JONATHAN BOYARIN: A lot of this book is about me. And I think we'll be discussing that maybe. And the two excerpts that I'm going to be reading reflect that.
This one is called "Permission to Publish." "Through the following two academic years after my kollel year, and especially as I continued to come to the yeshiva when I could and, from time to time, take notes, I became more and more confident that there was indeed a book hidden in those notes.
One day, while crossing the Arts Quad at Cornell, I realized, I don't have to ask the Rosh Yeshiva's permission first. It took me a few more months to gather the courage and then another few weeks to find the opportunity. How was I to broach this question with a man whose authority was unquestioned and to whom, although I had sat in his shiur for a few years, I had hardly said more than good shabbes.
I practiced my explanation in my head. When I rehearsed it to a friend who is an academic Talmudist over dinner in Ithaca one evening, he said, you got me when you told me it has to do with your parnosse, meaning your livelihood. To be sure, I had plenty of clues that what it takes to earn an honest living played a considerable role in a number of the Rosh Yeshiva's dicta and of his father's rulings as well.
One day in May 2014, I missed a siyum celebrating the group's completion of a chapter in the Gemara. My friend Asher filled me in on some of the good lines I'd missed. I finally asked him a question I'd been embarrassed to ask for far too long. What about paintball? Is it mutar, permitted, or osur, forbidden?
And he, the Rosh Yeshiva, said that since there's a risk that you'll get bloodied or bruised and there's no other benefit from it, it's forbidden. Once someone asked him about a shomer shabbes, a boxer. And he said, well, he's doing it for a living. As to baseball, he says the kids are used to doing it already, and they get their excess energy out that way. So I knew it was important to explain how publishing a book about the yeshiva was linked to how I had earned my living.
My notes from December 17, 2014 read, Rebbi comes in, and my heart races, because after shiur, I'm planning to ask his permission to write a book about the beis medresh. But I didn't get to ask him that day and had to wait almost a week.
Here's what I wrote about the day I finally got to ask him for permission to write a book about MTJ. A young couple from Lakewood with a baby are waiting with me. They have an appointment with the Rosh Yeshiva for 12:30. I try to make the baby smile without inappropriately looking at the woman. Right now I'm betting he'll say no, but I didn't get to finish writing that sentence because the young couple came out, and I had my chance to go in.
I stand for a moment by the open door waiting for him to finish perusing the document, sign it, and look up. I begin the speech I've rehearsed many times by now, sometimes for myself and sometimes live. Maybe the Rebbi knows that I spent a couple of years learning here in the '80s. It's been a great privilege and pleasure to be able to spend time learning here the last few years.
Of course I have to work most of the time, but I'm fortunate to have a job that gives me a lot of free time. I had a leave from work coming up in 2012, and Rabbi Brody suggested, why don't you go to the Rosh Yeshiva's shiur? I've been very happy, and I hope to keep learning here for many years
I think the Rebbi knows that I teach and write about Jewish communities for a living. I wrote my dissertation, a book about Polish Jews in Paris, and I've written a book about my shul here on the Lower East Side. Now I would very much like to write a book about the beis medresh.
And the Rebbi replied, why not? Well, in my many imaginings of this conversation, that was one response I thought he might possibly give. I went on to promise to disguise as much as I could, although I had to admit I wouldn't be able to disguise the place itself because it's unique.
That's a good idea, he responded. That way you'll have the ruchniyes, the spirit, without the gashmiyes, the matter. But he had one more question. I don't understand what it has to do with parnosse. So I explained, it's certainly not because you make money from the books. Rather, you write a dissertation to get a PhD. If you're lucky, you get a job. You write a book to get tenure and another to become a full professor.
Quickly I went on to explain that at my stage, I wouldn't lose my job if I didn't publish another book, but it's an expected part of doing the job in an honorable fashion. He shook my hand with the Yiddish words, zol zayn mit hatslokhe, "may your venture be successful." I guess it isn't as big a deal to him as it is to me. But as I had started writing before I went into his office, I had myself thinking he certainly would say no. And if he had, that would have been an end to it. In this respect to be sure, he is my Rebbi.
And then the very last sort of coda chapter is called "Learning and the Time of the Dream." The time of the dream I'll say is definitely intended to be an illusion for anthropologists to the Australian notion of the dreaming time. And without being too heavy-handed about it, sometimes I get the feeling not of timelessness. I struggle with this, but that when people are sitting and learning full-time, they're in a different temporality than the work that they [INAUDIBLE].
Dreams often seem to afford almost infinite time for exploration. And perhaps one of my friend Nasanel's remarkable gifts is the ability to extend time or to defy the shackles of quantified linear time. This comes through, for example, in his way of making the old new, as when he was talking to me about the biblical story of Hannah and Peninah and called them Grace and Pearl, or his habit of referring to the medieval commentator and decisor Rabbenu Tam as Rabbi Perfect.
All of these are, of course, just literal translations of the Hebrew names. But somehow the English versions, rather than stripping them of Jewish particularity, here bring them closer to our own world and time. In the waking world, we are either here or there or someplace in between.
Writing the date in my notebook toward the end of our one winter break, I thought of the days I had available to learn Torah slipping away. I was reminded of a story I read many years ago about Anschel Rothschild, the founder of the family banking house. It said that when he was busy in his office, he would hire an old Jewish scholar to sit in an anteroom and learn, only interrupting his studies to come out once an hour into the office and say, it's 1 o'clock, Reb Anschel. It's 2 o'clock, Reb Anschel. I've always understood from that anecdote that Anschel Rothschild meant thereby to remind himself that no matter how much wealth he might be accumulating, every hour he spent in his office was an hour lost to Torah.
My friend Rabbi Weiss gently conveyed a similar message to me when he learned that my kollel year was about up, and I was planning to return to North Carolina to resume my university teaching. A few times toward the end of December, he looked at me and said a bit sadly, not much time, Professor. And he repeated, as he said many times over the year, you should get a job in New York. You should stay with us.
The table where I study with my friends is near the big window, and Yisroel Ruven got up to shut it properly. It got so cold all of a sudden, somebody said. I said that I like the cold. I'm worried about global warming, and the cold reassures me.
Well, Yisroel Ruven, said, you're from Minneapolis, Cincinnati-- someplace like that, right? I didn't even realize he was talking to me at first, but when I did, I corrected him. North Carolina. Ahh, that's why you're worried. You'll get flooded there.
Rabbi Weiss, sitting next to us, though not really joining us in the preparation for the shiur, quietly said, see, I told you, you should stay in New York. I never got even that kind of gentle pressure from my friend Asher Stoler. Instead, when I got up to say goodbye to everyone for the time being and bemoaned that I had to go to work, Asher said, the truth is, for somebody who works, you probably spend more time in the beis medresh than anybody else.
Still, I felt the impending loss, and somehow I wanted a blessing before I left. I mentioned to Rabbi Cantor that I'd like to speak to him after [INAUDIBLE]. I asked him to have me in mind while I'm away that I should continue to learn and that my intentions in learning should improve. He took my request very seriously, first asking for my Hebrew name and that of my father and mother.
Any time you're praying for something, not just when you're sick, he said, you should use the mother's name. I learned it from a posuk, and I told Reb Moshe, and he liked it very much. Your servant, the son of your maid servant. Then he took my hand in his, looked intently into my eyes, and blessed me that Hashem should make you the biggest talmid chacham that he wants you to become.
He had said the same thing about a year earlier. And the first time, it sounded a bit overly pious to me. But this time, it sounded like a pure gift, the most heartfelt blessing I've ever received, an almost unbearably intimate moment.
Meanwhile, I'm often in between. One night in early December 2014, I finished my last duty in Ithaca for this semester, a dinner for a job candidate. I had originally been planning to drive to New York the following day. But the weather in between New York City and Ithaca the next morning sounded so awful that I got in the car and drove back at night, arriving at almost 2:00 AM. I usually avoid driving that late at night, but I just told myself that driving and concentrating on it was what I was going to do for the next four hours.
For more than half the trip until I'd made it past Scranton, I didn't even turn on the radio. An odometer, along with knowing how many miles I have to drive, helps the hours go by minute by minute. A mile doesn't take so long, and it's measurable. The trick is not to fall into a trance.
I thought of the trip both because it made it possible for me to be in yeshiva in time for preparation and shiur the next day and because that kind of relaxed focus, hard enough to achieve at any time, but necessary for safe driving, especially at night, struck me as analogous to the kind of concentration needed for learning well. Yet during shiur the next morning, I dozed off and saw nighttime highways before my eyes.
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: Well, thank you. First of all, I want to thank Professor Starr for her kind introduction and also for organizing this. And then I also want to thank Jonathan for inviting me to ask him some questions and to share a few thoughts about his book. It's really an honor for me-- really a great honor that he asked me.
I'm sure many of you-- and there is actually more than 100 participants according to the screen in front of me, which is extraordinary-- are acquainted with at least some of Jonathan's work. I remember I think the first thing I read was From a Ruined Garden, which is a book that he did with Jack Kugelmass, excerpts from yizker-bikher as well as a really fine introduction of-- yizker-bikher being memorial books of towns in eastern Europe, shtetls that were destroyed during the Holocaust. And it's really a watershed book in a lot of ways. And I really recommend it if you haven't read it already.
So what I want to do is first to say a few things about where I think this fits into the history of Jewish ethnography at least and then just a couple of words about the sort of quality of the book in a general way and then ask a few questions. So very briefly, in a way, this book strikes me as Jewish ethnography or at least Jewish ethnography or ethnography of Eastern European Jews in their original setting of eastern Europe and then in what might be described as diaspora settings as coming full circle.
And the reason I say that is because a number of the early ethnographers, including those who participated with Ansky on this expedition that Jonathan mentioned a few minutes ago in the teens of the previous century into the pale of settlement, had themselves been yeshiva students. And in fact, that's why they were chosen by Ansky to participate in the expedition, because they brought this kind of expertise to their study of Jewish culture on the ground.
Many of them were actually desperate to leave the yeshiva. In the questionnaire that Jonathan mentioned, there's tens if not hundreds of questions on the yeshiva, different aspects of it. And yet there is a sense in which the trajectory into Jewish ethnography is also a trajectory away from the yeshiva at least by some of the participants.
Another thing that I think about is the fact that this is not about Hasidim or about Hasidic culture, because in more recent Jewish ethnography, at least, again, focusing on eastern Europe and its diaspora-- of course, there's tons of Jewish ethnography on other areas, Jewish communities in the world, North Africa, Middle East, et cetera. But in terms of Eastern European Jewish culture, a lot of it has focused on Hasidism or on Hasidic culture and communities.
And this is not that. This is about what you would call Yeshivish culture if you wanted to put it into cultural terms and the central institution of that culture, which is-- at least the central academic institution in many ways, arguably the defining institution, which is the yeshiva. Now, there is another book, another landmark book, The World of the Yeshiva, by William Helmreich, who passed away just a few months ago actually of COVID, very sadly. And he may be known to some of you for his book, more recent book, on walking every single block in New York City. 6,000 miles or so it took him.
But before that, he published a book called The World of the Yeshiva, which has some relationship to it Jonathan did. But in certain ways, even though they're both about yeshivas, they're extremely different. And maybe Jonathan could speak to some of those differences and maybe commonalities a little bit different. But it is not an institution that has had a lot of attention paid to it either by historians-- although there's some good work in that area-- or certainly by ethnographers.
In terms of the quality of the book, you have already probably gathered some of it just from the reading. It's extremely charming. I mean, I think it's delightfully written. It's very easy to read, very accessible.
It's very intimate. I mean, actually that was the first word-- it's funny, because the subtitle of The World of the Yeshiva is "an intimate portrait," but this is more intimate than Helmreich's book by far, I would say, or intimate in a different way for sure. But it's also at the same time informed by this deep knowledge and acquaintance with not only the history of Jewish ethnography and anthropology, but of anthropology more generally. And here you already heard the allusion to dream time, to this other place in the history of anthropology, that is to say to Australian societies and native Australian societies.
And so it's really extraordinary to, on the one hand, move between these intimate registers and then these highly informed and selected and self-aware registers. It's a very self-aware ethnography. Not all of them are, but this one really is in many, many ways.
So with that by way of an introduction, I want to start with the first question. And in a way, what I'm going to be doing is parsing the title of the book and using those as kind of keywords to ask some questions. The first one has to do with the yeshiva, the Mesivtha Tifereth Yerushalayim, or Jerusalem, MTJ as its known as well. And for you, you mentioned that it's unique in your remarks, Jonathan. Could you provide us with a sense of why it's unique? And what is this yeshiva? Why should we care about this particular place?
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Some of the reasons why it's unique are the same as the reasons why the Lower East Side has been and to some extent remains a unique Jewish community in North America. The mix of Jews who have passed through there, the-- the word non-differentiation is coming to my mind. But what I'm trying to point to, at least in the 21st century, is that at MTJ, there isn't a sense of, oh, this is a yeshiva that belongs to this particular group. This is yeshiva that produces graduates who will marry women from this particular community.
It's not a Kirov yeshiva. Right? It's not aimed at bringing people back into the fold. It's not trying to be the strictest or the purest or the most rigidly orthodox. There are Hasidim there. It's definitely not a Hasidic yeshiva. But there's room for guys from Brooklyn to come in and study for a few years in Yiddish if they want to.
It's a neighbor-- it's, in a sense, at least the part of the institution that I'm writing about, it's a little bit of a misnomer to call it a yeshiva, because I'm really talking about a beis medresh. I'm really talking about, as one of the chapter titles calls it, a big room where men, only men, come in to study. Some of them are young, unmarried men. Some of them are married men who are going to be doing this for the rest of their life. Some of them are men who are retired and now have the opportunity to do so.
Some come in for a couple of hours a week. Some get paid a stipend. Some don't. They learn singly or in pairs or in small groups that form and then dissolve and then reform.
During the period that I'm writing about, the major formal events in the beis medresh is the Rosh Yeshiva's shiur. But you don't go to it in order to be a member of the kollel. And in fact, he holds his shiur in a side room with about 12 or 15 people.
And that takes me to another point that's unique about this yeshiva. It's relatively small compared to yeshivas in Lakewood or in Brooklyn or in Monsey. And yet its head is one of the top [INAUDIBLE] authorities in the world. So-- and a lot of the what I call in many ways a remarkably tolerant spirit of the place in terms of dress, for example. There's no particular dress code at MTJ. There's a way that most people dress, but you don't have to in order to belong there. And I trace a lot of that to the legacy of our Rosh Yeshiva's father, Reb Moshe Feinstein and his inclusive sensibilities.
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: So I wonder if you could continue to kind of fill in the portrait of MTJ by talking about its physical location, because that's also another way in which it's unique. And you write in the book-- there's a number of really evocative passages. You actually read one where you move between places, between Ithaca and New York, but also between the East Village and the Lower East Side and even just where MTJ is, which is in a very particular place. So I wonder if you could kind of walk us down maybe from the East Village to--
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Oh, that's great. Yeah.
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: --MTJ. And tell us what you would see. And when you arrive, what does it look like? Because it's pretty striking in its own way.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Well, back around 1979, Elissa Sampson and I managed to talk our way into a building called the Ageloff Towers, which is on the corner of Third Street and Avenue A. It's a 12-story building. And at that time, it was the tallest building between it and the Forward Building on East Broadway about a mile away.
So to get from that building to MTJ, you cross Houston Street, pass Russ & Daughters a little further west on Houston. And you cross what is now at Delancey, the Essex Crossing glossy development. That's pretty new. Continue on for a few more blocks, and then turn right onto East Broadway. And MTJ is a sort of Neo-Moorish building at 145 East Broadway.
When I first went there in the early '80s, the Jewish Lower East Side continued down East Broadway. Feldheim's bookstore was further south and the [INAUDIBLE] factory and so forth. But even then, the Lower East Side was shrinking, and Chinatown was expanding. So I used to call it-- almost 40 years ago already-- the yeshiva de Chinatown.
And more broadly, it is-- I'm very careful not to call it the last yeshiva on the Lower East Side, because we don't know what's going to happen. But right now it's the only yeshiva on the Lower East Side. So it is a major anchor for that very stubbornly persistent Jewish community.
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: Yeah, and that actually leads me to my next question, which is, how should we see this book and the institution in light of more than a century of Jewish history on the Lower East Side? Especially a history which, if you were to look at both the popular renditions and the more scholarly renditions, it doesn't focus on the orthodox typically-- on the orthodox community on the Lower East Side. The Lower East Side was much more about, I'd say, the Forward or the [INAUDIBLE] building than it was about MTJ, I would say, and the kind of secular Jewish culture-- for example, the Hillman houses, the other houses built by-- the other co-ops built by unions or inhabited by many of the Jewish garment workers and others. So there's something about this institution still standing, and in a way-- well, my question is, how do you see it in relation to that broader history of the Lower East Side-- the Jewish Lower East Side?
JONATHAN BOYARIN: You know, I can think of a couple of books of memoirs of orthodox life on the Lower East Side earlier in the 20th century. There's one called All for the Boss. There's one called-- I don't remember the number, but I'm going to say 152 Sheriff Street-- some number Sheriff Street. But you're right.
World of Our Fathers-- Irving Howe. Irving Howe was a socialist. That was probably the most important thing for him. The Forward was the biggest newspaper, and it certainly wasn't an orthodox paper. There was a range. The [INAUDIBLE] was a little more conservative, a little more religious and so forth.
Orthodox and Hasidic groups today, even if those congregations had antecedents on the Lower East Side, don't seem to regard the Lower East Side as a particularly significant place of origin for them. So I think that's one reason which I can't fully explain. But somehow the Lower East Side as an intermediate place gets elided there whereas for many American Jews, this really is ground zero for their Jewish history. And if you ask them where their family was before that, they say Europe. Right? It's kind of a blank. I think that's part of the story.
For me personally, my involvement has a lot to do I think not with theology or destiny, but with the fact that after Alyssa and I had spent a year in Paris in the early 1980s studying elderly left-wing secular Polish Jewish immigrants, there were people who deeply impressed me with their wisdom and their stubbornness and their survival skills, but who had been able to pass on very little of their Jewishness to their own children. We came back to the Lower East Side with the conviction that Jewish continuity-- a terrible phrase, especially in diaspora-- requires some framework of everyday doing of Jewish things and not doing things that aren't Jewish. And we wanted to become more involved in the local Jewish community on the Lower East Side. And what had survived by that point in the decades well after World War II was almost exclusively the religious institutions.
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: Mm-hmm.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: And It may also be-- I'm going to add a bit that part of the reason this is not so much a picture of the Lower East Side is precisely because it's what survived. And part of the myth of the Lower East Side is that nothing is left there [INAUDIBLE].
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: Well, I want to ask about the doing Jewishness on a daily basis, one aspect of it, which is learning, which is also part of your book title. And one thing that I've always thought-- and I know your brother is among the participants, so he can maybe speak to this-- not here, but he can think about it at least, which is that it's always struck me that on the one hand, learning Gemara or learning Talmud, however way you want to put it, is the central activity of Rabbinic Judaism, right, in terms of the scholarly activity. On the other hand, I've always found it to be the most difficult thing to teach students, undergrads at least, at the University when I've tried to do it, because the learning-- and that's the learning that you're describing in the book-- has always struck me as so different from the kind of-- from what's going on-- I don't know whether it's exactly learning, whether that word is exactly the right verb here, that goes on typically at least at universities or colleges both in terms of the subject matter itself and in terms of the way that it happens. OK?
So I'm curious what it was like for you to move between these two modes, between the academic mode of being a professor at Cornell or earlier in your earlier incarnation at North Carolina and then learning in the yeshiva or in the beis medresh, What were the things that really struck you? Or maybe you disagree with me. That's fine. I mean, you know, maybe there is a continuum.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: I think there are real disjunctures, and there are continua. I think that a lot of the way academic Talmudists study Talmud are the same as the way people in the yeshiva study Talmud. They try to figure out what the correct text is. They try to know what the generations of the scholars were. They try to figure out how these two people could have been possibly have been having a conversation when they lived 150 years apart from each other. And a lot of what I focus on in my book is the ways in which there wasn't so much of a gap.
But what struck me and what I write about over and over is the sense that study in the yeshiva is not aimed at production. You don't have to publish, to put it crudely, to stay there. It's about the doing of it.
People want to get better. They want to not just sit and study. Yes, they want to learn. They want to know more. But the focus is on the practice of studying together.
And it's social in a way that our work in the humanities very, very rarely is. It is inherently social. The norm is to be sitting together, vocalizing the text and arguing about it. And as my friend Tzvi [INAUDIBLE] says, it's always-- with the Talmud, since it's such a telegraphic document, you're always creating and recreating the text. You're always performing it. You're never just reading it.
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: Do you think that it changed you, this experience? It changed you-- let me make that more pointed. Do you think that it changed you as an anthropologist or as a scholar more generally, kind of your perspective, how you approach things? The time that you spent learning in the yeshiva is an intense period.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: I think honestly I'm at a stage in my life, in my career where I'm less concerned about production even in my university world and more concerned, like when I'm teaching a seminar, about really seeing what can happen there in those two hours. I go back to my first year of college. I had a remarkable class at the new school called Values in the Arts and Sciences . And our final assignment was to do a course evaluation.
And one of the things I wrote was things happened in that class. Right? So let it be about the moment and the intersection and the text that we produce together.
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: So my last question is about being a participant observer. This is something that commonly comes up with ethnography. And did you think that that question was any different for this than some of the other things that you've done?
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Yeah. It's always somewhat different. But since I always present as a Jew studying other Jews or living with them and then writing about them, it presents in slightly different fashion. When I was much younger and in Paris dealing with much older people, I felt myself sometimes a surrogate grandchild. You know, here was the young man who spoke Yiddish and wanted to hear the story in Yiddish. I think that had a lot to do with my access.
By the time-- or when I'm writing about my synagogue in the Stanton Street Shul, I finally decided to just record anecdotes from a summer of daily minyanim. But it was based on 30 years there and trying to capture the sensibility of the place. At MTJ, it's a little bit awkward for me sometimes still not to be more competent than I am and to be--
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: Yeah, you mentioned the children that would sometimes be hovering around the table.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Right.
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: Yeah.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Yes. Yeah. But I think I do get better at it when I work really hard at it. And that's the main thing. And I also talk about the chavrusa process where sometimes it's good for a more skilled, more experienced scholar to have somebody who's really interested but a little less fluent working with them to test out their chops at actually breaking it down and explaining it to somebody else. Right?
I use the metaphor that when I was playing tennis, I realized that you always play your best game when you're playing against somebody who's a little bit better than you because it's a challenge, but you're not completely out of range. But I think in learning one on one, the one who is a little bit better gets challenged too, because he can't just try to beat the guy on the other side. He has to work with him. He has to bring him along.
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: Well, thank you. Thank you. So I think we're going to open it up to some questions now, right? And, Deborah, you're going to--
DEBORAH STARR: Yes. Yes. I have some questions. So a reminder, please, anyone who would like to add questions, please put it in the Q&A box. For those of you-- I know there are different versions of Zoom out there. But I think you might find that along the bottom. There are some tabs along the bottom. There should be a little thing with, like, two little word bubbles and Q&A. Click on that, and you can write your questions there.
So yes. Let's get started. OK. The first question, "how does the sensation of belonging or not belonging inform the practice of note-taking for you, Jonathan, or field note-taking? And how might the final product of a book as an ethnography of a specific place and time be seen to reflect your comfort or discomfort as both a participant member of the community as in an outside researcher of the yeshiva?"
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Yeah. I see the connection between those two questions. But they are two separate questions. Actually, the first one's a bit easier.
First of all, I went into this thinking, this is great, because I can spend a year learning. As it happened and as I explained in the book, I had two semesters of leave. And I had other academic projects that I had promised to work on. And they were basically either done or not too time-consuming. So I could devote my time to this and see what happened.
And I went into the beginning thinking, you know, maybe I'll get a book out of this. And if not, I will spend a year learning, which is what traditionally an adult Jew especially, but by today at least, thank God, not exclusively a male Jew, is supposed to do when he has a lot of free time. And I'd had a taste of it, and I knew I wanted some more.
So there would be periods of a couple months when I was diligently taking notes and writing them up every evening and then three or four months when I wasn't taking notes. And even when I felt like I should, I didn't know what I should be taking notes about. When I did, that's not awkward in this situation, because I'm not the only one in the beis medresh who's taking notes either in the Rosh Yeshiva's shiur or when studying together. So it wasn't conspicuous.
I'm also not the kind of anthropologist who goes out and hands out surveys or even interviews people. It ends up being very personal, because it's about what I saw and the conversations that I had when I was there.
Now, the latter question is the tougher one and something that I struggled with for years. I did know from the beginning, even when I was thinking, oh, I might get a book out of this, that I didn't want to publish a book that I couldn't bring back into the yeshiva and share with my colleagues there. And I also very much wanted not to write a book that wouldn't meet academic standards. And the standards and values of the secular university do differ in very significant ways with those of a yeshiva like MTJ.
So it was when I thought I had that sweet spot or the big enough overlap in the Venn diagram between what I could say in an academic publication and what my colleagues at the yeshiva could read as an acceptable reflection and account of them that I started to work on the book. And I'm not going to tell you about all of this things that I left out, all of the negotiations. But I think I left enough in to give a flavor and even some hints of the ways in which some of my values differ from what I heard from even some of my closest friends there and how I negotiated that.
DEBORAH STARR: Great. Thank you. There's another question about temporality. This is something you raised earlier. I think it was in one of the first excerpts. "Please say more about the temporality of studying Talmud and how that might be thought of as thinking in Jewish or as a kind of Jewish temporality."
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Oh. Not in the book, but in another piece that I wrote about studying at the yeshiva, I quote, again, Daniel [INAUDIBLE] and an early piece by him from The Second Jewish Catalog. I wonder how many of the people here know The Jewish Catalog. He wrote about Talmud Torah. And he wrote, "time stops in the world of Talmud Torah. A question asked in the 16th century can be answered in the 11th."
And I don't think time's quite stops in study, in learning. But it doesn't move forward in the same one direction relentlessly the way it does on the General Motors assembly line. And I think one of the great pleasures that people who spend a lot of time in this study derive from it is the sense of connection to ancestors, the sense of being in dialogue with ancestors, sometimes the ability to imagine their world from the way anecdotes are told in the Talmud and sometimes just, especially with the later commentators, from engaging with their thinking and trying to assess it on our own.
These are cross-temporal conversations that I think many other cultures have access to. And I think it reflects something more like what has been the normal human sense of time in most places and in most of history, that sense of the presence of the ancestors. But here it's just in an unusually elaborated and activated and dialectical form.
DEBORAH STARR: Thank you. I have a couple of questions here that I think are sort of interrelated, so I'm going to ask them together. One participant asks, "how do race, class, and gender influence your experiences navigating the yeshiva or impact the yeshiva culture at large?" And the second question is asking about how the book addresses Jewish masculinities and what it can tell us about gender roles and how they are perceived in this specific world.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Yeah. They're great questions. MTJ is an all-male yeshiva. That's the tradition. If Mechon Hadar-- frankly, if Mechon Hadar, which is a gender egalitarian yeshiva on the Upper West Side, had been on the Lower East Side, I might have wound up there. If I had written a book, it would have been a very different book. It may be that there is still a certain amount of comfort and camaraderie in a gender separate institution that might be harder to achieve in an egalitarian situation. I'm not sure.
As to class, I sure wouldn't say-- they're not fancy people at MTJ. They're not rich people. I don't know how the place finances itself. Those who do study full time and derive a stipend as kollel members, it's tiny. I remember once-- and I say this in the book-- going up to one of the longtime members there and asking him if he had change of a 20. And he looked at me like, I should have change of a 20, right?
As to race, it's basically an Ashkenazi-- if you want to say Ashkenazi means white, say it's an Ashkenazi white yeshiva. And some of the expressions and chitchat I heard around the room when people weren't sitting and studying reflect some of the ethnic tensions, racial tensions if you want to call them that, that you can imagine, especially in Brooklyn that arose out of the redlining and the instability of a neighborhood like the Lower East Side in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. But it's small place, again, with a lot of variety at one scale and, at another scale, a great deal of homogeneity.
As to gender dynamics among men in the yeshiva, it's a fascinating topic that I might write or speak about in another forum or on another occasion. But it was not a topic really that I felt I could encompass within descriptions that I had said [INAUDIBLE] that I described before.
DEBORAH STARR: Thank you. We have a couple of questions also that are asking about navigating the sort of distinction between the kind of learning that takes place at the yeshiva and the kind of learning that takes place at Cornell. So I'm going to ask these questions again back to back because I think the nuance is a little bit different here. But one question is, "do you use any of the techniques you have developed in studying the Talmud in teaching your secular students at Cornell, and which ones and with what results?"
And then the other question is, would you, Jonathan-- or I think this is also directed at Nathaniel as well. Would either of you, like, introduce more of these heuristics from the yeshiva learning into your secular schools? Is this happening anywhere? And how would you do this?
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Yeah. As to the latter question, I try to become a teacher who is there at the moment looking to connect with students around whatever texts we happen to be studying and, as I said to Nathaniel before, trying to make that moment work and see what we can come up with together. And in that very loose sense, it's a similar spirit.
And whenever I can, I actually sneak in a little bit of Talmud study, whether it's, of course, on Jewish cities, which I would start off with the rules about neighbors being able to carry on the Sabbath within a common courtyard or compound or street to get a sense both of urban architecture for ancient Babylonian Jews and how that affected their social life. And of course on modes of Jewish textuality, which I taught a number of years ago, I would spend the first hour of every session studying I think quite successfully a chapter from the tractate Avodah Zarah, which deals with relations between Jews and non-Jews in the ArtScroll Schottenstein edition, which does a wonderful job of presenting in English gloss a very traditional interpretation of the Talmudic text as a teacher in a yeshiva might give it to you.
What's hard in doing that-- and I have to keep stressing this over and over again-- is I tell students when we do that, the only rule is you must interrupt. If nobody ever interrupts, the thing falls completely flat. And the silver fig leaf, the $64,000 question is answered when somebody says, wait a second. Yesterday, the text said so and so. And then I say yeah. Then I say, yeah, that's what learning is, making the text, challenging it, engaging with it, not being subservient to it. I think a lot of humanities studies should be.
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: I would just add one thing to that, which is something that I have tried to do, which is chavrusa is trying to introduce that into different contexts. And actually even one might want to-- I have a chavrusa with a graduate student now. And his area of-- well, he actually got his PhD a month ago or so.
But anyway, his area of specialization is African-American history. And mine is Jewish history. And we had a chavrusa on [INAUDIBLE], on this Taoist philosopher, Chinese philosopher, and the Tao Te Ching. And neither one of us, that's not our area. And I found--
I suggested, I said, well, why don't we try this thing? We're both interested in it. Why don't we try this thing called a chavrusa? I explained it to him. And the fact that it wasn't our area of specialization, that we were coming to it this way, it's been amazing. And we've been doing it for about two years now.
And so I really think that the--
DEBORAH STARR: Yeah.
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: --chavrusa is something that can be-- sorry. Anyway-- good interrupting.
DEBORAH STARR: No, I was just going to-- no, no. There's my interruption. I was going to follow up on that and saying that I similarly actually wrote something out last spring when we went online to try to mitigate some of the distancing of the online model and got my students, and I said, you know, this is not monitored. But you need to do this. And I set them up in a chavrusa to study together from wherever they were in whatever modality made sense for them. And it really did-- then they felt more confident speaking up in this strange environment.
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: Yeah, and the thing about the chavrusa, it's not just a one-time thing. It's your chavrusa. It's an ongoing thing. And that's a really key element to it in terms of the relationship and the way in which it works over time. And you find all sorts of really amazing things happening when you do it over time with somebody.
DEBORAH STARR: Yeah. Great. There's some questions also about some of the perspectives of the other learners at the yeshiva. So the first has to do with language and language shift. The question is, "there is no clearer challenge to the notion of Jewish continuity than language shift from Yiddish to English among Jews on the Lower East Side. Do yeshiva-goers ever discuss this topic? And if so, what are their views'
And then the other gets to question, something that you raised earlier about firstness-- or lastness. "Do the people at MTJ consider themselves to be exceptional in the contemporary Jewish world, a form of Jewish learning gradually being replaced by more factionally affiliated learning? Do they see themselves as the last, or do they consider themselves to be in a different relationship to the rest of the Jewish world?"
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Right, right. Super questions. They're such good questions, especially the second one, that I suspect it was by a-- it was a plant from somebody who's already read the books. You know, there is Yiddish. You do hear Yiddish in the beis medresh often from the older men. But the last couple years, there were two or sometimes three young Breslover Hasidim who came in to study intensively for [INAUDIBLE]. And they're learning in Yiddish. And it's an absolute pleasure to hear it.
It's not only the Hasidim who know Yiddish. Some of the more learned middle-aged Litvish Yeshivish guys speak Yiddish pretty well too. And it seems to be a significant marker even for those who are not fluent. So Yiddish continues to feed into Yeshivish. And certainly my competence in Yiddish and some of the terms, some of the idioms, some of the inflections in conversational style were certainly something that helped me to integrate into the yeshiva more quickly as well.
But I also think that for some of the fellows a little bit younger than me in the yeshiva, Yiddish has what Jeff [? Chandler ?] calls post-vernacular value. It has indexical value. It's not the first language anymore. But it retains value as a mark of authenticity and vibrancy. And what was the second part that I said was so good?
DEBORAH STARR: [LAUGHS]
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Still have it?
DEBORAH STARR: Yes. Give me a second. OK. I don't know if it's coming up in the same order. Nope, it's not. So the other part was, do they see themselves as the last?
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Oh, yeah. I can't speak for everyone in the yeshiva. But my dear friend whom I call Asher Stoler in the book is someone who had a clear sense that this is a special place. He said to me at one time, he said, you know, I almost have the sense that there were all kinds of Jews. There were Breslover Hasidim, and there were Brisker. And there were people at YU. And they were all holy. And now I have the sense that that sense has been lost.
And then he looked at me, and he said, we're the last ones, man. Now, I make a big deal out of that because part of what I'm selling in this book is that this is a special place. It's not just pokey. There is something that it's holding on to. But yeah. I do think some of the people there-- and people know it's a special place.
A story that the speaker at one of the annual dinners for the MTJ kollel said once about a fellow from Brooklyn who was looking for a yeshiva. He wasn't fitting in anywhere. And somebody said, oh, you should try MTJ. And he came. He spent a little time at MTJ. And he ended up not going there, because it was just too long a commute. But he said-- people in Brooklyn, he said, those are real Jews.
Yeah. So that is part of what keeps the place going. That is part of the aura of the place.
DEBORAH STARR: Great. So you talk about that aura and the way that it brings people together across some boundaries that are not crossed in other places. But I have some questions here about are there-- do those things ever come into conflict? So are there behaviors that get policed? Are there political-- particular models of respect that clash?
And then the other-- another question that I think is somewhat related is when you were going between the secular university and the yeshiva world, were you sometimes conscious of boundaries and limitations about what's sayable in the two contexts, about what doubts or questions you could raise or not raise or had to accept as a starting point?
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Yeah. Look, my book before this, my other book about the Lower East Side, was about the Stanton Street Shul, right, which is a place that in some ways is socially-- in terms of religious flavor or whatever that means a much better fit for me. And the Stanton Street congregation and its rabbi at the time were for various reasons a little bit at the margins, a little bit-- not just a little bit. They were actually placed under sort of a ban by the other orthodox rabbis including our Rosh Yeshiva. So people knew I was involved with Stanton Street. I would get egged a little bit about that sometimes.
And then there are other finer grain distinctions. The one illustration in the book has to do with the question of Cholov Yisroel and whether orthodox Jews have to eat food only that is made with dairy products that are deemed Cholov Yisroel, deemed produced by Jews. Reb Moshe Feinstein permitted kosher milk and dairy that was not Cholov Yisroel. Under certain circumstances. But some people say he didn't. Some people say he didn't want people to. Some people said, oh, come on. We went to MTJ, and we had OU milk that wasn't Cholov Yisroel every day.
Well, people at MTJ remember that Reb Moshe permitted it. But most of the people there at this point only eat Cholov Yisroel. So the one photo I have in the book is of a couple of commercial cakes lying on a table with a note next to it written in pencil that says, "this cake is OU, not Cholov Yisroel. Enjoy."
You know, not a big tension, but a marker of shifts and kind of tectonic shifts in the complexion of orthodox communities. Now, the tougher question-- yeah, it's hard to talk about questions of gender and especially gender exclusion when trying to explain to friends in the university why I love this place and why I feel comfortable there.
And sometimes when learning, even though when I was talking to Nathaniel before I stressed ways in which the styles of academic Talmud study and yeshiva Talmud study really do overlap, I saw that-- I was reacting to a text and saying, oh, that probably has a different source. Like, that probably is not part of the same canon, and that's why we see this contradiction. Whereas inside the yeshiva, everything has to be seen as part of the same canon. And it's precisely that requirement that drives so much of the creative work of trying to resolve apparent contradiction between different authorities.
So if you come in with the academy's rules, you spoil the game. And I had to be very aware of how the game is played inside the yeshiva in order to be a participant there.
DEBORAH STARR: So I think that raises a couple of questions here that I think will probably be the last questions for this evening. One is whether the act of your taking notes affected your interaction and relationships with the fellow learners. And the other was-- it has to do with just a question about your studying, and I thought it might be nice to end with you giving a little bit more of a sort of a qualitative description of your experience studying there or a few last words about what it was like for you to study there.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Yeah. You know, I think, again, the taking notes I think is not really obtrusive first of all because I bring in tiny notebook. And I get pretty good at writing small. And other people might be writing as well or writing just a few words as to jog my memory for later. But also because at least some of the people I'm studying know what an anthropologist is. They knew I'd written books before. They knew I might be writing one.
They knew I'd published an article about MTJ before. I brought it in and shared it with some people. My friend Asher occasionally would say, hey, that's one for the notebook. You know? And there are people in the yeshiva who really have wanted this book to come out. And it drives me crazy that right now because of this damn COVID, I can't go and bring in a stack of them into the yeshiva. And I hope to do that one day.
I'm going to end on a somewhat grandiose note, Deborah, and say that for whatever reason-- I am romanticizing, because, yes, I'm not always present. Sometimes I tune out. Sometimes it's boring. Sometimes I don't feel good. Sometimes I get impatient. But there are so many moments when studying with people who became really good friends at the yeshiva, studying difficult and sometimes abstruse texts from centuries and centuries ago when you feel like you're in conversation with the people who are with you in the table, but also the people in the middle column and the people in the marginal columns. And there's such an overcoming of that sense of immense loss that after all, shadows of consciousness of almost all of us who are so deeply involved in Jewishness in the 21st century that I said, ah, now I understand why they say that if you're really good in this life, this is what you get to do in the world to come.
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: [LAUGHS]
DEBORAH STARR: That's a wonderful note to end on.
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: You brought it home there. You brought it home, Jonathan.
DEBORAH STARR: [LAUGHS]
Along the sort of more mundane, before I say good night, I've been putting in the chat a code that should have come when you registered for the event. But just a reminder, if this has sparked your interest in reading the book and you would like to purchase a print copy, you could go to the Princeton University Press website. And until the middle of November, there's a 30% discount. I keep putting that in the chat. But it's CUJD-FG. I have it written down if you didn't catch that, and you're welcome to email us. And we'll be happy to share that with you if you didn't get it in any of the other prior correspondence.
Jonathan, thank you very, very much for sharing this book with us. It's been really a pleasure.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Deborah, is it possible to save the Q&A?
DEBORAH STARR: I hope so.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: OK.
DEBORAH STARR: I'll do what I can.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Because I'm just peeking now, and I see some great questions, including from people I haven't spoken to for years and value. And I'll be happy to try to answer.
DEBORAH STARR: OK. Jonathan, thank you for sharing your book.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: And I'm so grateful to everybody for coming tonight.
DEBORAH STARR: Yes. And thank you, Nathaniel, for joining us and for having such a great discussion. And thanks to all of you for joining us this evening.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Or if I didn't get to answer your question, email me-- email@example.com. Love to hear from you. Thanks again.
NATHANIEL DEUTSCH: Thank you, everyone.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Good night.
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Cornell Professor Jonathan Boyarin spent much of the past decade studying rabbinic texts at a renowned yeshiva on the Lower East Side of New York City. His new book Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side (Princeton University Press) records his experiences there and explains his deep love for this seemingly timeless but always vitally present form of learning. He discusses the book with Nathaniel Deutsch, Director of the Institute for Humanities Research at the University of California, Santa Cruz.