Excerpt: 'Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side' by Jonathan Boyarin
LuHungnguong: Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem, East Broadway, New York City, 2009 (CC)
During the calendar year 2012, and on breaks in my academic calendar until the plague hit New York in March 2020, I studied at a yeshiva on New York’s Lower East Side known as Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem, or MTJ for short. MTJ is part of the constellation of “Litvish” or non-Hasidic yeshivas that thrive around the world in diaspora. Adult males who study full-time there constitute an academy known as a “kollel.” Many but not all of them attended the daily Talmud lesson given by the Rosh Yeshiva, the head of the academy and religious guide for Orthodox Jews in the neighborhood and around the world.
Adult study at MTJ takes place in one large hall, known as the “beis medresh” or house of study. The Mashgiach—here, both intellectual and spiritual supervisor—is present in the beis medresh and available to all during the regular hours of study. As in most other traditional yeshivas, it is a social practice, and long-lasting bonds may be formed between two or more men who patiently and slowly study Rabbinic texts together for years. Asher, Yisroel Ruven, Hillel, and Nasanel, all mentioned below, are pseudonyms for some of those I’ve had the privilege of studying with. Through a montage of anecdotes such as the ones that follow, I was able to create an ethnographic portrait of what it’s like to partake simultaneously of the “secular” present and of the more expansive frames of time that can be experienced within and around those texts.
Other Shuls, Other Jews
There’s an old joke: the person to the right of me is a fanatic, and the person to the left of me is a heretic. In a neighborhood whose Jewish population has been declining for roughly a century, and where buildings to house Jewish institutions have been progressively emptied out, the narcissism of small differences bears a particular pathos. Overall MTJ remains a bastion against gestures toward change in synagogue practice, especially the expansion of women’s ritual rules. My synagogue on Stanton Street is the standard-bearer for those changes on the Lower East Side. Some at MTJ seem to be bothered by this, others not.
One evening early in my kollel year, as I was heading out, one of the regulars wished me a good night, and asked whether I live in Brooklyn.
“No, here, on Third Street.”
“Third Street? You got [the] Stanton Street [Shul] and Chasam Sopher there.”
“Yeah, we go to Stanton Street.”
“Oh, I know the baal koyre [Torah reader] there, he’s very good.”
On the other hand, a few days earlier, we had entered the library one morning to find a smaller group gathered for the Rosh Yeshiva’s shiur than usual, perhaps because of the traffic occasioned by the victory parade for the Super Bowl winner Giants downtown. As we were waiting for the Rosh Yeshiva to come in, Asher addressed me directly, but not quite privately: “I saw posters up for the Stanton . . . they have a women’s minyan?”
“Yeah, a few times a year.”
“Who layens [reads the Torah]?”
“There are several women who know how.”
“There’s a rabbi there?”
“The rabbi’s upstairs, but of course he approved it.”
After a pause, Asher responded: “That’s one thing they never had on the East Side, is a Conservative or Reform shul.” These more liberal denominations have been far more willing than Orthodox synagogues to grant women equal ritual roles. Whether he meant further to imply that the changes I was attesting to at Stanton Street actually constitute evidence of a slide toward non-Orthodoxy, I cannot say.
Yisroel Ruven, for one, feels free to poke at tendencies toward a farfrumt, overly restrictive, version of contemporary Orthodox Judaism. One day it came up that Rabbi Pinsker’s wife doesn’t sit with him at the same table when they eat. “What, you don’t even sit with your wife in the house?” responded Yisroel Ruven with open incredulity. “That’s crazy!”
Another time I heard Yisroel Ruven complain about the spreading practice, under the influence of contemporary Hasidism, of separate seating for men and women at communal events. He took the occasion to recall the funeral of the deeply-beloved previous Mashgiach, whom I had known in the 1980s: “At the Mashgiach’s funeral, they stretched out the curtain [in the beis medresh] that separates the women’s section over there. Rabbi Nobel put it back up, and said, ‘This is not our minhag [custom]!’” Yet, he continued, at a bris (circumcision) celebrated downstairs in the lunchroom just recently, the men and women had sat separately.
Yet another trait associated with Hasidim, and more broadly also with a greater separatism from the general culture, is belief in the efficacy of certain formulae or ritual objects to help one get what he wishes for. This belief is another of Yisroel Ruven’s targets, since in his loyalty to the ethos of the yeshiva he bristles at the influence Hasidim are perceived to have over what was once a more distinct and overtly anti-Hasidic, Lithuanian yeshiva world. One day—unprovoked by anything that I could determine, other than the fact that it was a Tuesday—Yisroel Ruven announced, in mock solemn tones, “Rabosay, 160 years ago Reb Mendel of Rimenev announced that anyone who says [a certain Psalm] on Tuesday will become rich. And if he doesn’t become rich,” added Yisroel Ruven as his own commentary, “at least he’ll be a baal betochen” (a true believer).
Rabbi Pinsker responded: “It can’t hurt, can it?”
And Yisroel Ruven insisted, “It’s a waste of time!” Citing authority in support of his implicit claim that such beliefs in what might be termed superstitious or magical techniques is a deviation from true Judaism, Yisroel Ruven added: “As the Rosh Yeshiva says [disparagingly], am segulos”—a people of amulets, a takeoff of the phrase am segula, which is generally but problematically glossed as “chosen people.”
One morning when I came in, Hillel, Asher, and a fellow named Azriel Meir were discussing the meaning of tsnius, a word generally translated as “modesty” but also implying humility, as in the prophet’s adjuration to “walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). In everyday parlance, the term is used primarily to refer to standards of women’s behavior. Hillel told an anecdote about two secular Israeli women going door-to-door selling cosmetics. A religious woman answers, and then says she can’t let them in because her husband is at home learning and they’re not dressed appropriately. The secular women retort, “We’re not dressing to show off. We go out dressed this way because we’re comfortable this way. Haredi women dress up and put on lots of cosmetics just to go to the store!” Hillel was evidently sympathetic to the position of the secular women in this anecdote, not because he thought they should set the standard but because he thinks women dressing to be attractive to men is inherently a violation of tsnius. Azriel Meir wants to hew much closer to the definition of tsnius as focusing on sexual modesty, non-exhibitionism. Asher, chiming in at the end, insisted that tsnius means a woman dresses respectably but not to impress anybody else, including her friends–and he quoted the Chofetz Chaim in approving tones to the effect that this might be a woman’s highest mitzvah, the most sacred thing she can attend to.
Litvaks and Hasidim
The Stanton Street shul, in the northern part of the Lower East Side, is where Jews from the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, who were primarily Hasidic, settled. The lower part, around Grand Street, was more “Litvak”—here meaning not just those from the region that was Lithuania between the two world wars, but the extended region of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as early as the sixteenth century. For some at MTJ, re-learning how to be a true “Litvak” is part of the training. One day I came in to hear the continuation of a discussion whose first part I had evidently missed. In a conversation with Yisroel Ruven and Asher, Hillel had strenuously denied feeling the kedusha, the holiness of the Land of Israel when he was there. Yisroel Ruven purported to be very upset by Hillel’s views on this topic, although (as usual) without any rancor. In the brief ensuing discussion, Hillel insisted he was working on developing his rationalist, anti-Hasidic persona. Then he tried to convince Yisroel Ruven to consider the difference between his own emotions when Yisroel Ruven is in Israel, and the sanctity of the land itself, as a putative external source of those emotions. Was Yisroel Ruven making himself feel like he was on holy ground, or was he feeling the holiness?
“It’s not important for me to know that!” Yisroel Ruven insisted. “It’s important to have the feelings.” This time, even though Hillel purported to be consciously striving to maintain a Litvak sensibility, the result he arrived at was not one that Yisroel Ruven could endorse.
Nevertheless, part of what was at stake in this exchange seemed to be a contest over who’s the real rationalist Jew, the real Misnagid. As in the examples above, Yisroel Ruven wants to uphold a reasonable Orthodoxy against a perceived wave of increasing stringency, much of which might be attributed to the influence of contemporary Hasidic communities. Here, his insistence that performance—even the performance of experience of emotion—is more important than interiority or proper “intent” seems to reflect that same sensibility. At the same time, Hillel is insisting that it’s wrong to be deluded by popular ideologies into misreading one’s own experience. He, too, clearly understands this as tied to his commitment to a non-Hasidic, “Litvak” tradition, for he insists that he rejects even some Hasidic customs that his father (a pulpit rabbi) practices. And thus the occasion presented itself for Yisroel Ruven and Asher to tease him again about the fact that, as a young child, Hillel himself underwent the Hasidic ceremony of upshern, the first haircut that (at about the age of three) initiates the Hasidic boy into the first stages of formal education. Hillel played his part well, purporting to be embarrassed in turn by the reminder. How genuinely it distressed him I could not say, but the exchange proved to be the occasion for another pop culture reference. When Hillel got up for a second, Yisroel Ruven commented on Hillel’s provocateur stance: “He’s trying to be another Sasha Baron Cohen.”
Part of the “Litvak” ethos, closely linked to a vaunted emphasis on scholarship, is an insistence on being able to articulate the basis on Jewish law for following or disallowing a specific practice. (From another perspective, one might say that a common strategy is to deny that a specific practice of which one disapproves has or could have an identifiable basis in Jewish law.) One winter afternoon I went to spend the last hours of Shabbes at MTJ. Yisroel Ruven was there, relaxed, and I had an opportunity to chat with him and others. As I sat down to join them for the meal, I realized that Yisroel Ruven was complaining about some practice that he doesn’t believe is based in legitimate sources. “Show me a Mishnah Berurah or an Aruch Hashulchan[i] that talks about it.”
I asked him what he was talking about, and he explained that it was the Hasidic custom of celebrating the last day of Chanukah as “the Feast of Messiah.” This led him to general unflattering remarks about Hasidim: “Yeah, I don’t like them, because when I’m in the country, the goy (gentile) doesn’t want to deal with me because he’s just had to deal with eighty Hasidim.” The only Hasidim he respects, he said, are those from the Gerer community, because they take learning seriously and don’t talk while they’re davening.
The younger men present teased him that he had Hasidic tendencies when he was younger, which he tried to deny.
I put in, “Only somebody with a shemets (trace or hint) of khsides (Hasidism) would talk about them in such a farbisn (bitter) way,” and the joke was appreciated.
I mentioned to Yisroel Ruven that a few years ago, I had asked somebody from Williamsburg whether there’s a tzaddik (saint) there.
“I’ll show you a tzaddik from Williamsburg. Do you know Rabbi Feffer? Did you know Avrom Feffer?”
“Yeah,” I replied. Avrom Feffer was a great and troubled character whom I used to know in the 1980s. He was the source of one of my best Jewish one-liners, which he shouted to the whole beis medresh one day in the mid-1980s, apropos of nothing that I could determine at the time or later. It was a comment on the prevalent use of the term frum or, depending on one’s dialect, frim, to designate observant Jews: “Frim! A galekh iz frim! A yid iz erlekh!” (Pious! A Christian priest is pious! A Jew is honest!)
“Rabbi Feffer is Avrom’s father-he’s been the first-grade rebbe here for about fifty years.”
I took the opportunity to ask Yisroel Ruven what sort of Hasidim Rabbis Feld and Schuster are. Their presence at MTJ for decades as fully-respected members of the learning community adequately testifies that however sensitive some at the beis medresh may be to the need to maintain a Litvak sensibility, Hasidim have long been welcome there. In any case, Yisroel Ruven told me that “Schuster is from that group upstate, past Yonkers. . . .”
“Nitra,” I say.
“Yeah, Nitra. And Mendl Feld is a ‘baal teshuva’ [usually, a Jew who has become observant or returned to observance, but here used jokingly]. He was a Chaim Berlin [one of the major New York Lithuanian-style yeshivas] guy who married a Satmar [Hasidic] girl, and joined them. And he’s raised his kids very successfully in Satmar, they’re completely. . .”
“And he seems to fit in very well there, too.”
“Yeah, he does, but not many Satmar guys know Carlebach tunes.”
All of this suggests that some of Feld’s slightly self-parodying performance as a Hasid, such as when he sets a summertime lunch of leftovers before us with the announcement “Raboysay, s’i du veg-e-tab-les” (Gentlemen, there are vegetables!), comes from his knowing stance as an outsider/insider.
Some glimpses of the future of this tension about retaining a distinction between yeshivish and Hasidic worlds can be obtained through eavesdropping on the conversation of the younger boys. Another Shabbes afternoon, I’d overheard a couple of the young bar-mitzvah age boys kibitzing; perhaps there were more of them present than usual because that morning, there had been a bar-mitzvah at the yeshiva. Though I didn’t catch much detail, the conversation certainly seemed to be about where the boundaries should be between “us” and “them,” and I heard one blond kid saying, “Yeah, [you’ll marry a Hasidic woman and] twenty years from now you’ll wake up and say, ‘How come my wife is bald?’” He was referring to the Hasidic practice of having women shave their heads at marriage, rather than merely wear a wig or otherwise cover their hair in public. Evidently “even” at this pre-teen level, the boys were well aware of the tendencies toward adoption of Hasidic stringencies.
After the shales sudes ritual meal that afternoon, as I was sitting and learning by myself, the same blond kid sat across from me and opened the conversation with, “So how do you like learning with [Nasanel] Schoenstein?”
I told him that basically I liked it very much, although it can be frustrating because it’s hard to get Nasanel to stick to the text. He went on to ask me where I live when I’m not in New York, and then was very curious about what I teach. I told him that Jewish studies includes things like Jewish history, “But also the same kind of stuff we learn in here. Only of course it’s approached very differently. For instance, it’s not just for Jews.” I told him, for dramatic effect, that there’s a non-Jewish woman who’s a full professor of Talmud at Yale.
He was fascinated: “And she knows how to read Rashi, too?” I assured him that she indeed knows how to read Rashi. He wanted to know more about Cornell: Is it Ivy League? Does it have a law school? What’s it like to try to be frum there? I love this kid, a bit of a wise guy but not obnoxious, totally East Side, smart and wanting to learn about the world.
[i]. Two modern halachic codes, both by non-Hasidic “Lithuanian” rabbis.
About the Author
Jonathan Boyarin is the Diann G. and Thomas A. Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at Cornell University. His books include Jewish Families, Mornings at the Stanton Street Shul: A Summer on the Lower East Side, and The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians, and the Identity of Christian Europe.
Excerpted from Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side by Jonathan Boyarin, published by Princeton University Press (2020).