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The Yiddish Are Coming

Eytan Kobre

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

 My family and I experienced an eye-opening, exhilarating Shabbos two weeks ago. But before I go any further, permit me an admission: I get enthused by revolutionary movements. Perhaps I delude myself, but I sometimes think that had I lived in prewar Europe, I’d have joined the Novardok network of yeshivos, which was a band of true revolutionaries. It was headed by a visionary, the Alter Reb Yoizel, who demanded radical things of himself and his followers and sought to transform Jewry by seeding scores of communities with his “operatives.” In this sense, Novardok was a unique phenomenon, a movement of bnei Torah yet also of a piece with the spirit of those times, in which all manner of revolutionary causes distant from or opposed to Torah were capturing the imagination of young Jews and carrying them far from their roots.

Rav Noach Weinberg ztz”l was another Jew who thought in revolutionary terms and acted on those thoughts, too. He would talk with a kind of admiration about what there was to learn from the old-time revolutionaries about the ability of a committed, calculating group of guerillas to overcome daunting odds and change the world. And his movement, too, came of age in a time when the staid and stolid institutions of Western society were being challenged and shaken and in some cases toppled, as the cry of “Viva la revolución!” echoed on campuses and in the streets. Whether these late-20th-century rebels were true idealists or just glorified draft-dodgers and pleasure-seekers is for another day, but the whiff of revolution was undeniably in the air, and Reb Noach turned that to Torah’s advantage.

This is all so authentically Jewish. It’s no accident that from the early 20th century and on, Jews have figured so prominently in both the leadership and rank-and-file of all kinds of countercultural movements and causes with grandiose missions to reform and transform societies. They’re just being faithful to their spiritual-genetic heritage as offspring of the greatest revolutionary of them all, Avraham Avinu, who faced off against the whole world — founding and leading, according to the Rambam, a movements of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands across many countries, who joined him in rejecting the polytheism and cults of human sacrifice that held sway everywhere to embrace instead Hashem and His plan for humanity.

And so it’s supposed to be throughout history. Chazal call the Jewish People the azim sheb’umos, the most contrarian of nations, whose members, in the spiritual realm, buck authority, challenge convention, and march to their own beat. We’re intended to do so in the way our zeideh did, as a means of bringing G-d and goodness to the forefront of societal consciousness, and when that happens, we fulfill our mandate as a light unto the nations. But when we express these revolutionary tendencies in non-Torah ways, bad things happen and we risk being a blight unto those same nations.

Which brings me back to my Shabbos of a fortnight ago, which I spent with my family at a training camp for revolutionaries in upstate New York. It’s otherwise known as Boys Zone (Girls Zone is the camp of like size for girls, just minutes away) and run by the folks from Oorah under the sagacious guidance of Rav Chaim Mintz shlita. This fabulous venue of physical and spiritual delight is populated by hundreds of the littlest revolutionaries. They’re not wearing fatigues and face paint — just kippot, a smattering with T-shirts reading “I Love Hashem.” They’re in training for a most daunting mission: to go back, after a mere four weeks in The Zone, to their homes and communities — which are spiritually arid at best and often downright antagonistic to everything they’ve learned here — and foment that which is, for their families and schools and American Jews as a whole, nothing short of revolution.

To be sure, like any good operative in the field, they’ll each maintain regular contact from behind the lines with their cell leaders, in this case the same Torah Mates they’ve become close to during camp, with whom they’ll learn and schmooze throughout the year. There will also be various opportunities — like the Shabbatons and get-togethers called Chill Zones — to strengthen their inner resolve and recommit to the revolution.

Lest the reader think I’m getting carried away, the Shabbos we spent in camp, the last before it ended, was literally known as Shabbos Revolution. It was dedicated to having these child revolutionaries commit to keeping that one Shabbos as a way of fortifying them for the challenge of trying to live openly as Jews, to keep a part of Shabbos, eat a bit of kosher, learn a little Torah, all while outnumbered by the adults and peers in their lives and outgunned by all the enticements of the American consumer culture — a major feat even for a mature adult.

The lyrics the counselors and campers belted out as one, 500 strong, at the Shabbos day meal summed up the palpable revolutionary fervor in that room: “So let’s accept to have Shabbos kept/ The rest of our nation will follow step/ ’Cause make no mistake, the whole world will shake/ When they hear The Zone relate — We keep Shabbos! We keep Shabbos!”

Did I get emotionally carried away that Shabbos? You bet I did. Who wouldn’t, watching hundreds of kids vying for the stuffed animals Rav Chaim handed out at the seudah for answering halachah questions; hearing a renowned talmid chacham, Rav Yitzchok Sorotzkin shlita, tell a story about the beauty of learning Torah, and then lead a chant of “We want more Torah!”; and seeing these kids dance their hearts out at davening and the Shabbos meals?

And perhaps above all else, seeing the genuine affection and admiration these kids all had for their counselors, yeshivah bochurim all. Perhaps not every one of these campers will end up fully observant. But of this I am certain: they will always relate warmly to Torah and Torah Jews and raise their own Jewish children.

Viva la revolución!


HE’S A REPORTER, NOT A MASHGIACH The Jewish Week recently featured an interesting profile of Joseph Berger, the New York Times metropolitan desk reporter who often writes about Orthodox Jews. A Yiddish-speaking member of a Reconstructionist house of worship, Berger comes across as a genuine, old-style New Yawker with something of a Yiddishe gefill (which, if his name were Fisch, might create issues). And, indeed, from what I recall of his Times pieces, they tend to be interesting, sometimes quirky explorations of various aspects of Orthodox life, and more often chassidic life, that are respectful and oftentimes admiring. His is not a byline that causes the reader to tense up and brace for a classic Times hit job on Jews orIsrael, and good for him.

Speaking of Israel, however, when the Jewish Week writer asked him about the Times’ reputation for anti-Israel bias in its Middle East coverage, he “acknowledged that the Times sometimes makes mistakes in its coverage of Israel, but said that the paper takes pains to get it right and correct its mistakes.…But even if we make mistakes, there is no conspiracy. We try to be as fair and impartial as we can be.’$$$SEPARATE QUOTES$$$” The Times’s reportage is the product of many reporters and editors, he added, and these journalists have no agenda other than to be “fair and impartial.”

And then he added, as they say, the kicker: “I don’t believe the Times is anti-Semitic, and the fact that we run stories about Yiddish and chassidim is proof of that alone.”

On that, two points. That’s a bit of a non sequitur; the Times can well be anti-Israel without being overtly anti-Semitic (although, of course, many see anti-Israel sentiment as a stand-in, conscious or otherwise, for anti-Semitism). And the notion that charming human-interest stories appearing now and then about Yiddish and chassidim can somehow be pressed into service as the Times’ philo-Semitic credentials sounds like the journalistic equivalent of “…but some of my best friends are Jews.”

Mr. Berger can make any case he’d like for the Times’ lack of anti-Jewish animus, but his use of such an unpersuasive — indeed, hackneyed — argument is surprising. Let him, by all means, carry on writing his often enjoyable slice-of-life profiles of Orthodox life. But he ought not to serve, by reason of them, as his newspaper’s rav hamachshir.



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