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Tensions between the old and new

PhD graduate in religion Steven Lapidus looks into the Hasidic community
May 16, 2011
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By Russ Cooper
Source: Concordia Journal

Two Hasidic boys walk down a street in Montreal’s Outremont neighbourhood. “In Montreal, Parc Avenue is the Atlantic Ocean. Mile End is more multi-ethnic, more forgiving, than Outremont,” says Lapidus. | Photo courtesy Steven Lapidus
Two Hasidic boys walk down a street in Montreal’s Outremont neighbourhood. “In Montreal, Parc Avenue is the Atlantic Ocean. Mile End is more multi-ethnic, more forgiving, than Outremont,” says Lapidus. | Photo courtesy Steven Lapidus

Take a good look down St-Viateur Street in Montreal’s Mile End and Outremont neighbourhoods any day, and note the pronounced juxtaposition of the Hasidic Jewish population with the rest of the community.

It’s unmistakable and intentional.

Steven Lapidus, who has lived in the neighbourhood for more than 20 years, is interested in the self-imposed social isolation of Montreal’s Hasidic population and the tensions that arise between neighbours.

Lapidus, who completed his PhD at Concordia’s Department of Religion in April, studied the way the North American Hasidim have transmitted traditional knowledge and practices from their pre-emigration home to a modern society since coming to North America following the Holocaust.

“Prior to modern times, about the 19th century, all Jews were just traditional. They acted as Orthodox Jews, but they didn’t label themselves that way,” says Lapidus. “Orthodoxy as a social movement was born as a response to modernity.”
 

Steven Lapidus presented his research May 10 at the Symposium on History, Memory, and Jewish Identity, organized by Concordia’s Department of Religion. | Concordia University
Steven Lapidus presented his research May 10 at the Symposium on History, Memory, and Jewish Identity, organized by Concordia’s Department of Religion. | Concordia University

Among the Hasidim, he says, past events and traditional lessons are frequently recast as moral examples, not historically accurate portrayals, in an effort to maintain traditional Jewish culture. Represented in an idealized way, these lessons are fashioned to meet contemporary needs.

“They adhere to strict dietary restrictions and dress in the style of 16th- and 17th-century Polish nobility. It’s fascinating because the Hasidim live a socially isolated, anti-modern existence in the heart of North American metropolises,” says Lapidus.

He finds it interesting that while the community rejects most of modernity (“They still love its technology, its medicine,” says Lapidus), it is its ideologies of individualism, personal freedom, and liberty that are the things permitting the Hasidim to thrive.

“What’s even more fascinating is how a closed, rather restrictive society can double in size every 15 to 20 years and has a retention rate of 97 per cent.”

Lapidus says that this protective way of living is often misconstrued as imposition and sometimes leads to strain between neighbours.

“As a tradition, Judaism is, to a certain extent, separatist,” says Lapidus, “but the social isolationism is about the pursuit of a communal goal in the internal society, not about negation of an outside society.

“I understand why neighbours have trouble accepting Hasidic social distance, but it’s not personal. It’s about communal survival.”

Lapidus recently presented his research at a symposium on History, Memory, and Jewish Identity organized by Concordia’s Department of Religion. The conference welcomed noteworthy scholars in Jewish studies. It was held May 9 to 11 at Samuel Bronfman House.

Related links:
•    Concordia Department of Religion
•    Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies
•    Symposium on History, Memory, and Jewish Identity



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