Menachem Daum, 77, Filmmaker Who Explored the World of Hasidim
His acclaimed documentary “A Life Apart” presented a complex portrait of a religious group usually depicted as somber and impenetrable.
Menachem Daum, a filmmaker who co-produced a groundbreaking 1997 documentary that illuminated the cloistered world of America’s Hasidim, died on Jan. 7 in a hospital near his home in Borough Park, Brooklyn. He was 77.
His death was confirmed by Eva Fogelman, a friend and the author of a book about Christian rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. She said Mr. Daum had been treated for congestive heart failure.
What made the documentary, “A Life Apart: Hasidism in America,” so striking was Mr. Daum’s ability to get people who scorn movies and television sets to sit on camera for revealing interviews, allowing him to chronicle their mores and rituals. The resulting film offered a complex portrait of a religious group usually depicted as somber and impenetrable; here it offered scenes of Hasidim joyfully dancing.
That achievement was not a given. Mr. Daum, though ultra-Orthodox, was not Hasidic himself. And although he had earlier made a film about caregivers for the aged, he was scarcely a seasoned filmmaker.
But he was well versed in the Torah, the Talmud and the intricacies of Orthodox Jewish observance. He spoke Yiddish — the Hasidic lingua franca — and lived in a Hasidic neighborhood. He teamed with an experienced filmmaker, Oren Rudavsky, the son of a Reform rabbi, to produce and direct the documentary.
The Hasidic movement was founded in the 18th century in Eastern Europe by a rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov, who felt that Judaism had overemphasized intellectual qualities to the detriment of spiritual fervor and sincerity.
Mr. Rudavsky said in an interview that he believed “A Life Apart” was the first feature-length documentary released in American theaters that explored Hasidism.
The film, narrated by Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker, premiered at the Walter Reade Theater in Manhattan and in Los Angeles. It later ran for five months at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan and was shown on PBS television.
“‘A Life Apart’ enlivens its history and analysis with surprisingly tender family scenes, with evocations of the Hasidic world’s deep mysticism, and with some of the community’s most colorfully quaint features, like formal matchmaking,” Janet Maslin wrote in her review in The New York Times.
Mr. Daum’s friendships and his familiarity with his neighborhood were the key to unlocking the reclusive Hasidic world, whose members deliberately wall themselves off socially from the secular world to avoid its temptations and to sustain their way of life, spurning even college educations and schooling in the professions.
“If I put on a hat, I look like I belong even more than I do,” Mr. Daum told The Times before the film’s premiere. “I could assure them that this film would not mock or exploit them.”
The film offered critical perspectives. A Hasidic woman laments what she sees as her second-class status, and a Black parks employee in Brooklyn condemns what he says is the aloofness and “spiritual arrogance” of the Hasidim he has encountered.
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