Monday, February 8, 2010
Rabbi Dovid Schwartz's Letter to the Yated
Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum's article on the "Der Heim" Myth got a letter by Rabbi Dovid Schwartz of the Jewish Heritage Center published in the Yated. I would like to thank Bray for sending me a copy as it only appeared in the print edition, which I do not have regular access to.
Rabbi Schwartz responds as follows to the article:
Dear Readers Write/Editor,
No one could accuse an eyewitness to the twin births of Esav and Yaakov maintaining that Esav was the bechor of the family. And while this is biologically true it is metaphysically false. I read "The 'Der Heim' Myth" article in your most recent issue in much the same way. While finding it's surface honesty refreshing I feel that it missed the mark in discerning a deeper truth.
I think that most people who've done even a cursory review of interbellum Eastern European history are well aware of the awful place that ‘Der heim” was. Anyone growing up in the home of survivors and or who davened with them in their youth heard about how it was a place where Yidden were slaughtered in cold blood, that the majority of ehrliche Yidden lived in grinding poverty and where hunger and want were everywhere etc..
Nevertheless we are convinced that the heim is a place to idolize and grow nostalgic about and that the incredible nisyonos of poverty and discrimination that those amuhliga yiden were exposed to made spiritual giants out of those strong enough to withstand them.
Is it any accident that although the interbellum Yeshivisha velt was perhaps 5% the size numerically of the current aggregate of Israeli and American Yeshivas, that it's bochurim endured poverty far poorer than the population at large and the gloom of few marriage prospects and that kollelim were nearly nonexistent, that it still managed to produce geonim and lamdonim who were qualitatively light years ahead of today's products?
Is it a coincidence that lacking today's monumental Batei Midrash and the convenience of Chasidim living in close proximity year round the bygone Rebbes still had talmidim and Chasidim who were tzadikim in their own rights and that interbellum Chasidus produced seforim and works of sublime enduring value? Think the yoshvim in Belz, Rav Menachem Ziemba, Chovas haTalmidim, Modzitzer nigunim, The Eretz Tzvi, Rav Ahreleh (Toldos Ahron, Shomer Emunim et al) to name but a few.
And what of the emunah peshuta of those interbellum yidden and yiddenehs who did hang on to their faith? Which of us did not know a "greener" Yid or Yiddeneh who, despite being clean shaven, non-shaiteled and western clothed after the war, didn't have a vaicha Yiddish hartz and an organic fidelity to Torah values that puts the forced, dispassionate and antiseptic Yididshkeit that we practice to shame?
And even the much maligned hamon ahm should not be underestimated. While it may be true that many received no more than a cheder education ponder for a moment how vastly superior that system must have been to our own elementary chadorim in that it stood it's students in good stead to live ehrlicha upgeheetaneh lives for a lifetime. Is the fact that in our system having 20 plus years of schooling not being enough, such that anyone who didn't spend 8+ years in Kollel after the chasunah is tsorich bedeeka acharov supposed to be a compliment? That the ahava and yirah that we implant is so flimsy that it will fold like a cheap camera in the face of a few college courses or six months in an office environment?
And while to say any different than the author about the hemorrhaging disaffection of the youth in the interbellum period would;d be rank historical revisionism I think that saying ‘ein bayis asher yeish bo chai’ distorts by overstatement. Furthermore even the reaykh boigdov then had a sweeter aroma. Or are we to posit a moral equivalency between those who, spurred by the nearly unendurable nisyonos of poverty and anti-Semitism that we cannot begin to fathom, abandoned Yiddishkeit in order to build more just societies (Bundists, Leninists, Trotskyites) or a safe homeland for their people (Labor and revisionist Zionists) and the OTD kids of today who "drop it all" on account of a broken school system or sheer boredom in favor of vacuous, hedonistic lifestyles for the flimsiest and most narcissistic of motivations?
So while it's good that the younger generation read articles like this to achieve a more mature and nuanced understanding of pre-Holocaust Jewish history the article does a great disservice in processing the information to arrive at the conclusion that compared our elders we are not only better off materially but spiritually as well . One ought not avoid historical revisionism by perpetrating "current events" revisionism.
To put as fine a point as I can on it; How many of our own "Achshir dora" yidden would be ready to assert that they'd have survived 6 weeks, much less 6 years, of Holocaust, with our emunah intact? About how many of us do you think the Satmar Rebbe would say "Give a kvittel to him . He laigs Tefilin over his number tattoo!"?
Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
Associate Director- Jewish Heritage Center of Queens and Long Island
(Note this is the unedited/uncensored version of the letter and not the version published in the Yated.)
Despite all the yeshivish colloquialisms that was a remarkably touching letter. I think it even furthers my point, though. Here we have Rabbi Dovid Schwartz, a clearly historically literate person, who understands what a mess European life was and yet he still bends over backwards to defend that society. Why does he think it is so important that Jews have a positive view of European Judaism? Notice the sort of apologetics that he engages in. All of a sudden it becomes forgivable to wear Western clothing, go clean-shaven and even for women to not cover their hair. Such people would today be classified as Modern Orthodox. (I am reminded of a line that every Satmar Hasid is the grandchild of Modern Orthodox Jews.) These people were in some immeasurable sense "deeply spiritual" Jews. What would happen if we took this standard and applied it not to Eastern European Jews who are no longer living today, but to inconveniently alive and well modern day real life Modern Orthodox Jews? Rabbi Schwartz is willing to wink at the ignorance of regular Jews again by some mystical standard. I must say it is very convenient to go into an argument making claims outside of any objective standard beyond "their self evident truth." How do we score religiosity when we make the point of ignoring objective standards such as ritual observance and knowledge? Of course Rabbi Schwartz has no problem with backtracking and appealing to the learnedness of the rabbinic elites. Again, though, he offers no real standard for evaluating this claim beyond the fact that the Haredi readers of the Yated take it as self evidently so.
In the end I have no idea what it would even mean to say that one generation is better than another just as I would not know what it would mean to say that one person is "better" than another. Different people and different time periods come up against different issues and handle them in different ways. Some of these choices I approve of more than others. I have no wish to preach the greatness of this generation and at the same time I have no wish to create an idealized picture of the past. The past can be very difficult to compete with. People who are dead do not make rude bodily noises or fail to put down the toilet seat. Art Spiegelman, in Maus, talks about the difficulty of growing up under the picture of his dead brother, who perished in the Holocaust and whom he never met. How does a child compete with a sibling who is dead and cannot do any wrong? This sets up the trap of mediocrity. If you know that no matter what you do you will always be second best, why bother to compete? Even worse this becomes an excuse and an apology for one's mediocrity. You can now be comforted in your mediocrity that you are exactly where you would be if you had actually tried, in second place. Part of my job as a historian is to present past societies as having real strengths and real flaws, which are usually connected to each other. This is our generation, we have the benefit of their experience and we are going to try to make better decisions.