Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Bintel Brief

Recently an “open letter” from a young rabbinical student appeared in the Jewish Press. Without the endorsement at the end of this “open letter” it could easily have been mistaken for “A Bintel Brief” published in the Jewish Forward in the 1920’s. (The Bintel Brief, in the format of questions and answers, was a weekly column appearing in the Yiddish Forward, depicting the struggles and tribulations of the Jewish immigrants on the lower east side of Manhattan). The note at the end of the article stated the following: “Endorsed by these Gedolei Hatorah( Torah Sages): Moshe Wolfson, Yaakov Perlow, Aryeh Kutler and Yechezchel Ratah.”

The text of the letter is disturbing considering that it was not written in the 1920’s but at the end of 2006, not by an Eastern European immigrant, but by an American youth. Due to his father’s chronic illness and lack of money the anonymous yeshiva (rabbinical student) student is literally begging the public for money in order to raise the necessary funds to get married. In his open letter he claims desperation and the “lack of other options…” He continues to write in his letter that raising sufficient money for the wedding will be comforting for his sick father: “I hope that when I tell my dear father of this, his stress of the financial burden will decrease in intensity...” He concludes his letter with “Please rush your tax deductible contribution to...”

There are three things which are quite striking about this letter. An apparently healthy young man in an educational setting is begging when he can be working. His need to beg, not for essentials, such as food or medicine, but for the non-essential and optional wedding, which could have been postponed to a more fortuitous time. The knowledge or assumption that his father would be relieved that his son raised the money for the wedding by begging brought the student a modicum of comfort.

What is most revealing in his letter is his attitude towards living a productive life. There is a disturbing sense of entitlement, apparently because he sees himself as a yeshiva student and thus in the European tradition is entitled to praise and financial support. I seem to recollect hat when I was a yeshiva student with little means of financial support, I as well as many others found supplemental income by working as teachers in the classroom, tutors of Hebrew studies, math, English or bar mitzvah lessons. There were those amongst us who served in paid positions as Torah readers, or sextons and there were those of us who worked in the slaughter houses doing work that converted some of us into life long vegetarians. No one I knew in those years pan handled or appealed to the public via the Jewish press.

Rather then judge the young man for his behavior it behooves us to consider the system and its values and environment within which he was raised. Coincidental to his troubling letter, an article appeared in the same newspaper written by an educator, Avraham Birnbaum entitled “A Few Words About Limudei Chol (secular studies).” In this article he argues that secular studies are undervalued by the yeshiva system and the parent body: “…the dearth of knowledge that our children come out with after eight years…is disheartening…” While he ponders the problem of why this is, Birnbaum, in a very cavalier fashion writes …”of course we attach far less importance to limudei chol than we do to limudei chodesh (religious studies). This is the way it should be….limudei chodesh and limudei hatorah are the only things that ultimately count...”

Birnbaum is obviously conflicted because he nevertheless laments the fact that an eighth grade yeshiva student cannot write a coherent sentence in English. But why should he be expected to? What can be expected of students if teachers such as Birnbaum can comfort a parent upset that his son doesn’t know basic math by telling the parents don’t worry “ that in 120 years they will ask your son if he knows Bava Kama not trigonometry.”

This pervasive attitude reflecting a chronic problem in the ultra orthodox community is what created the problems for the anonymous letter writer. At the turn of the twentieth century, when thousands of eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States it is understandable that they would have need to write to the Jewish Forward’s “A Bintel brief” for advice and help. They had little education, scant knowledge of the English language and little understanding of our culture. With all their hardships, few resorted to begging, many opted to make an honest living by hard work in the infamous sweat shops. It is hard to imagine that a healthy, intelligent young man today would have to resort to begging. Like his ancestors he obviously has little education, few opportunities but unlike them, no self respect. The likes of Birnbaum is not responsible for this problem, he too is a product of their system.

The rabbinic sages which lead these communities are the ones that need to be held accountable. Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, one of the Torah Sages endorsing the author of the anonymous letter is himself a recipient of higher education. Rabbi Perlow was not always the Admor (Grand Rabbi) of Novarminsk. He was my teacher, my rebbe. He was dynamic, charismatic and extremely effective, in part as a result of his academic credentials. If higher education was important enough for Rabi Perlow should it not be required for his followers? I wonder if Rabbi Perlow is proud of the fact that his imprimatur was given to the anonymous letter writer.