Sunday, May 13, 2007

From time to time the daughter of an old friend or relative who is studying in some seminary for the year will come to spend shabbos with us, generally with a friend in tow. Some of them turn out to be bright and witty but most of them are so vapid that their presence sucks the vitality right out of the room.

I kind of hoped that I’d seen an unrepresentative small sample but others seem to be having similar experiences. (Recently, when I mentioned to two seminary girls that the anti-hitnatkut demonstration in Kfar Maimon reminded me of Woodstock, I got a separate blank stare for each noun in the sentence.)

I have some half-baked thoughts about what might be going on.

What is it that makes some people interesting? I think it’s a combination of two things: a well-defined sense of identity together with a degree of self-awareness that makes it possible to connect with other people and other ideas. When I was still young enough to choose my friends, the most interesting people to hang out with (and go out with) were the ones who were solidly anchored in the heimish world but were out and about soaking up experiences not available in yeshiva.

The need to reconcile disparate worlds seems to be good for developing personality. To be sure, people who grow up in irredeemably liberal environments and are never forced to deal with alternatives are generally every bit as tedious as chnyoks.

So what has changed? Once, mechankhim were hopelessly out of touch with the modern world; they were able to impart intensity but their students were left with the work of reconciling this intense insular experience with the modern world on their own. The results varied but some interesting people turned up.

Many – definitely not all – so-called “frum” schools today have no aspiration to impart intensity. Their sole aspiration is to prevent their charges from dealing with conflict. The most alluring (and most deadly) aspects of American materialism have simply been co-opted. Pseudo-colleges have been established to avoid confrontation with any genuine intellectual challenge. Seminaries for girls, and more than a few “yeshivos”, have replaced actual learning with every manner of fluff: “hashkafa”, “mussar”, “midos”. If the bar gets any lower, the limbo dancers are gonna be out of business.

I don’t know if these institutions are simply filling a need by catering to hopelessly dumb kids or if they’re taking bright curious kids and turning them into mindless deadbeats.

And yes, Richie Havens was in Kfar Maimon. I saw him myself.


Blogger Rafi G said...

I was in Kfar Maimon and I did not see him...

9:37 AM  
Blogger Ben Bayit said...

Yup - started to notice that as well. It's worse with the girls than with the boys. That's been my experience from having a whole slew of relatives and their friends stay over during the past few years.
Wrote about it at the beginning of the school year.
One of my best posts yet (and our friend addrabbi agreed on that in his comment on it). They were just clueless on the 1st PM of Israel question.

Your analysis is good. I think it also may have to do with the fact that people that had a heimish education (and are above a certain age) were exposed to both the "intensity" of the alter heim as well as to the reality of the alter heim - not what today's jokers want to pretend it was. Therefore one's Yiddish speaking Auschwitz survivor HS rebbe could well indeed tell a bochur (on the sly of course) that it's OK to go to university or even YU. B/C he knew that in Europe frummer yidden went into the free professions and read outside books. Today's lot (incl. the young ones who have started to run the asylums) have just had no real exposure to that world so that have accepted lock, stock and barrel the "fiction" that they have somehow re-created it. In MO, the trend seems to be to co-opt certain European gedolim to MO theology and practice even though in reality they were agudists, anti-zionists and often against university studies. Everyone is re-creating a fictional world for themselves.

In America, careerism has replaced identity and most of the Orthodox community has absorbed this feature of American life. You are what you do, not who you are.

4:22 PM  
Blogger MoChassid said...

if he had teeth, it wasn't Richie Havens.

Spot on as usual, Ben. It's frightening.

9:19 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Okay, so I might've confused Richie Havens and Effie Eitam. But there were definitely a bunch of women there who were dead ringers for Janice Joplin.

9:54 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Janis, not Janice. I hang my head in shame.

9:55 PM  
Anonymous rebecca m said...

If the girls are worse than the boys, that speaks pretty badly about girls seminaries. And communities' education standards and ideals for girls.

4:24 AM  
Anonymous harrykann said...

As usual, your comments are right on.

During my own yeshiva experiences 30 years ago (I learned at institutions that were founded by talmidim of Ner Yisroel of Baltimore), I was encouraged to "think outside the box" (before that term became popular) with respect to analyzing a daf of gemara and the related rishonim/poskim, as well as with respect to trying to understand world events (my 2 most influential rebbeim, who were students of Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yaakov Ruderman, actually read the New York Times, cover to cover -- except for the Sports pages. In retrospect, I now realize that they likely were not Mets fans). I also was not required to wear a hat (or a hockey helmet).

Of course, due to my above-mentioned curiosity about world events and secular fields of study, coupled with my attendance at a national university, caused me to be regarded as a "shaigetz" by the holier-than-thou crowd who had attended the "real" (ha ha)yeshivos, such as Lakewood, Torah V'daas, Tels, etc. -- not that their put-downs ever bothered me (with respect to many of these people, their ignorance of the real world was surpassed only by their inability to properly analyze a "machlokess rishonim" -- frightening that at least one of these clowns was recently promoted to the position of rosh yeshiva at a mediocre out-of-town yeshiva, due to his good fortune in marrying the boss' daughter -- I guess that he is living the kosherized frum re-write of a fairy tale, i.e. the prince who married Sleeping Beauty).

The sad fact remains that any educational institutions (whether yeshivish, modern orthodox, secular or Bahai) that stifle individuality and creativity will end up producing kids that have no sense of individual personality and will have no desire to be intellectually inquisitive.

And yes, I much prefer Richie Havens' version of "Here Comes the Sun" to that of the Beatles (as sacreligious as that may sound).

6:40 PM  
Blogger Jewboy said...

Someone I know claims that his American born and raised wife does not know who Elton John or Michael Jordan is.

10:33 PM  
Blogger ADDeRabbi said...

ישררטלשממ:"I learned at institutions that were founded by talmidim of Ner Yisroel of Baltimore"

maaleh adumim? ;-)

10:47 PM  
Anonymous harrykann said...

No, not Maaleh Adumim (I assume that you are referring to Yeshivat Birkat Moshe?), although I greatly admire Rav Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch (he was my morah d'asrah when I was a youngster -- he was a major influence during my formative years). I am a chutznik ("es chato'ai anee mazkir hayom"), accordingly I am referring to North American institutions. I will not reveal any further specifics, on the grounds that it will definitely incriminate me (although I will disclose that I did once meet Gary U.S. Bonds while he was filming a music video at Washington Square Park - I asked him to autograph my marketing textbook, which I have retained until this very day).

12:56 AM  
Blogger Jack's Shack said...

or if they’re taking bright curious kids and turning them into mindless deadbeats.

I vote for mindless deadbeats.

4:46 AM  
Anonymous Divrei Yashar said...

This is a universal malady; it has nothing to do with Bais Yaakov or any other form of Jewish education.

Or as the beautiful dimwit LA girl said to Ben Stein back in the 80s, "Really? We fought a war with Japan? Like, who won?"

Age of Information, Age of Illiteracy; you pays your money and you takes your choice.

6:09 PM  
Blogger bar_kochba132 said...

When I became observant some 30 years ago, I was under the apparently mistaken impression that learning Torah was intended, in addition to imparting emunah and yirat shamayim, to teaching one how to think critically. When I now look at our Israeli Religious Zionist yeshivot, I see that the situation isn't much better than in the Haredi world, in spite of the more open approach to secular studies. It was the Gush Katif crisis that made it painfully obvious. When the question of "seruv pekudah" came up, it WASN'T a question of a man and his concience, but simply "which Rav do you listen to?" The actual moral issue never came up for a lot of these soldiers who were yeshiva graduates. Just "who is your Gadol?". Recently I was talking to a nice, idealistic boy learning in a Hesder Yeshiva. He said "my Rabbanim say the reason we lost Gush Katif was because we don't have enough ahavat ha'aretz so the gov't served as an agent of our punishment.". I said that was wrong, that we lost Gush Katif because we allowed a bunch of deceitful criminals take control of the state and we didn't protest, in fact, we supported them even though we knew for a long time what they were like, excusing it with "well,they are in OUR camp", or "look at all the settlements they built in the past". He said "wow, I never thought about that!" From what I see, they are EXACTLY like the haredim, with the same passivity and the same "politics is dirty, we won't get involved, let the hilonim run the state-Mashiach ben Yosef, etc, etc, etc". The only difference being that they add 2 mitzvot-serving in ZAHAL and building settlements.
How can I, little me ,with my own minimal education, educate my own kids to think for themselves and see through the brainwashing they receive?

9:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with today's generation of Yeshiva graduates is that they've never been taught that love is like a motherless child ... so far far away.

They must have known in Kfar Maimon!

7:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


All education is brainwashing. The only question left for us is which type of brainwashing do you prefer.

The Rabbis who tell the Hesder boys that we lost Gush Katif because we lack ahavat ha'aretz obviously have an agenda.

In the end, we get what we deserve. As you say, we allowed a bunch of deceitful criminals power and we suffered the consequences.

11:09 AM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

Excellent post. It took me a while to realize that even among some of my own friends, there was a complete ignorance as to the rest of the world outside of whatever they were spoon-fed in classes.

In retrospect, that my Rebbeim in HS not only didn't discourage, not only encouraged, but acted appalled when we did not know history or what was currently going on in the world is a rarity in the yeshiva world. In addition to what you've already mentioned, it is mind-boggling that so many rely on a dumbed down and skewed version of the "news" from Jewish weeklies.

5:51 PM  
Blogger The Anti-Semite said...

Not sure about sem girls, but in my experience the world is made up of 1% electrons, 1% protons, 1% neutrons and 97% morons. Or, put more realistically, most people are rather shallow and boring. they can sing the party line of whatever society they belong to like a parrot or a sheep.

Oh, BTW, generally, in Israel rock is not that big. I bet you there are plenty people who never heard about Hendrix, BB King, Peter Green. Even Beatles and Stones aren't really household names there. Some people didn't even hear about Budgie and Horslips ;-).
Which reminds me of a funny, yet pretty typical isreli goof: CBS israel tried to push rock a bit in the '80es, so after they saw Priest having a major hit in '80 with "British Steel", they pressed "Point Of Entry" in '81 - which was a major flop. So in '82 they didn't bother with Screaming For Vengeance - which went double platinum in the first year!

Bottom line, IMHO the formal education system never had too much to do with people's intelligence or even knowledge as much as the home. Certainly not with personality traits.

8:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most people nowadays, secular or religious, are shallow and unworldly. Don't blame the seminaries and schools - they just get to teach what we send them

7:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really appreciate your social analysis. I think you are right on with this point. Specifically, that this is not chareidi problem, but a general American problem, that children grow up insulated and never have to grapple with formation of identities. I think that there is another issue here as well. MO have embraced popular culture, and in many cases MO people who I have met are particularly ignorant intellectually, as torah Umadda has been reduced to a faux cultural currency. Americans generally relate to each other through the pop culture medium, and are not trained to think critically. I am shocked by how few MO students in YU have any basic understanding of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche,and many do not even know who they are. This is typical state of MO, that the Rov's intellectual and existential legacy is reduced to the Simpson's and brainlessness.

1:49 AM  

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