American Neo-Hasids in the Land of Israel-Joanna Steinhardt

I once had a student attempt a cultural analysis of Bat Ayin. Here we have a sociological article on the topic. Her example of dredlock peyot in a good catch,but I wish there the article had a thicker description, in the Geertz sense.

Joanna Steinhardt, American Neo-Hasids in the Land of Israel Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, Volume 13, Issue 4, (2010) pages 22–42,

Some wore a blend of Eastern-style clothes, such as Thai fisherman pants, open-collared Indian shirts and embroidered vests; others wore baggy pants and T-shirts like any other American youth. The women wore long flowing skirts and dresses, multilayered over loose pants, with colorful tunics, scarves and shawls. The young Americans were demonstrative in their piety, uninhibited and enthusiastic in their adherence to Jewish law, and youthful and informal in their behavior.

At parties they sat on the floor in a circle playing acoustic guitars and drums, singing Hasidic songs, drinking and smoking…Their speech was interspersed with Yiddish exclamations—Mamesh! Gevaltic!—that took some time for me to decode.

These young people seemed to embody a unique variation on mystical religious Zionism, which mingled American counterculture with a primordial philosophy of the Jewish people’s tie to their ethnic-spiritual homeland, the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael).

In my fieldwork, I sought to understand better how American countercultural discourse provides an ideological bridge to Zionist Orthodox Judaism. In this case, I found that the countercultural discourse, with its particular construction of “spirituality,” disrupted the familiar right-left political continuum in Israel by exhibiting both progressive and reactionary political features.

My fieldwork began with in-depth interviews in 2005 and 2006 of students at Yeshivat Chesed V’emet (CV), located twenty minutes outside Jerusalem in the settlement of Bat Ayin… Although Gush Etzion is known for its suburban atmosphere, Bat Ayin is more akin to the extremist settlements deeper in the West Bank. Yitzchak Ginsburgh helped found the settlement with his students—a mix of American and Russian immigrants and native Israelis, the majority ba’alei teshuvah—in 1989.

When I told secular Israelis that I was interviewing people in Bat Ayin, their immediate association was the story of the Bat Ayin cell.
Beyond this public association with political violence, the culture and policy of the settlement reflect extremist attitudes in relation to the Palestinian Arab population and the claimed right of the Jewish people to the biblical land of Israel. Bat Ayin has long maintained a ban on Arabs working in the community and, more recently, a total ban on Arabs in the community for any reason. While this antagonism is indicative of settlers’ attitudes in general, Bat Ayin is extreme in its relatively lawless militancy.

I was told that the surrounding Arab villagers refer to the Bat Ayin settlers as “the crazies.” As many students noted, the proximity to “nature” was a key ingredient in their positive experience at the yeshiva. In a similar vein, the simple and rugged lifestyle is conducive to introspection. On a more complex level, I sense that the political extremism and marginalization of the settlement also appeal to these yeshiva students, but only to the degree that these qualities reflect the values of anarchism, radicalism, and self-sufficiency and an underlying mystical vision—even though the same students may be uncomfortable with the racism or violence that results from these same values and ideas.

At first I dressed in T-shirts and skirts that hit below the knee (a typical Modern Orthodox look), but I noticed that some of these interviews had the subtle atmosphere of a date coordinated by a matchmaker for religious singles. In the next few interviews, I wore jeans and found that the date atmosphere quickly dissipated.

Since I was interested in the reach and influence of CV, Yeshivat Shirat HaTorah (ST) was a logical extension of my research.

For example, students cited 1960s counterculture books, authors and iconic figures, such as Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan (1968) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), as well as writings by Timothy Leary, the Beat poets, William Blake and others. Independently of each other, four CV students cited Ken Kesey as an influential figure in their youth. “Read that book,” said Aharon, referring to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), Tom Wolfe’s journalistic account of Kesey and his LSD-dropping crew, the Merry Pranksters…

Nearly every interviewee had been part of the countercultural milieu that includes subcultural successors to the 1960s hippie movement—Rainbow Gatherings, Grateful Dead and Phish concerts, raves, radical environmentalism, Neopaganism, anti-globalization activism, and other youth subcultures. Students from this milieu shared a particular construction of spirituality associated with the New Age movement and an antagonism toward mainstream society.

Yonatan cut off his dreadlocks but left two above his ears as peot hanging down to his chest in long s-shaped curves under his knit kippa. In this way, CV and ST students created a syncretistic material culture linking countercultural styles with innovative religious ones.

American Neo- Hasidism in Israel, as practiced at Chesed V’Emet and Shirat HaTorah, is a syncretistic revival of traditional Judaism that uses American countercultural expressions to give meaning to Jewish practice and identity.

2 responses to “American Neo-Hasids in the Land of Israel-Joanna Steinhardt

  1. Har Nof Academic

    One cannot ignore the influence of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach on today’s Neo-Hassidic movement. I believe the overwhelming interest in Hassidut on the youth of the National Religous camp here in Israel is primarily due to him.
    A serious academic study would address the desideratum.

    • I only gave a few paragraphs. The article had a pedestrian summary of Carlebach, Habakuk, and other topics needed for the study itself.

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