Life in Learning

Sometimes, while rushing across campus to class on the bright days of early autumn, a recollection will wash over me unannounced, and suddenly I am in Maryland, dressed in a starched white shirt and black dress pants as I wait with the rest of my yeshiva classmates for the arrival of our new rebbe. A hazy sun shines through the classroom windows. The atmosphere is thick with sweat and anticipation. We jump to our feet as our teacher, dressed in a dark suit and a black Borsalino hat, enters the room and moves swiftly and purposefully to his desk. He opens a large volume of Talmud and sing-songs in Yiddish and Hebrew: fregt di heilige mishneh: me-emasay koyrin es ha-shema ba-arvin?—the holy Mishnah asks, “When do we read the Shema in the evening?” Reb Kalman introduces himself only after walking us through the rambling investigations of this first page of Talmud. And then he leaves just as quickly as he came, a gaggle of students trailing him into the yeshiva’s beis medresh (study hall).

The scene seemed especially dramatic because it marked, in my own life, an abrupt transition from a coed Modern Orthodox prep school to an all-boys yeshiva boarding school. Despite sharing the Orthodox designation, these two institutions were universes apart in everything from outlook, curriculum, and style of learning to their sights, sounds, and smells. New to me was the two-tone dress code of the black-hat yeshiva, the all-encompassing devotion to Talmud study, and the whiff of a late-night cigarette, which for me still summons images of yeshiva boys puffing and pontificating at their dorm-room bull sessions.

The special relationship between Jews and learning has, of course, been endlessly documented. The ancient devotion to Torah, the late ancient rise of the rabbinic class, medieval bookish pietism, the birth of the yeshiva in Eastern Europe, and the rise of modern Jewish intellectualism are all familiar themes of Jewish history. Communities organized around Torah study have been a focus of sociological research since the late William Helmreich’s 1982 classic, The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry. In Israel, where haredi society’s full-time dedication to Torah study has national implications, more urgent studies have appeared. Yet for all their insight, these investigations have largely overlooked what is perhaps the heart of the matter—the textual communion that transubstantiates books and learning into the body and blood of Jewish experience.

Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem, founded in 1907 on the Lower East Side. Its current home was built in 1912. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Perhaps this is a topic best suited for anthropologists, who know how to measure the ephemeral grains of culture and keep them from slipping through their fingers. Their discipline has come a long way from its “armchair” days, when library-bound scholars analyzed ethnographic reports sent back from colonial outposts, and also from its mud-encrusted period, when researchers journeyed to far-flung archipelagos and distant jungles as participant observers. Now, we have “backyard anthropology,” where over the course of a single day, an anthropologist can travel to the field and still make it home in time for dinner. Indeed, an anthropologist like Jonathan Boyarin can feel almost as at home among the fellow Orthodox Jews who are his subjects in the beis medresh as he is in his own New York apartment. (He cleverly calls this scrutiny of Orthodox Jews by a fellow Orthodox Jew “Observant participation.”)

As he tells it in the preface to his Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side, Boyarin became an observant Jewish ethnographer in the 1980s, after returning with his wife to New York City from Paris, where he had conducted fieldwork among Polish Holocaust survivors:

Those Polish Jews were resolutely secularist, and Elissa and I were struck by the vast cultural gap between them and their children. . . . This helped shape our view that, in order to persist, Jewish identity in diaspora requires some sort of everyday frame to tell us what it is that Jews do and don’t do.

Boyarin decided to join a Jewish study group at Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem (MTJ), a yeshiva on New York’s Lower East Side best known for being led, until the 1980s, by the leading halakhist of the 20th century, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Apart from grounding him religiously, the decision also bore professional fruit, as it led to his classic ethnographic study of Torah learning entitled “Voices Around the Text,” an important collection Boyarin edited called The Ethnography of Reading, and decades later, the marvelous book under review.

An anthropologist like Boyarin uses the accidents and opportunities of his life to observe and think about the human condition. His prose is charmingly casual, but behind his seemingly impressionistic meandering lies a great deal of skill, tact, and theory. There is an inevitable anthropological hurdle that enlivens Yeshiva Days, namely the need to gain the trust of the community being studied. Since Boyarin was a neighborhood resident, a literal member of the tribe, and a man, he was able to quickly get to work in this local all-male Jewish institution without making a scene upon his arrival. On the other hand, while Boyarin is a committed Jew, he did not pretend to be quite as observant as his yeshiva comrades. He also did not disguise the fact that he is a professor of Jewish studies, a critical enterprise that is seen as threatening by many Orthodox Jews.

BINA, a secular yeshiva, is an Israeli-born movement at the intersection of Jewish education and social activism. (Courtesy of BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change.)

In Yeshiva Days, Boyarin probes this tension through his ongoing, lively dialogue with his study partner and the book’s hero, Nasanel. Nasanel is a restless soul who has moved from one ultra-Orthodox institution to another before finally settling on Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem. He is unrepentantly curious about everything from popular culture to classical literature, is too frenetic to sit still for long, yet has somehow developed into a young Talmud scholar. Perhaps because of his ability to span worlds and remain piously within the fold, Nasanel is frustrated by Boyarin’s outside commitments, be they his left-liberal values or the petty hedonisms of academic life. Normally, Boyarin listens patiently to Nasanel’s critiques, although there is a testy exchange when Nasanel calls Boyarin, who became observant in his adult life, a ba’al teshuvah. Boyarin fires back that he does not deserve the penitential label since he has no kharote—no regrets—about his formerly secular life. The exchange reminds us of the similarity between religious change and anthropological practice, the transition from one world to another. It also highlights Boyarin’s comfort in his own skin.

Boyarin’s earlier research on reading fused both anthropology and literary theory to explore how yeshiva learners perpetually recreate themselves through the ritual of study. Unlike Wallace Stevens’s solitary reader intensely communing with a book (“The house was quiet and the world was calm / The reader became the book . . .”), reading in yeshiva is a constant colloquy among people slowly working their way through a set of texts, sometimes alone, more often in pairs, generally aloud, sometimes in sing-song—and regularly as a group in shiur, as the yeshiva seminar is called.

Yeshiva Days records the ambient noise of yeshiva life: the give and take of shiur, the conversations between yeshiva study partners, and the amusing jingles of the study hall. We listen in as the current rosh yeshiva, Reb Dovid Feinstein, explicates a passage, students ask questions, scratch in their notebooks, schmooze, and snooze. Rabbi Feinstein is, like his legendary father, a highly respected halakhic authority and talmudist, and there are moments of brilliance in the seminar that dwell alongside Old-World levity:

Another time the Rosh Yeshiva indulged in a few minutes of jokes at the end of the shiur, drawing on the end of a long and complicated comment by Tosafos to Bava Kama 14b. The text discusses the case where “a cow damaged a garment [tallit] or a garment damaged a cow.” Tosafos note that an alternate version of the text reading, “a cow damaged a sheep [taleh] or a sheep damaged a cow” must be incorrect. The Rosh Yeshiva mused: “Can you imagine what a monster that sheep would have to be [to cause damage to a cow]?” He commented further that, unlike his childhood in Luban [in present-day Belarus], children today don’t usually see animals like horses, cows, and sheep. “The only time you see a horse on the Lower East Side is Rosh Hashanah,” referring to police security when the Jews of the Lower East Side gather en masse (although a smaller masse each year) at the East River for the ceremony of tashlich.

Boyarin is honest enough to also chronicle the long slog of the everyday, times “when it felt like the Rosh Yeshiva was wandering in a trackless Tosafos.” Indeed, Boyarin is best when describing these moments of tedium, when shiur “moves and stalls, moves and circles” as when the class struggles to understand an arcane discussion about how 600,000 Israelite men could stand on the banks of the Jordan River (perhaps the closest the Talmud ever comes to considering the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin).

Boyarin’s real skill is in illuminating matters unnoticed or taken for granted by other chroniclers of yeshiva life. In this way, we are exposed to the musicality of the study hall—one of the last places in America where people spend hours together each day talking, singing, and experimenting with sound:

Mendle Feld tapped his fingers and repeated in a sort of hip-hop rhythm: Vi zenen di yungelayt? /Vi zenen di yungelayt? (Where are the young married students?) . . . Later he was singing some Yiddish words I couldn’t make out to the tune of “Oyfn pripetshik,” a sentimental chestnut that recalls the warmth of the traditional kheyder. . . . A few minutes later, Rabbi Weiss was humming the same tune to himself, and then across the room another older regular picked it up as well. Later I come closer, and Mendle wanted to make sure I caught the words. Rabbi Simcha Goldman had arrived, and Rabbi Feld was singing: Oy ven Simcha kimt / Brent a fayer do. (Oh when Simcha comes, a fire burns here.)

Boyarin pays special attention to the endearing relationships between these adult men, which can seem almost like marriages (“I’m worried that I’m losing you,” says one concerned study partner. His friend replies in warm mockery, “Sometimes it’s rocky but we’ll always be together”). Perhaps the better analogy is that of regular dance partners (at one point, the same learner says to his partner, “Ok, I’ll dance with you later”). Yeshiva Days gives us a detailed map of this scholastic ballroom, allowing us to conceive of the students who sit in its different corners as occupants of different indoor neighborhoods. Overhearing a talmudic query from the other side of the study hall, Boyarin muses that “if I had been sitting on the other side of the beis medresh, these notes would constitute a very different ethnography, one might say, an ethnography of a very different place.”

Boyarin also dwells on the spatial relationship between Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem and the Lower East Side. We hear sirens and other city sounds through “the great arched windows facing directly onto the sidewalks of East Broadway.” Those sidewalks bring all sorts of marvelous weirdness into the yeshiva. One drop-in is an older man who sits down at a table in the back of the study hall and offers a strange yet oddly profound homily: “And this is very relevant to understanding Star Trek. The past, present, and future are all coexistent, they’re all there. That’s why the Psalm [19:3] says yom le-yom yabiye omer—one day speaks to the next [so they must be coexistent]. On the other hand, the only way we can get to the future is in a straight line.” The MTJ regulars take it all in bemused stride.

In his preface to Yeshiva Days, Boyarin apologizes to the reader for the book’s chronological disorder, though I doubt that we are dealing with an editorial mishap. Some of Boyarin’s best insights into the texture of Jewish learning examine what he calls the “unmaking of time at the yeshiva.” The learners regularly spend 10 hours a day struggling to make sense of intricate rabbinic texts, but they do not seem to be driven by a desire for the kind of mastery that is sought in terms of four-year degrees or ten thousand hours of practice. We hear little of tests or study goals, and while a few students are there to work toward rabbinic ordination, it is largely beside the point. Life in the yeshiva is a bewildering combination of scholastic determination and inertia that advances, tarries, and doubles back. Boyarin provocatively, and I believe correctly, identifies this “noninstrumentality,” as a black-hat rejoinder to the neoliberal insistence that everything has a market value. An academic colleague of Boyarin’s goes so far as to compare regular Torah learning to the beautiful sand mandalas that Tibetan Buddhist monks create, contemplate, and then destroy annually. And yet, learning in yeshiva also includes a regular practice of chazara (review), whose aspiration is, indeed, a permanent mastery of the material. In ethnography, such contradictions are not problems to be solved but antitheses that reveal the glorious complexity of culture.

Yeshiva Days is by its own admission a limited ethnography of Jewish learning at a particular—even peculiar—New York City yeshiva. Boyarin is careful not to claim that his findings are representative of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva life, to say nothing of Jewish learning in other contexts. His modesty is welcome, though it may be frustrating for those seeking a more wide-ranging account. Fortunately for Hebrew speakers, this year saw the publication of another ethnography with just such an ambition. Shlomo Guzmen-Carmeli’s Mifgashim me-saviv ha-tekst: Etnografiya shel Yahaduyot (Encounters Around the Text: An Ethnography of Judaisms) is everything that Yeshiva Days is not. Guzmen-Carmeli speaks in the technical discourse of the field, and he foregrounds his research with introductions to cultural anthropology, Jewish anthropology, and the anthropology of reading. Mifgashim me-saviv ha-tekst presents fieldwork undertaken at not one but five separate sites, all in contemporary Israel, and attempts to say something larger about Jews and texts.

The final word in the work’s subtitle, “Judaisms,” is not a typo but a nod to the late Jacob Neusner, who insisted that there was never just one form of Judaism, certainly not in the modern period. The book’s pluralism is of a piece with the relativistic roots of cultural anthropology and the recent trend of multisite ethnography, but it also fits Guzmen-Carmeli’s sensibility as a “South Jerusalem,” Modern Orthodox intellectual. In explaining the inspiration for his research, the author recalls spending one Shavuot holiday with a girlfriend attending various tikkunim—the all-night holiday learning sessions that first emerged in early modern mystical circles and have now proliferated around the Jewish world.

With the passion of a kippa-wearing product of Jerusalem trying, in one night, to present the beauty of the city and the magic of Torah to a secular kibbutznik, we skipped between ten different tikkunim. And then, while walking home in our exhaustion, we spoke of the Torah and Jerusalem. When I suggested that we had not merely received Torah that night, but Torahs, Meirav (who would later become the mother of my children) recapped our grueling night with the sharp observation that the learners had not, in fact, received the Torah that night. In each of the tikkunim the learners received, with the help of the Torah, themselves.

In the five institutions he studies, a secular yeshiva, a kabbalistic yeshiva, a haredi kollel, a Hasidic court, and a “study hall for storytellers,” Guzmen-Carmeli looks at how his subjects define themselves in terms of the texts they study. In BINA, the secular yeshiva, he sketches the “reflexive self” that emerges when young secular Israelis wrestle with traditional Jewish texts usually seen as the heritage of the Orthodox. After distributing handouts with the passages that they will be studying (unlike their haredi counterparts, the students in the secular yeshiva typically learn from source-sheets, rather than large tomes), a teacher introduces the material, on Jewish-Gentile relations, by saying, “today we will study some rather problematic material. There are plenty of things relating to these laws which are really difficult for me. . . . But it seems to me that the solution is not to repress these materials, to hide them, but to struggle with them head on.” While discussing the texts, explaining difficult terms and concepts, and bringing in “postmodern” frameworks, the students highlight the ethical problems in the sources, and begin to pose existential questions, most frequently, “Where does the text meet me?” Slowly but surely, an amalgamated secular-scriptural Israeli identity is formed.

In the haredi kollel, Guzmen-Carmeli describes the opposite, “traditional self” that is fashioned when brilliant ultra-Orthodox Talmud scholars learn to bend their novel readings and common sense to the will of tradition. Guzmen-Carmeli records a pair of scholars’ struggle with the Talmud’s rejection of circumstantial evidence. One exclaims: “Look at this, nowadays they wouldn’t think this way at all! They would put [a person convicted on circumstantial evidence] in jail!”

“Why shouldn’t they put him in jail?” his companion concurs, “wouldn’t you see something like this and say—he’s a murderer!” After finding a passage in Maimonides’s Code that explains this difficult aspect of Jewish law, the men cool down. Reflecting on the clash between common sense and Torah knowledge, one of them tells Guzmen-Carmeli: “I subordinate myself to the Gemara. My understanding is nullified before the rabbis of old. Only by learning in this way do I reach the Mind of Torah. In the end, I will understand.”

Guzmen-Carmeli finds psychological transformations in the other settings as well. He watches mystics in a kabbalistic yeshiva merge with the mystical tradition while the laypeople who consult them receive tailor-made amulets and “recipes” for textual recitation. One kabbalist tells a woman who fears an evil eye cast by her future sister-in-law:

I will give you a tikkun, something you say every day for a month. Recite it during the day, before sunset. The best time is in the morning. . . . When you are in Torah classes, when you are praying, [the evil eye] has no effect on you. You break it!

Participants in the “study hallfor storytellers” read and theatrically workshop talmudic narratives. As the comedian, television personality, and study hall moderator Jacky Levy colorfully explains:

Before the oral Torah was written down, it was really oral! Storytellers narrated it. One day someone got up and wrote it down, and when he did, half of the story went out the window. The magic, the intuition, the irony of turning things upside down—half of the story remained on the floor. What we are doing is essentially trying to restore our fledglings to the bosom of Mother Nature. Not only that, we try to give them wings like this [he flaps his hands], hoping they’ll fly.

In the final pages of the book, Guzmen-Carmeli calls attention to a word that crops up in all his field notebooks, the Hebrew word tikkun, or “repair,” which each of the communities uses at some point to describe their work with texts. The kabbalists speak of repairing the cosmic divine, while the secular yeshiva students yearn to fix secular Israeli society, coming close to the social justice term, “tikkun olam,” so familiar to American Jews. The storytellers speak of mending talmudic narratives by redeeming them from the stasis of the written word, and the kollel scholars repair their own intellects by bringing it in line with the truth of Torah. Perhaps most dramatically, the Hasidim of Toldos Aharon pledge allegiance to their foundational texts every year, reconstituting their holy community in the wake of modernity and the Holocaust. All of these Jewish groups believe in the power of Jewish texts to achieve their grand reparative designs.

This is an interesting discovery, both for what it says about the persistent Jewish reliance on texts—even in the 21st century—and for the shared language of tikkun, which these profoundly different groups use to describe their relationship to the texts. And yet, I wonder if attempting to compare five profoundly different encounters with Jewish texts led to an insight so general that it lacks some substance. I also wonder whether the recurrence of tikkun as both a word and a concept in Guzmen-Carmeli’s fieldwork might be overstated by a researcher who is himself captivated by the transformative power of Jewish texts. “Every reader,” Proust wrote, “as he reads, is actually the reader of himself.” To be fair, the same critique could be posed to Boyarin, with his lefty enthusiasm for the yeshiva’s anticapitalism, its Yiddishisms, its non-Zionism.

Apart from the apparent differences in method and scope, what ultimately distinguishes these ethnographies is their orientation. Guzmen-Carmeli works in the modern state of Israel, a religiously dynamic place where new forms of Judaism are constantly bubbling to the surface. His personal vignettes and energetic writing communicate genuine excitement about what comes next. Boyarin, on the other hand, toils in the diaspora. As he puts it, “the impulse of my work is to repair the breach of memory.” His beloved Lower East Side, once the most vibrant and densely Jewish neighborhood in the world, has been, for a century, vanishing. MTJ is also going through a long and slow decline. Indeed, as I was writing this review, Boyarin’s beloved rosh yeshiva, Rav Dovid Feinstein, zatzal, passed away.

Nostalgia can be especially problematic for ethnography, slackening critical observation into mere memoir. And yet, the wistful, backward glance of Yeshiva Days strikes me as well-suited to its subject. Reading is always tied up with memory; it thaws the author’s voice, frozen and forgotten in the text. In the midrash, learning is described as an attempt to reexperience the revelation at Sinai or to recall the Torah studied in the womb. When we read, we remember.


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Shai Secunda

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