The Extremely Secretive World of Hasidic Judaism

Hasidic Jews often lead very insular lives, and their strict practices can be confounding even to more assimilated American Jews.

Documentarians’ attempts to shed light on Hasidic groups can reveal their own — sometimes apparently willful — misconceptions about them, as an Oprah Winfrey film crew did when it toured a Hasidic group’s ritual bath, or mikvah, in Brooklyn in 2012.

As the Hasidic woman leading them remembered, Oprah and her team were clad in black, while she — who was interviewed for but asked not to be named in this piece — wore white, and her daughter, burgundy.

Why, one of Oprah’s producers asked the two women, do Hasidic women wear only black?

“It kind of blew my mind,” the mikvah guide said.

A new Netflix documentary, “One of Us,” also falls short in its portrayal of Hasidim, as the different groups of Hasidic Jews are collectively known. In the 95-minute film, Ari, Etty and Luzer allege abuse and discuss their struggles to leave the Hasidic lives into which they were born.

The filmmakers worked with the New York-based nonprofit Footsteps, which helps former Hasidic Jews on their journeys to more secular lives. The organization said it only assists those who ask for help, but Hasidic leaders have accused it of preying on vulnerable community members.

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“One of Us” tugs on viewers’ heartstrings from the start, but many of those most familiar with Hasidim say it presents an incomplete and skewed snapshot of Hasidic life.

Estimates place Hasidim at about 350,000 in the U.S., with a 45 percent growth rate every decade. They represent about 6 percent of all self-identifying Jews in the nation, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Portrait of Jewish Americans.

While “One of Us” tells the stories of three of those 350,000, here’s what the broader communities are about, according to some who have spent much more time with them.

1.) Clothing is key. Hasidic men tend to wear their side curls and beards long, and their headgear — from skullcaps to furry hats called shtreimels. Hasidic women wear long sleeves and dresses or skirts, and married women cover their hair, often with wigs, kerchiefs or both.

Early on in the Netflix documentary, a subtitle states, “To separate themselves from outsiders, [Hasidim] dress like their ancestors and speak mostly Yiddish.” That’s misleading, said the mikvah guide. Hasidic garb is…

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