Yeshi­va Days: Learn­ing on the Low­er East Side

  • Review
By – February 22, 2021

By a quirk of fate, Yeshi­va Days was pub­lished on Octo­ber 6, 2020, exact­ly one month before Rab­bi Dovid Fein­stein — its major sub­ject — died. Fein­stein was the rosh yeshi­va at Mesivtha Tifer­eth Jerusalem yeshi­va on East Broad­way on New York City’s Low­er East Side, the last remain­ing insti­tu­tion for tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish learn­ing in this icon­ic Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood. Jonathan Boyarin, an anthro­pol­o­gist, lived near MTJ and stud­ied Tal­mud there off and on for sev­er­al decades when he was not teach­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na and Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty. In an ear­li­er work, Morn­ings at the Stan­ton Street Shul: A Low­er East Side Sum­mer (2011), he exam­ined the work­ings of this his­toric Ortho­dox syn­a­gogue where he attend­ed services.

Rab­bi Dovid Fein­stein was the son of Moshe Fein­stein — the lead­ing halachic author­i­ty in Amer­i­ca from the time he came from the Sovi­et Union to the Unit­ed States in 1937, until his death in 1986. The younger Fein­stein then assumed the reins of MTJ and became a major fig­ure in his own right in the Lit­vak yeshi­va com­mu­ni­ty in the Unit­ed States. He was high­ly regard­ed for his learn­ing, humil­i­ty, schol­ar­ship, and tol­er­ance for new and dis­sent­ing opin­ions — as had been his father — and his week­ly lec­tures attract­ed peo­ple through­out the New York City area. It was typ­i­cal of Fein­stein that, despite Boyarin’s fears, he did not oppose pub­lish­ing this account of the yeshi­va by an aca­d­e­mi­cian, or fear the intru­sion of mod­ern sec­u­lar Jew­ish schol­ar­ship into the world of the yeshiva.

Fein­stein would undoubt­ed­ly have been pleased by Boyarin’s affec­tion­ate and spright­ly remem­brances of his inter­ac­tions with his teach­ers and fel­low stu­dents, his grow­ing pro­fi­cien­cy in com­pre­hend­ing the com­plex­i­ties of the Tal­mud, the long hours he spent alone in study when away from New York City, and his wish to spend even more time immersed in study­ing the Tal­mud and its major com­men­taries. Boyarin was not born into the world of the yeshi­va. Pri­or to becom­ing a pro­lif­ic schol­ar of Jew­ish cul­ture and a stu­dent of the Tal­mud, he earned a law degree from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty and worked in a high-pow­ered law firm. Per­haps this legal train­ing was par­tial­ly respon­si­ble for his inter­est in Jew­ish legal codes. In any case, the legal profession’s loss was Jew­ish scholarship’s gain.

The book is free of social sci­ence jar­gon and is acces­si­ble to gen­er­al read­ers. What espe­cial­ly comes across is Boyarin’s love for the tra­di­tions of East Euro­pean Jew­ish life in gen­er­al, and the work of MTJ and Fein­stein in particular.[1] Of spe­cial inter­est is Boyarin’s dis­cus­sion of lesh­ma—study for its own sake, rather than for any ulte­ri­or pro­fes­sion­al or mon­e­tary pur­pose. Yeshi­va Days is ded­i­cat­ed to the mem­o­ry of the Jews of Telz in Lithua­nia, mem­bers of the yeshi­va and towns­peo­ple” who per­ished in the Holo­caust. Telz was home to one of the major pre-World War II East Euro­pean yeshiv­as, and some of its stu­dents and teach­ers sur­vived the Holo­caust by flee­ing to Shang­hai. Emis­saries of Telz were in Amer­i­ca dur­ing World War II, and they estab­lished a yeshi­va mod­eled on Telz in Cleve­land in 1941. Branch­es would lat­er be estab­lished in Chica­go, New York City, and Lake­wood (New Jer­sey). Yeshi­va Days pro­vides answers to those curi­ous as to why indi­vid­u­als con­tin­ue to be attract­ed to the study of the Tal­mud, includ­ing those out­side of the Ortho­dox world.

[1]For Boyarin’s rec­ol­lec­tions of Fein­stein, see also his Some Mem­o­ries of Reb Dovid Fein­stein ZT”L: Instead of a Hes­ped,” which appeared on the Seforim blog in Novem­ber, 2020.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

Discussion Questions