In culture in general, however, there has been a seemingly dichotomous reaction to Jewishness. Along with a worldwide rise in anti-Semitism, there has been a growing fascination with the lives of Orthodox Jews 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 life of modern, ultra-Orthodox Judaism truly worthy of a frenzy.
In the same vein, two recent books, Yeshiva Days: Learning in the Lower East Side by Jonathan Boyarin and Mazel Tov: The Story of My Extraordinary Friendship with an Orthodox Jewish Family by JS Margot (translated by Jane Hedley-Prôle), we invite us to deepen our knowledge of the life of practicing 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 a non-Jew, explores Jewish customs, traditions and laws in working for and becoming friends with a Belgian. Modern Orthodox family.
Jonathan Boyarin is Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at Cornell University and an anthropologist and researcher in Jewish cultural studies. Yeshiva days is his personal account of his gap year (so to speak) at Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem (MTJ), an Orthodox seminary on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “I hope that, if the yeshiva is an unfamiliar place to you when you start reading, it looks more familiar by the end,” Boyarin wrote in the book’s introduction, “and if it’s already a familiar place, you may be reading it in a new light and with an enriched appreciation of its meaning today.
Boyarin is not there as a critic. He is there to appreciate, soak up the experience and learn the best he can. There is no criticism of orthodoxy, the yeshiva or, for that matter, the role of women – their absence in the kollel or their tolerance of the way their husbands spend their days. He is not there to challenge or even really question the fundamentals. On the contrary, he does his best to join in the experience and has kind words for those with whom he studies, for the head of the yeshiva and for the institution itself. He describes in depth the texts he studies and the discussions that surround them.
Boyarin, whose previous work includes the 2011 book Mornings at Stanton Street Shul about a Lower East Side congregation, wants us to appreciate how rare MTJ is and why it should be appreciated. 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) which follows a specifically “Lithuanian tradition of rational Judaism”, as proposed by its leader Reb Dovid Feinstein, the son of his predecessor at the yeshiva, Reb Moshe Feinstein, a leading Orthodox authority. Studies are often conducted in English and remain open to a diverse group of students, from Orthodox to Ultra-Hasidic Orthodoxy.
Although Boyarin does not fully assume the task of defending the value of studying the obscure and often anachronistic debates on Jewish law, he sets out the prosecution in a discussion of lishmah, the concept of “studying for oneself”. It is an ideal state where one fully engages with the religious text, free from one’s own prejudices and worldly concerns – an exalted condition in which one does not study for the rewards it can bring, in this life. or in the next one. Boyarin shows us how the study of the yeshiva is its own reward and how the companionship in the pursuit of learning and textual mastery is, in its own way, life-enriching. “The yeshiva”, he writes,
retains certain values that have perhaps become too rare in our academic world, in particular the notion of study for itself. And perhaps most importantly, the yeshiva is a wonderful laboratory for observing reading and studying as social, not solitary, activities.
Study in the yeshiva is done in pairs, sometimes in groups, in a large hall of the kollel. Sometimes the learning is led, sometimes informed by the lectures of the yeshiva leader, and sometimes independent. Most of all, it’s collaborative and social, and maybe that’s what is so appealing about the business. Before the internet, before Google, before live streaming and Zoom meetings, there was this conversation through time, in dialogue with the greatest scholars and sages of all ages, mediated by a teacher, and open to challenge by his study partner and himself. Boyarin marvels at how, when the leader of the yeshiva leads a Talmudic study session (a shiur), there may only be 15 people in the room, but the authority of his statements – his halachic interpretations – weighs all over the world (I’m a little skeptical about this, but I believe him by the word ).
For the men involved (and, again, they’re just men), what is perhaps appealing is the feeling that you are doing something that seems deeply important. They are like the Jedi Knights of the Talmud, weaving their way through textual obscurity and generations of divergent interpretations. What they do is hard intellectual work, and there is little certainty as to the “right” conclusion (although there are many opinions on what is right). The closest I have come to understanding the call has been when Boyarin basks in the feeling that he has actually made progress and is playing at his peak. He clarified that, despite all the difficulties and frustrations, these few highlights are really worth the wait.
One of the reasons Boyarin immersed himself so deeply into the world of this particular house of study is that it may soon be gone. A century ago, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was a noisy Jewish neighborhood filled with many places 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 region. Beyond that, some stratification of Ultra-Orthodoxy has occurred, and MTJ’s adoption of an expansive or inclusive orthodoxy, following Lithuanian tradition, is becoming a thing of the past.
JS Margot Mazel Tov is apparently a very different job. It tells the story of a young Belgian living in Antwerp, born a Christian but without any particular religious practice, who becomes the guardian of the children of a modern Orthodox family and, over time, becomes closer to all the members of the family. Margot is a talented journalist and a talented storyteller. She begins by introducing us to the occasional anti-Semitism that prevails among Belgians, as well as her own prejudices and objections to the restrictions 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 him not only foreign but false: how they dress and how they dress. their children. , their fears vis-à-vis other neighborhoods (and others in general). The father, a diamond dealer in Antwerp who tells old Jewish jokes (some funny, some not), and the mother, at first quite strange and eccentric, speak in a convoluted syntax which often implies the opposite of what is being said. And the children, each in their own way, are apparently hampered by the prejudices and arrogance of their world.
However, as Margot gets to know the family to be a part of their lives, she – and her readers – grow up 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 children. Elzira, for example, has physical conditions that make her aware of herself; As Margot works to build the girl’s confidence by teaching her to ride a bike, they form a close bond, and this relationship is remembered for the most.
Margot continues to oppose various aspects of the life of the Schneiders – denunciations of premarital sex and cohabitation, early marriages arranged by a matchmaker, forced study in Israel (with military service for some). But as she gets closer to the family (including grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor), Margot comes to understand why they cling so fiercely to their way of life. At the same time, the family embraces him without prejudice or question, welcoming him and his boyfriends (one of whom is an Iranian Muslim) with great mutual respect. As the Schneider children begin to flourish and flourish, growing up to be successful professionals and happy marriages while Margot’s own life remains a mess, there is the unspoken implication, “Maybe. to be that they are not so wrong to live this way … “
As Yeshiva days, Mazel Tov is a chronicle of a way of life that is rapidly changing and even disappearing. Mr Schneider strives to explain to Margot why modern Orthodox in Brussels, France and all over Europe are leaving, finding it more conducive to live as Jews in New York or Israel. Even the Antwerp diamond trade, once a sacred occupation of Orthodox Jews, is now increasingly the domain of Indian, Lebanese and Armenian merchants.
Recently in a live chat for online posting Tortoise, David Baddiel, Jewish author and comedian, wondered if characters from series like Unorthodox and Shtisel is not the image that the world in general has in mind when we say the word “Jew”. I, too, wondered if the recent fetishization of Orthodox life in the popular media was perhaps just another form of social alteration. Yet, to return to Rosenzweig’s saying, there is much about Jewishness today that is foreign not only to non-Jews but to Jews themselves. With this in mind, the two Yeshiva days and Mazel Tov can be read as loving representations of Orthodox Jews who manage to make what may at first appear exotic seem understandable, if not relatable. And if the Torah teaches us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” this certainly applies to the Orthodox as well.
Tom Teicholz is an award winning journalist and a bestselling author – just Google him.