Life & Culture

My lessons in life at yeshivah


Nervously preparing for an interview at Cambridge University, I tried to work out how I would explain what I had been doing since leaving school.

How could I tell the St John's dons that I had been at yeshivah in Jerusalem? I was sure they would have no idea what I was talking about. Come the day, I had a speech prepared about "Talmudic Academic Study in the Holy Land", but before I could hit my stride, a don interrupted.

"Ah, yeshivah," she said, giving me an incisive look. "Oh yes, we know all about that. We had a boy who won a place here who went off to do that. Deferred for three years and then told us he wasn't coming!"

The conversation went downhill from there. I ended up going to the University of Manchester.

This week, scores of British boys will follow in my footsteps and head to Jerusalem to study at yeshivah for at least a year after finishing school. It is accepted practice if they are: Charedi, Religious Zionist or Modern Orthodox.

Girls head for seminaries, known as "sem"', a similar idea but a different experience.

As someone who had grown up Charedi-light, the question was not whether I would go to yeshivah, but where? For most boys in my social milieu, the question was more specific - where within Israel?

I looked at several places before finally deciding on a Charedi institution in Jerusalem aimed at English and American boys. I was not alone, nine other boys from my school went to the same place.

The day would begin at seven, when specially appointed veckers would go around the dorms waking people up for morning prayers. Daily study was essentially split into three parts. The morning learning session was four hours long - three for learning with a single study partner and one in a class focusing on what we had just learned. The afternoon learning session followed a similar pattern.

The evening session left everyone to his own devices: we could learn together, or just by ourselves. The sessions were broken up by meals and daily prayers.

Frankly, I did not enjoy the learning. I had started studying Gemara at the age of eight, and have never found it anything other than intensely frustrating. Gemara means studying Talmud, the 1,500-1,600 year old Aramaic compendium of questions, answers and discussions relating to different aspects of Jewish law, based on an earlier work called the Mishnah. For me, the endless discussions of minutiae feels like the ultimate in nit-picking. However, I threw myself into my studies, hopeful that a period of intensive learning would help me break through to a level at which I felt more comfortable with the texts. If I failed to become accustomed to Gemara, I reasoned, it would not be through lack of trying.

I often ended learning at around 10 at night, subsequently running laps around the neighbourhood in order to get some much-needed exercise. If I was lucky, I would get to bed by 12 - and would begin the whole process again seven hours later.

The week ran from Sunday to Friday; Sunday is a regular working day in Israel, which was surprisingly hard to get used to. It was not entirely supplemented by Friday, which was technically a half-day in yeshivah but which many people tended to take off entirely, especially if they had a long distance to travel to their Shabbat destination.

I was woefully unprepared for the accommodation, which was rather different to my comfortable home. I had always had my own room; suddenly I was sharing with four others. The loss of privacy was extremely difficult to adjust to.

I was also, to put it bluntly, a little spoiled. At home, laundry was something I put in a basket to be returned, clean, a few days later. I can still remember the look of scorn I received from a fellow student when he found me puzzling over the multi-dial display of a washing machine. I learned quickly; you had to, if you wanted clean clothes.

Fortunately, I got on well with my room-mates. Another room got fed up when one of their number regularly staggered in drunk at three in the morning, waking everyone up. So one night they locked their door. He got in anyway - by breaking the door down.

During winter, one boy went for a walk and came back with an impulse buy - a puppy. It wasn't house-trained, and had a few accidents before his irate room-mates demanded that he returned it to the place he'd purchased it from - where presumably he was told about a dog being for life, not just for Chanucah.

Even with the puppy returned, the hygiene left a lot to be desired. Our apartment had eleven people. It had one bathroom, containing one shower and one toilet. The bathroom flooded quite often, so you had to be adept with a mop. Fun times.

At least we didn't have to deal with bugs. Every year before the students arrived, pest control came in and zapped the place. Our apartment was Chernobyl for cockroaches. The scant handful we ever saw were dead before we found them.

We learned that the last person out of the room always needs to shut the door. Or else, as happened to one of my classmates, you may come back to it to find one of Jerusalem's many cats giving birth under your bed. Burglary also wasn't unheard of, so everyone had a padlock on their cupboards - just in case.

I learned to be grateful for things that I had previously taken for granted, a personal space I could call my own, a cool room in the summer and central heating in the winter, and someone to do my ironing. I always knew how lucky I was to have these things, but you only really appreciate creature comforts when you have to do without them for a while.

While I was experiencing this physical transformation, I was undergoing a spiritual one as well.

I had grown up strictly Orthodox, but my time in yeshivah made me realise that this was not the life I wanted to live. Being away on my own allowed me to query certain things which I had previously accepted on faith - and some of the answers I was given did not satisfy me.

Although I was not alone in my dislike of yeshivah, I was certainly not the norm. There are plenty of people who enjoy the experience, and stay for three, four or even five years.

Some of the older bochurim were from religious backgrounds and had just decided to stay on for slightly longer than originally intended.

Others had "flipped out"; not from religious homes originally, they had completely embraced strict Orthodoxy and fully intended to stay in learning for as long as possible.

In my second year, I shared a room with a boy who was doing everything he could to try and persuade his parents to let him stay in yeshivah, while by that point I was more than ready to leave. Our discussions on the subject were interesting, though always good-natured.

I cannot claim that I left yeshivah knowing the religious level I wanted for myself, but I can say that I really began to think about that question while I was there.

Eight years on, I am not as religious as I used to be - I would describe myself as Modern Orthodox. I feel much more at peace than I did previously - and although it was far from my mind at the time, I have to give yeshivah some of the credit for that, strange as it might sound.

So, did I enjoy yeshivah? My answer would have to be a regretful no.

My yeshivah, like many others, was dedicated to learning the Babylonian Talmud. It was not destined to be a happy relationship. Despite my efforts, I still have no enjoyment of talmudic study.

Despite this, did I learn a lot from yeshivah? Well - yes. And believe me, that admission surprises me more than anyone.

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