A Life Apart: Hasidism in America wasn't as illuminating as I hoped it would be. I wanted to know more about Hasidic beliefs and customs and how they differ from Orthodox Judaism. And I did get some sense. Basically, if I understand it correctly, Hasidim was a mystical sect that took root in Eastern Europe amongst the peasantry mainly during the 18th Century. Because it was a "puritan" (my word) religion, it advocated simplicity. For some reason, not well explained, it is against everything secular, which would include all change. I think he reason they dress like that is because "that" happens to be how Eastern European Jewish peasantry dressed in the 19th Century and they just haven't changed the customs. Unlike regular Orthodox Jews, the Hasidic do not want to live among the dominant culture. Orthodox Jews can go to universities and partake of culture so long as it doesn't conflict with major practices, whereas Hasidim don't want to compromise their culture at all. I had to sort of piece this together and am not sure if I got it right.
I learned that the Hasidim in America were formed by Rebbes who survived the Holocaust and tried as much as possible to recreate the original communities. Which they are reproducing at an astounding rate. One survivor has 70 grandchildren!