A Tale of Trade-offs


By Joshua Halberstam

Published January 20, 2010, issue of January 29, 2010.
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‘Yes, Rabbi Wolf was gargantuan,” I tell my children. “A giant of a man, with more hair protruding from his knuckles than I had on my head, even back then when it was covered with thick curls. He was the one we were sent to for serious disciplining. But he wasn’t the mightiest rebbe in our yeshiva.” No, in this all-important debate that raged for years in the halls of my school, I stood with those who favored Rabbi Chafkin. “The man could rip right through a Brooklyn telephone book….saw him do it with my own eyes.”
My kids offer a polite, glazed half-nod. They’ve heard these recollections before, the thinly veiled comparisons of my yeshiva escapades with their own more temperate school experiences.

At the time of this telling, they are both students in a modern, pluralistic day school in enlightened Manhattan, where the teachers flourish degrees in education, study subjects with names like “classroom management” and can trade names of current celebrities with the hippest of their students. The more reflective part of me is relieved that they aren’t able to fathom the stern, nervous authority of my teachers. Rabbis Wolf and Chafkin loomed large to us not only for their physical prowess, but also because, to our amazement, they spoke accentless English. Nearly all our rebbes were immigrants. Many were survivors. And to us Brooklyn boys, it was these Europeans who were most familiar.

“Oh, yes,” I continue, holding forth, “your teachers wouldn’t dare — and, well, they shouldn’t, but my rebbes had no compunctions about slapping us.” It was those violent lunges that some of my former classmates angrily recall most about our yeshiva days; my own memories, however, track to the even more frequent unabashed hugs and approving pinches of the cheek. For in the ragged suitcases they brought from the Old Country, my rebbes also packed an ancient pedagogy foreign to contemporary sensibilities.

Jewish tradition does not celebrate the post-enlightenment concept of rights. Judaism’s focus is, rather, on responsibilities. Children don’t have a right to learn; their parents, teachers and community have an obligation to teach. (Much follows from this, including, I’d argue, a key explanation for the inordinately high rates of literacy among Jews throughout the centuries.)

This custodial intimacy is deemed inappropriate in the day school of my children, even in the modern co-ed yeshiva high school my daughter attended across the bridge in Brooklyn. But, then, it wouldn’t have been hers in any case. Only boys were accorded this depth of mentoring.

On the other hand, her modern day school bequeathed to her a rich Jewish knowledge never afforded to the yeshiva girls who paralleled my own traditional schooling. All told — in my book — a worthwhile trade-off.

Other trade-offs in our respective educations come at steeper prices. I sometimes wonder if my children are better off not having experienced the assuredness my cohorts and I enjoyed in our youth. We had no doubts about our special status.

“You have a direct line,” my rebbe would repeat.

“A what? To where?”

“A chain to the truth,” he would say. “To the pure and unspoiled reality…from me, from my rebbes and their rebbes, straight back to Moshe Rabbeinu. Ours is not the muddied morality of the rest of the world. We alone can proclaim this connection to the source.”

My kids shuffle uneasily in response, too aware that it’s not quite that simple. They’ve learned the value of questioning.

But I caution my children against a too-easy smugness on their part. Don’t we all resort to our own brand of comfortable sureties?

For when it comes to religious and political beliefs, everyone considers himself or herself “moderate.”

In college, a Leninist acquaintance of mine wouldn’t talk to a Maoist classmate whom he considered a close-minded radical. The Bobover Hasidim I speak with are at pains to assure me that they don’t share the anti-Zionist rancor of those Satmar fanatics. Wherever we stand is always the precise, well-considered center. And so while my classmates and I possessed the trunk line to the truth, we never considered ourselves extremists. We were the normal ones — and the same designation is what my children are taught in their day schools, as it is taught no less in the heders of my Hasidic relatives.

That said, I’ll add this. While the discomfort that my day-school-educated children feel when exchanging ideas with their “black hat” yeshiva cousins is palatable, they also know they share something far more important: They are among the small group of American Jews who are Jewishly literate and to whom it matters momentously what happens in the Jewish future.

Goethe remarked: Those who speak but one language speak none. Judaism offers that alternative sensibility to contemporary Americans. Day schools, whatever their merits and demerits, instill this alternative perspective, and their graduates are always the richer for it.

Joshua Halberstam teaches at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York and is the author of the recent novel “A Seat at the Table” (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2009).

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