Thursday, April 20, 2006

So after doing the seder at home, we did the Pesach at a hotel on the Dead Sea thing. The crowd is the interesting thing at these extravaganzas. It consists mostly of clans headed up by sponsoring patriarchs.

The patriarchs tend to have a lot in common with each other: wealthy enough to afford it, heimish enough to go to a non-gebrocht place with all the usual frumkeiten but modern enough to be willing to eat out of the house on Pesach. Think Eastern European-Belgian-American diamond dealers with homes in Israel.

But time is like a prism that refracts the homogeneous light of the patriarch's generation into distinct colors. The sponsored generations come in three primary colors: American, Israeli and European. But geography isn't the main issue -- we're talking platonic forms that transcend location. Here are the three forms:

Prost Amerikaners -- grossly overweight Yankee fans from Lawrence. They sweep what's left of their hair straight back under quartered leather yarmulkes. Their wives wear expensive hats. They make deals in the jacuzzi. They're cynical about anti-materialism.

Self-righteous Tzionim -- olim to "Aretz" feigning discomfort with the whole bourgeois hotel scene. The men have brooms up their tucheses, the women can tie a head shmatte a hundred ways all of which look like skinned cats and the kids are way funky peyos-growing hippies. They're cynical about materialism.

Pseudo-Yeshivish Eurotrash -- Antwerpian West Side Boro Park Bnei Brakers who are fluent in five languages and illiterate in every one of them. The men wear Italian hats, suits and shoes and big zilbeneh atarahs. They're either learning or in import-export, depending on who's asking, but in fact are loafing and mooching. The women wear long straight sheitlach with wide bands across the front, Barbie make-up and -- this seems to be the key -- perfectly unchanging vacuous expressions showing no sign of affect (apparently a perk of a fully scripted life). They're cynical about materialism and anti-materialism.

Like I say, all these are platonic forms one can only aspire too. Most people take a little something from each column. If you think of the three extreme points as defining a triangle, each person lies somewhere in the triangle. What you want in a hotel crowd is for most people to be closer to the center of the triangle than to any of the corners. If the crowd average is near one corner and you're not there, well, that's about the only thing worse than five days of rain on chol hamoed.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

It seems that Gedolim are all European, which makes it a bit difficult for those born in America to fully appreciate the nuances of their biographies. Conveniently, America is now producing its own gedolim, whose biographies might sound a bit more, well, familiar to the modern ear. Here are some previews from a soon to be released biography of a contemporary Yankee godol. (Hat Tip: RF)

The Making of an American Iluy: The Life and Times of The Tusconer Gaon
by Ben Chorin
Volume 1 – The Early Years

Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak Ferdshventzel was born in great poverty on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. On both his father’s and mother’s side, he was descended from Torah giants.

His father, Reb Shraga Feivel Meir zt"l, was the seventh of thirteen children of the great Springfielder Gaon and by the age of six was already a recognized iluy in his shtetl, Brownsville. Shortly before his bar-mitzvah, he journeyed to Eretz Yisrael to learn with the great gedolim of Yerushalayim. He is reported to have been somewhat miffed that his father did not notice his absence until six months after he left. In the Holy City of Yerushalayim, the young Shraga Feivel Meir quickly developed a reputation for astonishing cleverness and wit. It is said that one year on Purim he put a cat on his head and caused great mirth. There are reports that Shraga Feivel Meir once caused the great Brisker Rov to smile, but this has been hotly denied by members of the Soloveichik family with whom this writer has spoken.

At the age of 18, Reb Shraga Feivel Meir was married off to Bayla Hinda, the daughter of a prosperous merchant from the town of Lower East Side, which – as this writer has verified through painstaking archival research – is said to have been a great center of commerce due to its proximity to the mighty Hudson River. Despite having been born to great wealth, Baila Hinda is said to have had little interest in modern superficial conceptions of aesthetics and fashion and such shallowness. Instead she quickly developed the girth necessary to intimidate unruly children and gave the money she saved on cosmetics to the poor. She is said to have had very high standards for her husband and frequently and vociferously encouraged Reb Shraga Feivel Meir to become a famous Rosh Yeshiva, even after Reb Shraga Feivel Meir had resigned himself to remaining executive director of the small mesivta his father had established for his benefit. Reb Shraga Feivel Meir was so dedicated to his work that he would often travel to raise money for the Yeshiva for weeks at a time, only reluctantly returning home.

It was in such a model home that Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak was born. By the time Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak was 5, his family had moved to an apartment on the Upper West Side as a chessed to a local gvir who needed help in deregulating the apartment. Early on, Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak showed signs of exceptional yiras shamayim and concern for klal yisroel. Even at the end of a long day in cheder, Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak would go to the home of a classmate in order to be mashpia on the classmate’s family, which – rachmona litzlan – is said to have owned a television. So tireless were his efforts to be mekarev this family that years later he would refer in his famous shmuessen to a certain Gilligan, who was apparently a friend of that family.

Eventually, Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak began traveling in search of a derech in learning. Always the perfectionist, it was hard for Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak to settle in a single yeshiva and he spent his teen years in the famous yeshivos of Monsey, St. Louis, Denver and several others. Often his fiery personality and exacting standards in Torah were not appreciated by others who were not on his spiritual madregah and it was suggested to him that he should find a different yeshiva more suited to his level.

This is said to have been a difficult time in Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak’s life. One of his classmates recalls that Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak was often depressed about certain “aveiros” that he didn’t want to discuss and that caused him great guilt. He began washing netillas yadayim with great care and frequency, sometimes as many as twenty times a day. This was the first indication to his peers that Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak was destined to be a great tzaddik.

It was during this time that Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak also began to establish himself in learning. So makpid was he in understanding the full amkus of a sugya that he spent an entire zman learning the first tosfos in Bechoros. It was at this point that the Roshei Yeshiva realized what immense disabilities Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak had overcome to get as far as he’d gotten, as the rest of the yeshiva was learning Brachos. Nevertheless, Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak persevered and eventually became an acknowledged expert on that particular tosfos. His chaveirim began referring to him as “the blitz”, which he never really appreciated since he was afraid such approbation could, chas vesholom, lead to gaiva.

Of course, it was not long before Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak, at this point universally acknowledged as an “iluy she-be-iluyim” (in the words of one chaver who shall remain nameless but whose identity is known to this author), found his way to the great Lakewood yeshiva. It was here where he first met many of today’s leading gedolim. Often Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak and Reb Motel F., then known as the Pittsburgher Iluy, could be seen walking around the lake discussing fine points of the first tosfos in Bekhoros. Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak would later say that it was during those discussions with the Pittsburgher Iluy that he realized that he “didn’t understand the tosfos at all and that much could be learned by also reading the letters from right to left”.

It was during this time that Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak had a great revelation. One of the great challenges of his youth was the “pasach genuvah”, which Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak believed was of suspect maskilish origin. He would insist on reading “reicha nechocha” which caused much consternation and often earned him petch from frustrated rebbies. It was in his fourth year in Lakewood that he discovered that it was minhag haGr”a to read “reiach nichoach” and he began working on himself to be mekabel this minhag of the Gr”a, despite great difficulty.

It was around this time that Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak’s mother began seeking a shidduch for him. She insisted that any prospective kallah for her Yakov Yehoshua Yitzchak share her own aesthetic sensibility. As fate would have it, she was shopping on 13th Avenue (reportedly for a snood) when she chanced upon a young woman whom she would later describe as “of epic proportions both spiritually and physically”. It could only have been hashgacha that this young woman’s father was a photographer for a leading series of gedolim cards.

Coming Soon: Volume 2 – The Middle Years: A Godol Emerges from the Shadows

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Due to an excess of politics lately, I've ignored a few interesting topics.

Zvi Zohar's quite banal article in Akdamot about pilagshim has ruffled a few feathers. The gist of it is that many rishonim are of the opinion that pilagshus -- an exclusive (for the woman) relationship between a man and woman without kiddushin or kesubah -- is permitted. Zohar presents this as a remedy for the problem of what he describes as rampant illicit pre-marital sex.

A variety of rabbanim have expressed the expected degree of shock and horror. Hirhurim has also weighed in on this one.

I wrote two posts on R. Yakov Emden's lenient view on pilagshus a long while back. And still I found Zohar's article distasteful for a number of reasons.

1. An article on halacha should not be tendentious. As R. Yehuda Henkin noted in his rebuttal (in the same issue of Akdamot), Zohar ignored a long list of opinions that were contrary to the one he needed. Even in my posts, which were for the purpose of explicating RYE's lenient view and explicitly not intended as practical advice, I cited numerous stringent views not cited by Zohar. The most egregious omission is the view of the Rambam (Hil. Melakhim 4:4) that pilagshim are premitted only to kings. This is relegated to a footnote.

2. The truth is that the arguments for leniency in this matter are indeed more compelling than those against. What rankles, though, is the technocratic view of halacha implicit in Zohar's argument. His point is that if people are sleeping together, we ought to find a way to permit it. This is bizarre. As I've argued before (in my favorite post), hypocrisy is something we ought to learn to live with. It is better to own up to the fact that we do things that are forbidden than to rewrite halacha to suit our convenience. One of the popular mechanisms for such rewriting is to entirely ignore the flow of tradition as an organic entity and instead to reconstruct the "true pristine halakhah" out of books. (Yoav Sorek recently wrote about this in Makor Rishon.)

3. Zohar completely missed the boat on the real practical use of pilagshut: it can serve as the basis for civil marriage in Israel. This is a heavy topic that deserves its own post.