MAY 14, 2021
“NOTHING JEWISH is alien to me,” philosopher Franz Rosenzweig said in the early 20th century. Rosenzweig hoped this phrase would launch a Jewish renaissance; however, the multiplicity of Jewish observance and experience has mostly led to mutual disdain among the varietals. As each branch of Judaism has set itself apart from the others, barriers to entry, acceptance, or even understanding have increased. No less an authority on Jewish life than Sholem Aleichem famously said that “es iz schwer tzu sein a Yid” — “it is hard to be a Jew.”
In the culture at large, however, there has been a seemingly dichotomous reaction to Jewishness. Alongside a worldwide increase in antisemitism, there has been an increasing fascination with the lives of the Jewish Orthodox in American television shows such as Shtisel (2013–present) and Unorthodox (2020), as well as Israeli programs available in the United States such as Srugim (2008–’12) and The New Black (2017). Shows like these have made the lives of Modern and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism truly binge-worthy.
In the same vein, two recent books, Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side by Jonathan Boyarin and Mazel Tov: The Story of My Extraordinary Friendship with an Orthodox Jewish Family by J. S. Margot (translated by Jane Hedley-Prôle), invite us to extend our knowledge of the lives of observant religious Jews. Boyarin’s book seeks to demystify the experience of Jewish learning in an Orthodox kollel (an academy for the study of Jewish texts), while Margot, herself not a Jew, explores Jewish customs, traditions, and laws by working for and becoming friends with a Belgian Modern Orthodox family.
Jonathan Boyarin is the Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at Cornell University and an anthropologist and Jewish cultural studies scholar. Yeshiva Days is his personal account of spending his sabbatical year (so to speak) at Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem (MTJ), an Orthodox seminary on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “My hope is that, if the yeshiva is an unknown place to you when you begin to read, it seems more familiar by the end,” Boyarin writes in the book’s introduction, “and if it is already a familiar place, you may be reading it in a new light and with enriched appreciation of its significance today.”
Boyarin is not there as a critic. He is there to appreciate, soak up the experience, and learn as best he can. There is no critique of Orthodoxy, of the yeshiva, or, for that matter, of the role of women — their absence in the kollel or their tolerance of how their husbands spend their days. He is not there to challenge or even really to question the fundamentals. To the contrary, he does his best to join in the experience and has kind words for those he studies with, for the leader of the yeshiva, and for the institution itself. He describes in depth the texts he is studying and the discussions that surround them.
Boyarin, whose previous work includes the 2011 book Mornings at the Stanton Street Shul about a congregation on the Lower East Side, wants us to appreciate how rare the MTJ is and why it should be valued. Located at 145 East Broadway, the MTJ is New York’s oldest yeshiva. It is also one of the last yeshivas on the Lower East Side (if not the last) that follows a specifically “Lithuanian tradition of rational Judaism,” as propounded by its leader Reb Dovid Feinstein, the son of his predecessor at the yeshiva, Reb Moshe Feinstein, a leading Orthodox authority. Study is often conducted in English, and it remains open to a diverse group of students, from Orthodox to Hasidic Ultra-Orthodoxy.
Although Boyarin does not fully take on the brief of defending the value of studying arcane and often anachronistic debates on Jewish law, he couches the pursuit in a discussion of lishmah, the concept of “study for its own sake.” This is an ideal state where one engages fully with the religious text, free from one’s own prejudices and mundane concerns — an exalted condition in which one is not studying for the rewards it may bring, in this life or the next. Boyarin shows us how yeshiva study is its own reward and how the camaraderie in the pursuit of learning and textual mastery is, in its own way, life-enhancing. “The yeshiva,” he writes,
retains certain values that may indeed have become too scarce in our university world, especially the notion of study for its own sake. And perhaps even more important, the yeshiva is a wonderful laboratory for the observation of reading and study as social, not solitary, activities.
Studying in the yeshiva is done in pairs, sometimes in groups, in a large room of the kollel. At times, the learning is directed, at times informed by the yeshiva leader’s lectures, and at times independent. Above all, it is collaborative and social, and perhaps this is what is so appealing about the undertaking. Before there was an internet, before there was Google, before livestreaming and Zoom meetings, there was this conversation across time, in dialogue with the greatest scholars and sages of every age, mediated by a teacher, and open to challenge by one’s study partner and oneself. Boyarin marvels how, when the head of yeshiva leads a Talmudic study session (a shiur), there may be only 15 people in the room, but the authority of his pronouncements — his halachic interpretations — carry weight all over the world (I am somewhat skeptical of this, but I take him at his word).
For the men involved (and, again, it is only men), perhaps what is alluring is the sense that one is doing something that seems deeply important. They are like Jedi Knights of the Talmud, fighting their way through textual obscurity and generations of divergent interpretations. What they are doing is difficult intellectual work, and there is little certainty as to the “right” conclusion (although there are many opinions about what is right). The closest I came to understanding the appeal was when Boyarin basks in the feeling that he has actually made progress and is playing at the top of his form. He makes clear that, for all the difficulties and frustrations, those few high moments are truly worth waiting for.
One of the reasons Boyarin immersed himself so deeply in the world of this particular study house is that it may soon disappear. A century ago, Manhattan’s Lower East Side was a boisterous Jewish neighborhood filled with many houses of worship and schools of study. But rising real estate values, ongoing secularization and gentrification, and the expansion of Ultra-Orthodox enclaves in Brooklyn, Upstate New York, and parts of New Jersey have decimated the number of yeshivas in the area. Beyond that, a certain stratification of Ultra-Orthodoxy has occurred, and MTJ’s embrace of an expansive or inclusive orthodoxy, following the Lithuanian tradition, is becoming a thing of the past.
J. S. Margot’s Mazel Tov is seemingly a very different work. It tells the story of a young Belgian woman living in Antwerp, born Christian but of no particular religious practice, who becomes tutor to a Modern Orthodox family’s children and, over time, grows close with all members of the family. Margot is a skilled reporter and a talented storyteller. She begins by introducing us to the casual antisemitism that prevails among Belgians, as well as to her own biases toward and objections to the strictures of Modern Orthodox life. At first, everything about the Schneiders and their four children — Simon (16), Jakov (13), Elzira (12), and Sara (eight) — seems to her not just alien but wrong: how they dress and make their children dress, their fears of other neighborhoods (and others generally). The father, a diamond dealer in Antwerp who tells old Jewish jokes (some funny, some not), and the mother, at first appearance quite strange and eccentric, speak in a convoluted syntax that often implies the opposite of what is being said. And the children, each in his or her own way, are seemingly hobbled by the prejudices and arrogance of their world.
As Margot comes to know the family, however, to become part of their lives, she — and her readers — grow to understand them better, to grasp the reasons behind their rituals and practices. They become real people, individuals rather than stereotypes, and, beyond that, good kids. Elzira, for example, has some physical conditions that make her self-conscious; as Margot works to build up the girl’s confidence by teaching her to ride a bike, they form a close bond, and this relationship is at the core of the memoir.
Margot continues to object to various aspects of the Schneiders’ lives — the denunciations of premarital sex and cohabitation, the early marriages arranged by a matchmaker, the enforced study in Israel (with army service for some). But as she becomes closer to the family (including the grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor), Margot comes to appreciate why they cling so fiercely to their way of life. At the same time, the family embraces her without prejudice or question, welcoming her and her boyfriends (one of whom is an Iranian Muslim) with great mutual respect. As the Schneider children start to blossom and thrive, growing up to become successful, happily married professionals while Margot’s own life remains something of a shambles, there is the unsaid implication, “Maybe they are not so wrong to live that way…”
Like Yeshiva Days, Mazel Tov is a chronicle of a way of life that is rapidly changing, if not disappearing. Mr. Schneider is at pains to explain to Margot why the Modern Orthodox in Brussels, in France, and throughout Europe are leaving, finding it more conducive to live as Jews in New York or in Israel. Even the Antwerp diamond business, once a hallowed occupation of Orthodox Jews, is now increasingly the domain of Indian, Lebanese, and Armenian dealers.
Recently, in a livestreamed conversation for the online publication Tortoise, David Baddiel, a Jewish comic and author, wondered whether the characters in such shows as Unorthodox and Shtisel aren’t the image the world at large has in mind when one says the word “Jew.” I, too, have wondered whether the recent fetishization of Orthodox life in popular media may be just another form of social othering. Yet, to return to Rosenzweig’s dictum, today there is much about Jewishness that is alien not just to non-Jews but to Jews themselves. In this light, both Yeshiva Days and Mazel Tov can be read as affectionate portrayals of Orthodox Jews that manage to make what may seem on the surface to be exotic understandable, even relatable. And if the Torah teaches us to “love your fellow as yourself,” surely that applies to the Orthodox as well.