What the anthropologist found in the yeshivah

Yeshiva Days – Learning on the Lower East Side, Jonathan Boyarin, Princeton University Press, £20


Ethnography seems fun. I didn’t really know what it was before I read this book, but I do now. It involves the systematic study of cultures from the inside, with the researcher often participating in the life of his subjects.

To write this ethnographic study, Boyarin spent some time learning at the Mesivtha Tiferet Jerusalem (MTJ) yeshivah situated in New York’s Lower East Side in the 1980s and again in 2012. The book is essentially what he learnt, saw and ate, sprinkled with a few observations about Torah learning, yeshivah-style.

MTJ was led by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest halachists of the modern period, and then by his son Rabbi Dovid Feinstein. We don’t learn much about these figures, or the history, methodology or influence of the place but we do gain a sense of the institution, the characters who inhabit it and the part the institution plays in the life of the community it serves.

The impression is one of informal coming and going and the constant hum of talmudic debate, familiar to all of us who have spent time in yeshivah. But an ethnographer has an ability to faithfully reflect what is taking place, in a way that a mere attendee cannot.

There are snippets of discussions from Talmud class, a discussion between students about how to make chicken loaf, a falling out and making up between chevrusas (study partners), a rabbi pestered by a man claiming that his wife is a sotah (wife suspected of adultery), and a panic over bugs in bags of barley (food is a recurring theme).

But through it all there is a strong sense of Torah learning as a contemplative exercise. The author contrasts yeshivah life with the capitalist market framework which governs all other aspects of contemporary existence: “The participants in the beis medresh [study hall] are not profit-maximising.” The aim is not to “get somewhere”.

The secret is in the process itself. As the book describes, such process does not take place in a vacuum but within the life of vibrant, active communities.

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