Middle East

Curiosity draws Israelis to Hasidic Jewry exhibition

Hasidic rabbi in a wheat field attended by his followers
Image caption The rabbi of the Shomrei Emunim Hasidic court during the wheat harvest to make matzas (unleavened bread) for Passover

Ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) Jews, with their distinctive appearance and attire, form a growing section of the population throughout Israel.

Yet outside their insular communities, in society at large, relatively little is known about their culture and customs.

Such is the curiosity to glimpse more, that an exhibition on the way of life of one of the main Haredi movements - Hasidism - at the Israel Museum has proved an unexpected hit since it opened this summer.

A World Apart Next Door has regularly attracted over 1,000 visitors a day.

Alongside photographs and films of special religious ceremonies, weddings and funerals, there are items from everyday life.

They include children's games such as a version of snakes and ladders called Mitzvah Land (a mitzvah is a Biblical commandment or good deed) and pictures of eminent rabbis for a baby's crib.

Image caption Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper explains Hasidic culture using costumes and daily objects

They give an insight into Hasidism, a Jewish revival movement that arose in Eastern Europe in the late eighteenth-century.

"I thought it was a good point in history now - and something which has never been done, strangely enough," says the curator, Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper.

"What disturbed me very much was the sort of antagonism towards these communities and I thought that knowing something better, bringing something to public knowledge about them, will also in a way bring hearts together."

In Israel, there have always between tensions between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews but in recent months they have been exacerbated by a debate about national military service.

There is a growing social protest movement demanding that ultra-Orthodox men, who mostly study, should serve in the army and be brought into the workforce.

At a time when religious divisions dominate public and political discourse the museum has succeeded in drawing crowds that represent the diversity of Israeli society.

There are secular Israeli women dressed in skimpy tops and shorts alongside ultra-Orthodox men with side-locks wearing white shirts and black suits.

Clothes as 'code'

Image caption All Hasidic courts trace back their lineage to the Baal Shem Tov (ca. 1700-1760)

The displays begin with an introduction to the origins of Hasidism and its founder the Baal Shem Tov, whose prayer shawl is on display. A large tree diagram explains how different branches or courts (groups) developed.

"In Hasidic society, when the parents look for the partner of their son or daughter, they look according to lineage - the daughter of a rabbi should marry the son of a rabbi. It's exactly like European aristocracy. It works on the same hierarchy," Ms Muchawsky-Schnapper says.

Yet clothing is a main focus of the exhibition. It has deep religious meaning and no new trend is allowed without permission of the venerated Rebbe.

"As soon as we start entering the different sectors of life: child, woman, man, rebbe, there is a wall of garments, a sort of leitmotif," explains Ms Muchawsky-Schnapper.

"From the clothes you can tell the court [group] a Hasidic Jew belongs to and what place they have in society. It's a rich code."

The exhibition includes a video of Yeruham Klausner, a hat-seller at the Ferster store in the Mea Shearim neighbourhood of Jerusalem, who reveals the significance of the felt headwear typically worn by men.

Image caption During the week most Hasidic Jews wear a black hat. Yeruham Klausner showed off the different designs in a video used in the Israel Museum exhibition. He also displayed his wares for the BBC.
Image caption This hat is made of rabbit hair with a velvety finish. It is called "Khsidisher kapelyush" or "samet" (velvet). A satin ribbon is folded into a flat bow on one side.
Image caption A rounded high "kapelyush" is typically worn by Gerer Hasidim. It is made of felted rabbit hair.
Image caption Courts of Hungarian origin wear a velvety low-brimmed hat like this one. Most of the hats sold in the Ferster store in Jerusalem are made in Hungary.
Image caption Lubavitcher Hasidim wear a fedora hat like this. It is very similar to the style won by non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox Jews. The last Lubavitcher Rebbe (grand rabbi)adopted this style while studying in France and Germany in the 1920s and '30s.

Also on display are the fur hats worn on the Sabbath and festive occasions, such as the "shtrayml", which have their origins in non-Jewish Eastern European dress.

It is not clear when Jews began to wear them but, according to Hasidic lore, a decree was passed forcing them to wear the pelts of animals that were not kosher (permitted by Jewish law). This attempt at humiliation was turned into something positive, symbolising religious devotion.

Piety and modesty are of paramount importance in Hasidic women's costumes but there is also a rich history and diversity of styles.

"I wanted to show here that there is fashion, definitely," says Ms Muchawsky-Schnapper as she points to a centuries-old restored pale pink, silk wedding dress. More modern dresses tend to be white with a conservative design and face veil.

Image caption The "mitzve-tants" marks the finale of the wedding when the bride dances first with the rabbi and eventually the groom. She is held at the end of a long belt.

The Jewish practice that married women cover their heads derives from references to the seductive nature of female hair in the Bible, which serve as the basis for Rabbinic legislation.

In Hasidic society this is followed with scrupulousness.

One photograph shows the ritual of a young woman having her head shaved on her wedding night while others illustrate the wide range of hair coverings from dark headscarves to wigs.

Bridging religious division?

Years of research went into A World Apart Next Door and religious visitors praise the attention to detail.

"Even we Hasidim have a lot to learn from this," says a young man, Shabtay.

Image caption The exhibition has attracted a cross-section of Israeli society

"It is nice to see us displayed on the walls," adds Yosef Strauss from another ultra-Orthodox community. "All in all, the cultural life of the Haredi public is not that far removed from that of the rest of Israeli society."

Some secular visitors take issue with that.

"Because of all this tension in Israel about the religious and the non-religious, I thought it was important to see the other side," says Cara from Hod Hasharon, near Tel Aviv.

"Unfortunately I think this exhibition has not shown the connection between the un-religious and the religious, it's shown the difference."

Ms Muchawsky-Schnapper is more hopeful. She describes seeing liberal women from Tel Aviv in deep discussion with an ultra-Orthodox girls' school party in the exhibition halls.

"This is something that could never have happened. It's a place where people can come and meet, have a dialogue," she says. "I touched a nerve, something that interests so many people."

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