Life & Culture

Review: Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side

This unconventional ethnography straddles many divides, writes Professor David-Hillel Ruben


Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side
By Jonathan Boyarin

Princeton University Press, £20

Ethnography, a speciality within social anthropology, is the study of the cultures, customs, and habits of societies, or of groups within a larger society. Jonathan Boyarin is an ethnographer of various Jewish subgroups. For example, in earlier works, Boyarin investigated secular Polish Jews in Paris and the Stanton Street shul in New York’s Lower East Side. 

In Yeshiva Days, he writes about the extraordinary and rather unusual yeshiva, Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem, also on the Lower East Side, whose Rosh Yeshiva until his death in November 2020 was the legendary Reb Dovid Feinstein, posek, whose knowledge of Talmud and other rabbinic sources was truly remarkable. He was  a member of the Council of Torah Scholars of Agudath Israel of America, and one of the true leaders of American Orthodoxy. 

This is certainly not a conventional ethnography. As Boyarin says: it is written “with a minimum of the kind of analysis and commentary that usually mark[s] professional anthropology.” His style might be better described as anecdotal. Although the book is divided into chapters, each chapter having a specific focus, the chapters read as a continuous set of anecdotes that, woven together, define the culture and the personae of the institution, both its leaders and its learners.

There is a debate within anthropology about the extent to which it can be scientific and objective, in the same way in which the natural sciences and some social sciences (e.g. economics) seem to be. Is the ethnographer best placed as an independent, objective observer, in the same way that a natural scientist is when surveying his objects of study, or the economist when studying economic phenomena? The model for this might be the European studying a native South American tribe. Or does the ethnographer do better when firmly rooted inside the society or culture he is studying? Is the best ethnographer also a member of the tribe that he is studying? 

Boyarin is a sometime student of the yeshiva about which he is writing (in addition to being a professional ethnographer at a university) and in countless places in the book he is able to understand subtle nuances in what other yeshiva participants say or do, and interpret them accordingly, in a way in that no “objective” outsider could manage regardless of how much observation he might do. Boyarin sees himself as ambiguously both an insider and an outsider in relation to the life of the yeshiva, and discusses that ambiguity at some length, but he is enough of an insider to be able to perform the interpretative feat of understanding what would elude a true outsider who was writing about the institution. 

Words spoken inside the yeshiva have a rich meaning that would elude someone who was truly just on the outside of the yeshiva, however carefully looking in. 

Boyarin not only writes his ethnography of the yeshiva as (somewhat of) an insider. He also studies himself studying the yeshiva. To that extent, the book is autobiographical, since it is also about him and his place in the institution, as well as his reactions and emotions as both participant and observer. 

Yeshiva Days is an unusual piece of writing, straddling many divides: insider and outsider, participant and observer, a study of an institution and an autobiography. It all adds up to an enjoyable read.

David-Hillel Ruben is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of London

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