Thursday, November 26, 2009

Growing Up Different

Growing up in the Yeshivish world, it seemed that Europe, the alte heim remembered warmly in stories, the land where the pious Judaism of our forefathers once flourished, was an area that extended from Russia in the East to Lithuania in the North, Hungary in the South, and Poland to the West. (Not that I had a great grasp of geography as kid. Far from it.) The stories that were told, from those about the great tzadikim we were to emulate to those about the simple folk we were to identify with, all took place in small patch of Central and Eastern Europe. The names of the towns, the Yiddish the characters spoke, the social structure, all had their roots in the shtetl.

I identified with none of it. I heard no stories at home about Poland or Russia. No family tales of the poretz, the czar, the bitter winters and rapacious peasants. Nor was there any reason I should. My family was from farther west, from a place that, when it came up at all, was the source of the smart-aleky Maskil in older stories and of unspeakable horror in those from the mid-20th century.

All four of my grandparents grew up in Germany, in places like Berlin and Frankfurt-am-Main. I have photographs of my great-grandfathers in their uniforms, circa 1914. I know very little about their service, and it’s likely they were drafted rather than volunteers, but they fought for Germany. More than one of my great-great-uncles died in France in the Kaiser’s service, fighting for a country he thought of as his own. One, a doctor living in California, voluntarily returned to Germany to serve his country.

When WWI ended and Germany was forced to cede its eastern lands to the newly reconstituted Poland, one of my great grandfathers, who had been living just across the new Polish border, moved west to Berlin rather than trade his German citizenship for a Polish one. Unlike the oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe (and Poland, Hungary, etc. which I’ll throw in with Eastern countries for simplicities sake), German Jews saw themselves as full members of the German nation.

The Jews of Eastern Europe were, for the most part, poor, oppressed, and not very patriotic – often because they weren’t allowed the privileges of citizens. Western Europe was a very different place.

These differences expressed themselves in ways other than just patriotism. Jews in the West tended to be wealthier and better-educated than their Eastern brethren, a difference which accounts for the popularity of cholent in Eastern Europe and its absence from the West. This dish, which many frum people today consider their Shabbos incomplete without, was unknown in Germany. While cholent today may be expensive, it was originally a relatively cheap stew made with potatoes, beans, and a bit of meat and bones for flavor. Tasty and filling, it was the perfect Shabbos dish for people without a lot to spend. The richer Jews of the West had chickens and meat for Shabbos. My father first tasted cholent when he went away to yeshiva for bais medrash.

There are also differences in hashkafa and minhagim. In general, most of the kaballah-inspired minhagim prevalent among Eastern European Jews are not part of the German experience. My family doesn’t make upsherins, we don’t wave a chicken over our heads before Yom Kippur, and we don’t wear a kittel at the seder. At my wedding (and my parents’ and my siblings’) I didn’t wear a kittel, I didn’t wear a torn coat, and I didn’t untie my shoes or take off my gold cufflinks. My wife and I stood under the chuppah wearing a tallis over our heads and facing away from the audience.

Most of my classmates were descendants of the Eastern Europeans who have come to dominate American Orthodoxy. (So much so, that one is either a chassid or a litvak. In common usage in the yeshivish and chassidsh worlds, there are no other categories.) I was different from them. Not very different – we were all from middle-to-right-wing Orthodox homes. But I was different in that I didn’t personally identify with stories of Eastern European figures. To my classmates, these characters were their alter zaides. I didn’t even have a zaidy. I called my grandfather “Opa,” German for Grandpa. Underscoring the difference even more, my family did things differently than my friends did, differently than I was taught in school.

Like all yeshivish kids, I learned the Yiddish sing-song about the Seder. “Tatty comes home from shul and puts on his kittel…” Mine didn’t.

I learned to say the Ma Nishtana in Yiddish. My mother’s parents, at whose home we spent Pesach when I was little, spoke fluent German and could understand Yiddish, but no one in my family spoke Yiddish.

Before Yom Kippur I learned in school how we shlug kaporos. At home, I heard how we didn’t shlug kaporos, and could you imagine actually taking a chicken and swinging it over your head?!

Then there’s the best one of all. You must wait six hours between milchig and fleishig (always said that way, even though no one waits between milk and meat, only between meat and milk). This minhag is taught as part of hilchos kashrus. Except my family only waits three.

For me, the illusion of a monolithic mesorah promulgated by the Yeshivish world never had a chance to take hold. Sure, everyone knows that there are people out there who only wait three hours, or who wear taleisim before they’re married. But for most it’s not something they notice. It’s one thing if one or two of your friends do things a little differently than you do. It’s another when nearly everyone does things differently than you do.

I think this may be another small ingredient in my path to religious skepticism. Seeing what I was taught as normative in school disregarded by my family in practice – disregarded because no one in the family had ever done these things - taught me that not everything I learned was a tradition stretching back to God at Har Sinai.


  1. The Torah is eternal but Judaism changes.

  2. G*3: I can totally identify, coming from a yekkishe home myself. I refused to do upsherns to my kids and I only did Shalom Zochors because it was sort of expected (people would show up regardless, so...). This definitely also played a role. Other yekkish things that made me think about my differences to mainstream yeshivish: wearing a tallis since I was young, 'ow' instead of 'oy', proper pronunciation (milerah) of the words, spitting on the floor in shtibelach, etc.

  3. Unfortunatly, differences we gre up with are dissapearing. A lot of my cousins have droppped the yekke minhagim in favor of more popular ones. There is no more yekke community. The kehila my father grew up as a part of in Washington Heights is nearly gone. Worst of all, last summer the new rav of Beruer's made a speech in which he repeated the yeshivish dogma that torah im derech eretz and RSRH's hashkafa were only a stop-gap measure taken against the haskala in Frankfurt, and they were not applicable today. There were protests from the community, including the president of the kehila, but that a rav could even make such a statement in Beruer's...

    It almost makes me beleive in yeridas hadoros.

  4. i grew up in a semi sephardic home so their tradition wasn't mine either... plus neither of my parents came from brooklyn... but I always held it as a mark of pride, not realizing how watered down the sephardic tradition i received was.

  5. In reality all of Judaism is just one big minhag.

  6. Great post! Thank you.

    One thing: I don't think it's that Yiddish wasn't a part of yekke history. Yiddish actually originated in the Rhineland before the Jews took it with to Poland. But since Yiddish was so similar to German, it was much easier for German Jews to learn their local language and participate in German society before and after their emancipation. And while in an American, Russian or Israeli context, speaking Yiddish at home could be a mark of identity and a way of having a secret language,in Germany it would have meant just using weird grammar and a funny accent at home and a proper language on the street (perhaps a good analogy would be a person who grew up speaking Ebonics, learned standard English grammar and used it at work and with friends, then went back home to speak Ebonics with his children... doesn't make much sense).

  7. Could be, I don't know a whole lot about the history of Yiddish. But the first large immigration of Jews to Poland happened around 1000 when the Jews of Vienna were expelled and the king of Poland invited them to his country. The Jews of Eastern Europe originated in the Germanies, but they went their sperate way a very long time ago.

    There are people who switch between Standard English and Ebonics depending on context. Ebonics though is a dialect, where Yiddish is a pidgin.

    I think it has more to do with the Yekke community seeing themselves as both Germans and Jews, while the Jews of Poland mostly saw themselves as Jews who happened to live in Poland.

  8. Come, seek refuge in Adas Jeshurun in Zurich, the last fiefdom of Tauroh-true jews, where you cannot get an aliah if you wear a streimel or pronounce something like toire when you make the brocho.

    (And people wash before kiddush)

  9. Thanks for the offer, but Zurich is a bit further than I planned on moving. And I think I'd have issues in any Torah-true community, whether they pronounce it Tauroh or Toire.

  10. Asylum offer, you serious? Do they really believe that god wants them to do that? Because I can't think of a Chasidish Shul that would be so horrid.

  11. I had the same thought.

    And then I remembered a few years back when I went to a Lubavitch friend of mine for a Shabbos and was offered an aliyah, but only on condition that I put on a hat.

    I had the same experience in my father's yeshivish shul at my own auf ruf.

    And while a Chassidishe shul won't object to someone with a litvish accent, what about a modern guy who uses an Israeli pronunciation? I know of a guy who was a regular at a kollel and was asked to change the way he pronounced Hebrew from an Israeli to a yeshivish accent.

  12. Well, the joke about it is that the young people mostly go away for yeshive and change their accent from yekkish to some kind of chassidish. But in their shul, it's strict: ow or nothing
    (I'm not 100% sure for the aliot, but for davening in any case...)

  13. I'm not yeshivish, but I do have a Ph.D., and you guys are wrong about Yiddish being "pidgin" as opposed to a dialect. Both Yiddish and Middle HIgh German developed at around the same time, in the High Middle Ages, in around the same place, the German-speaking lands of Europe. The myth that Yiddish is not a real language was promulgated by Jews who thought that Yiddish was backwards and synonymous with lack of culture, but none of that is true. Speaking Yiddish may not have been acceptable in certain communities at certain times, but that doesn't change how it originally developed. If you don't believe me, there are books about it, such as Harshav's _The Meaning of Yiddish._

  14. I stand corrected.

    Incidentally, a Ph.D. in what? Linguistics?

    If so, what is the difference between a pidgin, a dialect, and an independent langauge? From what I've seen and read it seems Yiddish is a lot closer to German than other germanic langauges, but I could be mistaken.

    Any thoughts?