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. 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.
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.