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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » A Life Apart: Hasidism in America
A Life Apart: Hasidism in America
First Run Features // Unrated // July 17, 2001
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted October 1, 2001 | E-mail the Author
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NEW YORK STORIES:
In trying to escape the depression and paranoia that have become part of daily life in New York City since the attack, I turned to a stack of DVDs waiting for me to review. Hoping for a little escapism I found three consecutive movies about three totally different communities in New York. Taken together, they only help to underscore the tragedy of the deaths of so many different kinds of people as well as the death of a certain kind of environment that fostered diversity. Each film, of course, also features its own view of the World Trade Center, whether a gloriously lingering establishing shot or the kind of subliminal glimpse you take when you just assume something will stand forever. The fact is shots of the towers in films used to signify location, a short-hand for the great city. Now they will forever also indicate time. Whenever you see the towers in a movie you'll automatically know: This takes place before September 11th, 2001.
A Life Apart: Hasidism in America - Once in the Life - The Blank Generation / Dancing Barefoot

THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Now is a good time to try and familiarize ourselves with the various different ethnic groups living within our borders. The tight-knit group of Hasidic Jews mostly living in Brooklyn, New York, have developed a strange type of solitary confinement within one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the world - They're like Amish Jews. A Life Apart: Hasidism in America (1997) provides a glimpse into the world of the Hasids and, at times, helps to clarify what makes them so mysterious.

The film smartly opens with a montage of images of Hasidic Jews walking down the street and riding the subway accompanied by the voices of their neighbors expressing their own opinions, ranging from observing that they seem to have very close families to criticizing them as sloppy and dirty. These are all comments that New Yorkers have overheard or thought themselves while sharing a subway seat with a praying Hasid during a crowded morning commute. Seeking to provide a closer view than these preconceptions, however, filmmakers Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky manage to paint a view of several Hasidic communities as complex microcosms of the world around them. They cling to their traditions but also struggle with changing modern times. They don't consider themselves Israelis but rather identify with their Polish roots. Many of the older generation still speak regularly about their escape of the Holocaust. The younger Hasids try to reconcile interests in sports with studying the Talmud.

Where the film succeeds is in driving home the point that most Hasids don't want to dilute their culture. There are aspects of Hasidic life that the film glosses over - the inherent sexism of the social order is not even mentioned. Still A Life Apart avoids painting a simplistic positive picture of its subjects. They are shown to be condescending (if somewhat well-meaning) towards others. At one point a black passerby recaps for the camera a conversation he had with a group of Hasids who told him that they would pray for him. He didn't appreciate the patronistic attitude and it's clear why. A group that rarely ventures out into as culturally rich a place as New York City and yet still claims some sort of spiritual superiority is obviously missing out on a whole lot of context. Still, the Hasids seem to only want to live in peace and practice their customs and, in today's world, there's certainly nothing wrong with that.

The film itself if presented with few flourishes. It doesn't exactly speed along at an exciting pace (due partly to the repetition of many points) and the dual narration by the unlikely combo of Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker is more annoying than helpful.

VIDEO:
The full-screen video is fine. It is not particularly vibrant and most of what it documents consists of dour colors and patterns, but for this style of documentary it is perfectly appropriate.

AUDIO:
The 2.0 audio is also acceptable. The film mostly consists of interviews and incidental sound recording but it's never hard to understand. Subtitles translate the Yiddish dialog.

EXTRAS:
The better of the two main extras is a half-hour interview with the directors shot for WNET, New York's PBS station, a partial supporter of the film's production. The interview is informative, both in explaining the long process of getting the film made (it took seven years) and in further discussing the subjects. The interviewer asks the filmmakers about the Hasidic treatment of women, an important question not addressed in the film and, while their response that the women may seem to be oppressed they are really living the lives that they want (an argument that feels a little weak when you've seen the put-upon women lugging a half dozen kids on the subway while still wearing the thick layers of clothing, including a wig and a hat, required.

The other major extra is a commentary track from the directors. This feature is also informative, with the director's covering the topic of the subjects and the production process in greater detail. One note, however: On the copy I reviewed the audio commentary track had several severe flaws, from total drop-outs to weird distorted pinging sounds. It's possible that this was a bad disc, however.

Text bios and filmographies are also available.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Hasidic Jews may look like a foreign culture but they are part of the cultural mish-mash that truly makes New York - and America - the melting pot of all those old cliches. While A Life Apart may not be the most in depth documentary ever made it does provide a decent first look and helps shed a little light on what would motivate a group of people to so effectively cut themselves off from the world around them.

Related reviews:
Anne Frank
Into The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport

E-mail Gil at buskerdog@yahoo.com
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