The Hasidic Revolution: Foundation of American Popular Culture

By Cherry, Robert | Midstream, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Hasidic Revolution: Foundation of American Popular Culture


Cherry, Robert, Midstream


At the end of the nineteenth century, Askenazi Jewish immigrants from Poland and the Pale of Settlement in Russia came to the United States. Their behavior was perceived by many nativists to be distinctive and threatening. One set of behaviors stood out. Irish Catholicism stressed an Augustinian revulsion towards bodily pleasures as did, to a lesser degree, Protestant Victorian morality. They both strove to repress sexual desires, especially among women. In contrast, Jewish immigrants seemed to be pleasure seekers and embraced female sexuality; behavior that drew the ire of many observers, including Henry Ford and the Catholic League for Decency. For Ford,

"Frivolity, sensuality, indecency, appalling illiteracy and endless platitude are the marks of the American Stage as it approaches its degeneracy under Jewish control.... Little by little the mark of the filthy tide has risen against the walls of the American Theater until now it is all but engulfed." (1)

Within the literature, there is conflict between those who believe this immigrant behavior has its roots in Jewish religious tradition and those who believe it reflected the behavior of those who were escaping the religious dictates of the old country. (2) By looking more closely at the attitude of the Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe towards bodily pleasures, we can better judge the relationship of the behavior of immigrants to the religious communities that they left.

The extreme piety of the Safed community was a particularistic response to Spanish expulsion and the havoc it created for Sephardic Jewry. During the seventeenth century, Ashkenazi Jewry experienced comparable devastation. The 1640s peasant rebellion against Polish sovereignty, led by Bogdan Chmeilnicki, destroyed some 700 Ukrainian communities. It caused the deaths of a few hundred thousand Jews, more than had been killed during both the Crusades and the Black Deaths. (3) While order was eventually attained, for the next century, pogroms periodically occurred, perpetrated by Ukrainian dissidents to continued foreign rule. In addition, the declining power of the Polish state caused economic hardships for much of Polish Jewry. (4)

This bleak situation was one factor that enabled Lurianic views to gain adherents among the Eastern European religious elite. Buttressed by the legacy of the German pietists, these works complemented a deeply pessimistic world-view in which continual, joyfully accepted suffering, both physical and mental, was central to religious perfection. It was essential to withstand all physical temptations (i.e. pleasures) in order to surmount all obstacles that this world perversely presents, in order to attain the beatitude of the next. (5)

During the seventeenth century, influential treatises began to stress "unremitting gloom, pessimism, and oppressive piety." Sukkot would be ignored because its joyfulness "was incompatible with the central themes weeping, worrying, serf-mortification, and despondency. Every possible occasion for critical serf-scrutiny accompanied by sorrowful serf-mortification is exhaustively expatiated upon. Even the Sabbath was to be, for the truly devout, a day of tearful mourning--despite clear halakhic statements to the contrary." (6)

The discussion and practice of popular Kabbalah informed daily discourse. Cheap Kabbalistic books found their way into many homes. Now even the masses could see how important Kabbalah was and could learn some of its principles through ritual observance, listening to popular sermons, colloquial conversations, and viewing the decorations in the synagogue. (7) Thus, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, Kabbalistic ideas were widespread and asceticism was practiced by many pious Jews.

One practitioner was the Baal Shem Tov, usually referred to by his acronym, the Besht. For seven years he led an ascetic life of solitude in the Carpathian mountains, living apart from his wife for much of the time.

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