Several weeks ago, one of the most important objects to be displayed in the exhibition "A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses into the Life of Hasidic Jews" arrived at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It was a shtreimel, a fur hat worn by Hasidic men on the Sabbath and holidays, and it is more than 100 years old. At first, not much importance was attributed to it by its owner, the Steinhardt collection from New York. However, when the package was unwrapped, the shtreimel was revealed inside the fine decorated metal box in which its owner had stored it over the years, thus hinting at its exalted provenance.

The shtreimel comes from one of the most important Hasidic dynasties of the 19th century, the House of Ruzhin. It is smaller than the shtreimels in use today, with a raised and pointed, black silk skullcap. The brown sable fur encircling it is in a wild and natural style.

According to Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, a Jewish ethnography curator at the museum and curator of the exhibition, the shtreimel almost certainly belonged to the dynasty's founder. Reb Yisroel Friedman - the Ruzhiner rebbe or the "tzadik [holy man ] of Ruzhin" as he was known - lived in the second half of the 19th century in an area that is today part of Ukraine.

He was a charismatic admor (an acronym for the honorific "our master, our teacher, our rabbi" ) who was known for his regal demeanor and habits, which verged on ostentation (something that was very evident to his Enlightenment critics ). Thus, for example, he built himself a palace and was known for his fondness for luxurious clothing and objects. Hasidic tales were written about his splendid coach, to which four horses were harnessed, and about the orchestra that he employed to play for his guests.

This splendor was intended to express the lofty derekh hamalkhut (the way of kingship ) in the worship of God, as Prof. David Assaf explains in his book of that title (in Hebrew; The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1997 ) about the Ruzhiner rebbe.

This week the museum received for the exhibition, which opens on June 12, a golden Torah scroll crown studded with precious stones, which also belonged to the house of Ruzhin. The crown, on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, belonged to one of the Ruzhiner's six sons, but it seems that the sentimental value of the shtreimel, owing to its being "a holy object" - which is what Hasidim call a possession with which admors are in everyday contact - is even greater than that of the bejeweled crown.

"A World Apart Next Door," featuring hundreds of objects accompanied by photographs and films, depicts the Hasidic way of life by means of the place and significance of objects in everyday use. Among those on display are also toys belonging to Hasidic children, and objects connected to customs and ceremonies in Hasidism, which show the centrality of the admor and the adoration of him.

But above all, the exhibit showcases the clothing worn by Hasidic men and women, with all the variety that can be seen among the different courts. The importance of Hasidic dress lies in the separation and distinctiveness it creates. It is aimed at preventing assimilation of Hasidim among the gentiles and in the outside world in general, including the secular world.

"A World Apart Next Door" also displays a Hasidic text that is commonly used to explain the shtreimel - an explanation that has no historical basis, but is also found in S.Y. Agnon's fiction. According to this text, which relates a story told to the Hasidim, the origin of the shtreimel can be traced to an edict by the Russian czar decreeing that all Jews must wear the "tail of an unclean animal." The Hasidim transformed this decree into a symbol of pride, wrapping the tail, usually made of sable for expensive shtreimels, and fox for the less expensive, around their skullcaps.

Over time spiritual significance was attributed to the shtreimel and various other items of clothing: For example, the number of tails affixed to it - 13 or 26 - was determined by the gematria (Hebrew numerological ) equivalent to the ineffable name of God. The gartel, a kind of string belt worn over the Hasid's Sabbath coat, is supposed to separate the lower, profane organs of the body from the upper, more sacred organs.

'Original invention'

"The Hasidim want, of course, to see the clothing as their own original invention," says Muchawsky, but, she adds, there are many local influences at work. For example, coats worn by men in the community in Jerusalem were influenced by Arab clothing: The overcoat worn on the Sabbath, for example, is called a djubbeh - Arabic for a man's robe.

The Ruzhiner shtreimel will be displayed at the Israel Museum show next to a photo of a painting of a Tatar ruler wearing a rather similar fur crown. In the original painting there is a cross on top of the king's hat, but it has been removed from the photo out of consideration for ultra-Orthodox visitors to the museum.

According to Muchawsky-Schnapper, a male Hasid wears five layers of clothing: undergarments; a long shirt (which has no buttons at its bottom, for reasons of modesty ); a white shirt; a waistcoat and a topcoat. This shows that the laws of modesty are not reserved for women only.

The fact that Hasidic garb has not changed drastically over the generations (apart perhaps for the transition to synthetic fabrics ) - something in which the community takes great pride - is also examined in the exhibition. According to Muchawsky-Schnapper, the garb of the Conservative, Jerusalemite Hasidic communities does reflect traditional styles, but over the years it has undergone small but noteworthy changes.

"Several years ago," the curator relates, "the women of the Toldot Avraham Yitzhak Hasidic sect began to wear a kind of padding on their shaven heads under the black scarf. This 'fashion' led to tremendous debates, and the rebbe was asked about it and gave his permission. Today this feature distinguishes the more religiously extreme from the less extreme."

It is said that the Belz Rebbe Isachar Dov Rokeach, was asked to approve the tall hats worn by his wife, Rabbanit Sarah Rokeach, to distinguish herself from everyone else.

"He had a say about the height of the hat - this shows the importance of these things," says Muchawsky.-Schnapper. "Every rebbe wants to make his mark, so people will say, 'He started something new.' It's a matter of nuances. In the [Polish] Modzitz sect, for example, the rebbe's unmarried children and grandchildren wear a fur hat called a kolpik, a small shtreimel."

Today, too, there are rebbes who have splendid wardrobes, such as the admor of Tosh, Rebbe Meshulam Feish Segal-Loewy, head of a Hasidic community in Canada. The aged leader, who is famed for the length of his prayer services, appears at events in silken garments of various colors and has become a kind of celebrity whom photographers love.

For the most part, the photos accompanying the museum exhibition - most of them by photographers who specialize in artistic representations of the ultra-Orthodox community - feature such romantic images as little boys with light-colored curly earlocks, a bride swathed in white tulle with her face covered, a black sea of men, or Hasidim observing exotic rituals. But the photos the curator has procured also reveal far more significant moments, like that in which a Hasidic couple link arms after the marriage ceremony - signifying the first physical contact between two people who previously have seen each other only once, and then only briefly, before their engagement.

Romanticized notions

"A World Apart Next Door" is flawed by an attitude bordering on romanticization of the Hasidim. Intentionally and explicitly, it does not depict the other side: the strictness and reclusiveness of the community, the disputes and the violent quarrels within and between the different sects, the problematic status of women, and the active opposition to Zionism on the part of some of the communities, such as Satmar.

"Hasidism," says Muchawsky-Schnapper, "is not such an ancient phenomenon, but most people don't know what Hasidim really are, what characterizes them. I am trying to provide some sort of answers."

Her exhibition covers all the Hasidic sects, great and small, including more extremist groups like Satmar, Shomrei Emunim, Toldot Aharon and Toldot Avraham Yitzhak. Members of these communities - women, mainly, but also men - opened the doors to their treasures, and invited Muchawsky-Schnapper to attend private events like weddings and circumcision ceremonies, Hanukkah candle-lightings and Purim banquets, and also to photograph them while showing her significant objects in their possession.

This is not something to be taken for granted, and even raises the question as to what led these people to open up and cooperate. The question becomes more pointed in light of an official visit by the Admor of Karlin, Rabbi Baruch Shochat, to the Israel Museum about two months ago. The Karliner Rebbe is considered modern relative to other admorim, but his appearance at the museum was still a rare act of considerable symbolic significance in the relations between Israeli society and the extremist, ultra-Orthodox public.

"I felt that they want to repair their image, are eager to show themselves in a positive light and also have a goal of showing the way of life in which they believe. In addition," Muchawsky-Schnapper says, smiling, "they also really want to know what's going on in other Hasidic courts."

"This is an example of an openness to the modern world that is gradually seeping into the Hasidic world," says David Assaf, of the Jewish history department at Tel Aviv University. He notes the cooperation that began a few years ago between the haredim and national institutes in teaching the Holocaust together with Yad Vashem, an institution that had been off-limits in the past. As for a possible visits to the Israel Museum, says Assaf, Hasidim do not like museums because leisure culture is a strange concept for them and because "the commandment 'Thou shalt not make graven images' rules out the museum a priori."

According to Assaf, the Israel Museum in particular is also perceived as a Zionist symbol: "Go convince them that it is possible to take a negative vessel and fill it with positive contents. It takes time for them to realize that the exhibition aims to mediate between them and the wider world."

For her part, there is no doubt that Muchawsky-Schnapper's fluent knowledge of Yiddish helped knock down the walls. Her parents, Holocaust survivors, continued living in Germany after the war and she was born there.

"My grandmother belonged to the Alexander Hasidic sect," she relates. "Hasidim have a direct perception of who the person standing before them is. Either they accept you or they don't. Maybe this has to do with the fact that they aren't as inundated with the media and information as we are. When they accept someone, they don't need to know very much about the person. For me the connection with the Hasidim was something like coming home."

In a photo of a Hasidic wedding it is hard to distinguish Muchawsky-Schnapper - who was in the process of researching and curating the exhibition- from the other women, who included the wife of the rebbe of Spinka and her family.

"At first I dressed the way I thought was best and it was easy to see I wasn't from there," she relates. "And then I started to see that if I dressed like the women there, with a tikhel [head covering ], they would not be afraid of me or scurry away. I said I was doing this to show respect to them. But I left a little bit of hair showing, so they would see that I am also different."

In the end, the curator explains, private individuals contributed very few objects to the exhibition. Most are from museums and collections.

"Hasidim are afraid to let a valuable object out of the home and are also afraid of causing disagreement within the family," says Muchawsky, -Schnapper, who adds that she did succeed in obtaining information and access to very closed places. In the exhibition she shows, for example, a film about a shtreimel factory in Jerusalem - the kind of place that keeps the secrets of the trade under wraps and is afraid of criticism from animal rights activists against the use of fur.

The curator never hid that she was preparing an exhibition. "They know I have good thoughts about them, that I didn't want to get into political issues or disputes. Clothing is a practical and not a provocative topic."

During the approximately five years she spent preparing the exhibition, Muchawsky-Schnapper found dozens of Hasidim who acted as mediators and provided information. One such person who did not want to divulge his name fondly calls her "the rebbetzin of the museum."

According to him, "There has never been a representation of the Hasidic public that is both comprehensive and specific. A museum is not a newspaper, it's not a university research study. This is not [former Haaretz religious affairs correspondent] Shahar Ilan with his sums of money, and it's not journalist Amnon Levy with his TV documentary series on the ultra-Orthodox. No one has ever opened the window and said, 'Here, look.' This is the strength of this perspective. Without commentary."

Hasidim are connected to their clothing, the man explains: "It's part of a Hasid's selfhood. When I get dressed, I put the garment on from right to left, I wear the ritual fringes over my shirt - this is an inalienable part of me. By means of the clothing people see the human being who is wearing the garment. A human being - and it isn't important at the moment if he is in favor of the army or in favor of the state, works or doesn't work and what he is politically. This shows the human being the way he is. It in effect reveals that what we have done is separation. Without any mediation. Do you want to know how we live? Here. So now all the various commentators will come along and become acquainted with the thing itself, with Hasidism."