original drama he wrote, SAYING KADDISH, which was nominated for an Emmy in Directing and was rebroadcast on PBS in May of 1993. Other work includes RIDING THE RAILS, a segment about a modern day hobo for ABC's PrimeTime Live, which won a Teddy Award; PICTURE PERFECT, a segment about a small Missouri town also for ABC’s PrimeTime Live; and A DIFFERENT PATH, a one hour documentary about modern day Catholic Sisters for broadcast on ABC in 1996. He was also Director of Photography on the popular MTV series The Real World; TWITCH AND SHOUT, a film about Tourette’s Syndrome which was broadcast on PBS’ POV series; and the award winning THE LAST KLEZMER.
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