Monday, February 1, 2010

The Kollel Meme

I had one of my younger brothers as a guest last Shabbos. He recently started dating, and the conversation soon came around to his plans for the future. To my surprise, he said that he’s planning on learning in kollel for a year or two before getting a job. This is a guy who just finished college, is in yeshiva right now mainly because all of his friends are, and who had no problem skipping Friday night davening. He could be eligible to work in his chosen field in few months. Yet he expects to stay in yeshiva until at least a year after he’s married, whenever that may be. Why?

Orthonomics had a post yesterday about the entitlement felt by some members of the kollel community. (Some commenters pointed out that the post she linked to may be a parody. After re-reading it, I’m undecided. I hope it is.) While commenting on her blog, it hit me that the kollel lifestyle is a meme. In retrospect this is rather obvious, but I was struck by how this realization made so many things suddenly made sense.

Back in June I had a post about the condescending attitude the yeshivish world has towards those that don’t sit and learn. Those who work are considered less-then, nebachs who couldn’t make it in yeshiva or were unfortunately forced by their circumstances to earn a living. “Baalei baatim” is only a hair above “am haaratzim.” Even among the less extreme in the yeshivish world, among those who are willing to grant that ballei baatim can be as righteous as yungerleit, those who sit and learn are seen as the ikker. Their learning sustains the world, and the wage-earning baal habayis should consider it his honor to support those who learn full time.

Never mind that the lifestyle is unsustainable. Never mind that many people in their mid-thirties, with too many kids and no marketable skills, suddenly find themselves struggling to make ends meet. Never mind that the society encourages a myopic, insular, xenophobic, narrowly-defined world view. Yeshivas are full of very smart, kind, warm-hearted people who firmly believe that the best policy is cutting themselves off from the world as much as possible and demeaning everything except talmud torah and everyone (to varying degrees) who doesn’t share their full-time obsession.

Viewed as personal opinions, the attitudes of the yeshivish world are insulting to anyone not in yeshiva. The attempt to brand all “secular” knowledge as pointless at best and trief at worst seems short-sighted, even foolish. The attempts to isolate themselves from the rest of the world and to brand new technologies as a sakana seem misguided, even counter-productive to maintaining their society.

When the kollel lifestyle is viewed as a meme, all of these things suddenly make sense. The veneration of the full-time learner and the pity for the nebach who has to work keeps people learning. The lack of opportunities keep people from finding jobs that might take them away from the yeshiva. Banning the internet and related technologies keeps people away from opinions that might cause them to leave the lifestyle.

Even when people do leave kollel under financial pressures and get jobs, they teach their kids that learning is the ikkar, and the kollel life is the ideal. They work because, nebach, they are no longer able to sit and learn. The meme passes on to another generation.

My brother, despite the ability to start his career in the near future, despite reading the yeshivish Yated only so that he can complain about the ridiculous things they write about, despite having no great love of learning, is planning on living the kollel lifestyle, if only for a year or two. Viewed as an independent decision, this is irrational. Viewed as the perpetuation of a meme, it makes perfect sense.


  1. Chacham Tzvi From ThreeFebruary 2, 2010 at 1:18 PM

    Excellent post. Very thoughtful.

  2. Did you confront your brother with these thoughts?

  3. Not in detail, but maybe I should. I did point out to him that he should consider that any girl interested in the kollel life would probably also expect him to go to shul regularly and have a yeshivish worldview.