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Book Review : A Peek Into Closed World of Hasidim

December 02, 1985|ELAINE KENDALL

Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family by Lis Harris (Summit Books: $16.95)

Lis Harris' meticulous investigation of the daily life of the Lubavicher Hasidim belongs to the list of distinguished essays that surprise and inform with every phrase, satisfying curiosity without satiating it. Her method is exploratory but not invasive, a technique perfectly adapted to her subject.

The Hasidim are understandably wary of outside observers, who have tended to emphasize their differences from the Jewish mainstream, an approach often replacing mystery with misrepresentation. When Harris politely asked her still skeptical host to suggest background reading, he brusquely told her there were no useful books available. "They twist and change the truth in casual ways. . . . You want to know who we are? Read the Torah. Read Hasidic texts."

Though the author has investigated primary sources, the heart of her book is not theory, but practice; the rituals, rules and customs distinguishing the Hasidim in general and the Lubavichers in particular. Like other Hasidic sects or "courts," the Lubavichers are disciples of a particular rabbi whose pronouncements govern every aspect of their lives. The present leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is 83, the last of his dynasty. Because no successor has yet been named, many of his followers seem confident that Schneerson could be the long-awaited Messiah. For the time being, the future of the sect remains an unaskable question--one of the few areas where the author is thwarted.

Smoothly integrated between accounts of Hasidic obligations and observances is a succinct history of the movement itself, from its biblical origins through its 18th-Century flowering in Eastern Europe to its present perpetuation in enclaves here and abroad. Of the estimated 250,000 Hasidim in the world today, 200,000 live in the United States with fully half that number in Brooklyn. The Hasidim are distinguished from other Orthodox Jews not only by their attire--the black suits and hats of the men; the wigs, knee- and elbow-concealing dress of the women--but more profoundly by their mystical turn of mind; a belief system far removed from the pragmatism of secular Jews.

Harris settled upon the Crown Heights Lubavichers because they seemed more receptive to a secular writer than other groups. Even so, she met considerable resistance before she was finally welcomed by Moshe and Sheina Konigsberg, both somewhat more worldly than others in the community. The fact that Harris is a woman didn't help matters; Hasidic men are not permitted contact with strange women and avoid overt demonstrativeness even with their own wives. While Moshe Konigsberg was willing to have the New York writer as his houseguest over a period of five years, he carefully avoided handshakes or any other casual touch; his adult sons kept their distance even more obviously.

A Hasidic man's gainful employment is incidental to his spiritual development. This fact seems one of the crucial differences between the secular Jewish life and the religious one. Hasidim seldom choose their careers but instead work at whatever their rabbi advises. In the case of Konigsberg, born into a Hasidic tradition, the assigned trade is metal engraving.

Hasidim seldom participate actively in the social, political or cultural life of the city. Their world is bounded by the institutions within their neighborhood, much as it was in the villages of Eastern Europe.

Women may teach in the girls' schools for a while between high school and marriage, but few attempt to juggle the demands of family, religion and work thereafter. Attending a class at the girls' academy, Harris is disconcerted to find the most popular male teacher scornfully inveighing against further ambitions for women to unanimously approving pupils. Both male and female teen-agers willingly eschew the pleasures of their non-Hasidic contemporaries--music, films, sports, even artistic expression--agreeing with their elders that such diversions are irrelevant to their lives.

Leaving the inexplicable and impenetrable riddles of Hasidic life aside, Harris directs herself to the comprehensible--the holiday preparations, the institutions, the authority of the rabbi, all the visible components of the world in which she's immersing herself. One of the most reflective chapters records her literal immersion into the ritual bath, an adventure approached with trepidation and concluded with a mixture of more complex emotions, an appropriate metaphor for the entire book.

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