I ran across this short Hanukka Davar HaTorah from Mir's rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, on YouTube. It's not easy to understand because Rabbi Finkel has Parkinson's Disease, and his speech is effected. He speaks faintly and haltingly as a result.
Rabbi Finkel also speaks with a Chicago accent. He was born there, I believe, but his mother Sarah is from Saint Paul, Minnesota. She grew up on 13th Street. My father, o.h., grew up on 14th Street. My father's older sisters were contemporaries and friends of Sarah in their preteen years.
Sarah Rosenblum was one of the few of her generation to remain Orthodox. I can count the others on the fingers of one hand, with fingers left over. No one in my father's family remained Orthodox, although his oldest sister kept a kosher home.
Sarah's father was a shochet and the family davened at the Russian, or Red, shul on 13th Street. My father's family davened at the Litvish, or White, shul on 14th. Solly and Maxie Weisberg lived down the block from Sarah's family. (More about both, who I knew well, later.) So did my friend Marv Edelstein, who told me Friday he ran a kosher chicken business from the time he was seven years old. The family had barns behind the house where Marv raised chickens. He hired a shochet – Meltzer, not Nosson Tzvi's grandfather – to shecht the chickens and Marv delivered them to homes in the neighborhood.
I grew up with Sarah's nephews. Their father, Sarah's youngest brother, was a contemporary of my father. Years ago, Victor was sitting next to me a shul meeting, a meeting where the rabbi was campaigning for a huge expansion of the shul's building. Victor, stunned at the scope and cost of the expansion, whispered to me, "Scotty, who does he think is going to pay for this?" Without pausing I replied, "You, Victor." Victor's hands clasped his chest and he let out a loud startled gasp. Heads turned. "You shouldn't joke like that," Victor hissed. "I'm not joking," was my reply. I left for Israel and a year of yeshiva shortly after that meeting. After first trying Kfar Chabad (for less than 24 hours – another story for another time), I settled in at Aish HaTorah. Eventually, Nosson Tzvi's brother Gedaliah was a teacher of mine there, but it would only be later, after I returned to Minnesota and Gedaliah came to visit his Uncle Victor and his cousins, that we both realized the connection. And, yes, Nosson Tzvi's Uncle Victor did pay for a large chunk of the shul's expansion.
My father's grandfather had his own shteibel for a few years on the far edge of that area of Saint Paul. But the Jewish community developed closer to downtown and eventually the little shtiebel closed. My great-grandfather became the shammash of both the 13th and 14th Street shuls but still lived almost a mile away. On rainy Shabbat evenings a priest from the Catholic church, impressed with my great-grandfather's religious dedication, used to walk him home under an open umbrella, afraid he would otherwise become ill from the rain and cold. My great-great grandfather also had, for a time, an informal after public school heder of sorts where he taught a few students the rudiments of Biblical Hebrew and basic davening, halakha and leining.This ended when Saint Paul's rabbis opened a formal Talumud Torah in about 1913.
So who else remained strictly Orthodox? Sarah Rosenblum Finkel did it by moving to Chicago, as did one of Marv Edelstein's relatives. The founder and gabbi of the only Orthodox shul in Saint Paul, Isaac Symes, was another. Then there was David Katz, a Navy boxing champion in WW2, shell-shocked and seriously damaged by the War. Dave worked as a milkman and then as a shipping clerk. When Sons of Jacob, the big Orthodox synagogue in Saint Paul, voted to join the Conservative Movement in the late 1970s, Dave was one of the few members to leave – perhaps the only member to leave, if the stories I heard in shul are true. He served as the shul's livery service, picking up several older members and, sometimes, a car-less college student for the minyan every morning and most evenings.
The last Orthodox rabbi of Sons of Jacob was Moishe Lichtman. Moishe, I later learned, grew up in Brooklyn. His grandfather was very close to the Satmar Rebbe, Yoel Teitlebaum. Moishe, who was an illui of sorts, used to sit on Reb Yoilish's lap during the Third Sabbath meal. Manis Friedman, a man without smicha, once dismissed Moishe Lichtman as a "BT" and "not a real rabbi." Moishe at 13 could have easily out-learned Manis at any age. Sons of Jacob became Beth Jacob. Its first and so far only Rabbi is Morris Allen of Hechsher Tzedek fame.
The other person to remain Orthodox was Nachman Liefschultz, a rag picker. His father had been a hasid of the Orsha Rebbe, a grandson of the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe. Rabbi Feller, the head Chabad shaliach here, took Russian "chief rabbi" Berel Lazar's father to Nachman's nursing home so Rabbi Lazar could see a "chossid from the Rebbe Rashab," not realizing Nachman's family were Orsha hasidim.
Nachman was mentally slow. It took him ten minutes or longer to write a check at the grocery store. Yet he still functioned as a hazzan and knew a lot of Torah, mostly agadata, by heart. His siblings all belonged to Conservative synagogues. In his 90s, blind and cancer-ridden, Nachman used to daven by heart in his nursing home bed. I was privileged to raise money and buy Nachman his last pair of tefillin, arba kanfot, and the mezzuzah for his nursing home door.
So why so few Orthodox Jews from those generations?
I don't know for sure. What I do know is the following:
- There were several significant scholars and dozens of haredi rabbis in Saint Paul from the early 1900s until just after WW2.
- I have never heard anything nice said about any of them, even the hasidishe rabbis of Saint Paul's West Side river flats..
- The town's chief rabbi, a Litvak, Rabbi Hurwitz, was known as the Roite Rav, not because he had red hair or a red shul but because he was so often red with anger. I have asked dozens of people about him over the years and never heard anything even remotely redeeming about his personality or behavior except from Marv Edelstein's brother-in-law, who was a MO rabbi for a time in Chicago. He spoke about Rabbi Hurwitz's "gadlus" in learning. None of Rabbi Hurwitz's children remained Orthodox. Rabbi Hurwitz was the rabbi of the 14th Street shul and the 13th Street shul, as well. As such, he had ample opportunity to abuse and persecute my great-grandfather. True to his nature, Rabbi Hurwitz passed on few of these opportunities. A few months before my great-grandfather died, after a particularly disgusting example of Rabbi Hurwitz's abuse, Hurwitz had a change of heart – spurred, in part, by the reaction of others who were disgusted with the chief rabbi's behavior. He apologized to my great-grandfather for the years of abuse and the mistreatment of his children and grandchildren. (Yes, the chief rabbi was petty enough to take out his anger on the children and grandchildren of his employees.)
- The rabbis fought among themselves, were seen as petty, and were little involved in the real lives of their congregations.
- The rabbis were Eastern European shtetlach rebbes trying to lead congregations in a western enlightened democracy. They had neither the language skills or the temper to minister to Americans, and they had disdain for those who could.
Orthodoxy lost the war with modernity because it behaved like Saint Paul's early rabbis. Rather than learning its lesson, much of Orthodoxy has instead repeated those errors, banning books and banning rabbis, finding heretics under every tallis and shtender, bickering and fighting, regressing, rather than progressing.
Demographic trends indicate Orthodoxy should become the dominant American Judaism by mid-century, but it won't be because it has attracted so many ba'alei teshuva or retained so many of its born members – the data says Orthodoxy has done none of this. Orthodoxy will dominate only because few others want to participate in a Judaism so fouled by petty-minded rivalries and short-sighted antics, or in what they perceive to be the irrelevancy of all Jewish streams and organizations. Jews are leaving the virtual shtetl in droves and newcomers – BTs and converts – do not come close to making up the loss. Orthodoxy may end up the last man standing but it won't be because it knocked anyone out of the ring – it will be because most people, even many Orthodox Jews, do not care enough to compete.
The farther away from Orthodoxy one goes, the farther away from the shtetlkeit and taboos one is is. This means it is far easier for a non-Orthodox Jew to leave Judaism. Often they do this without even noticing and without their friends and family noticing, as well.
This does not mean Orthodoxy is full of happy, contented members – far from it. It means it is full of members who are unhappy, who are trapped within Orthodoxy by taboo and draconian barriers. (What do I mean by draconian barriers? Just ask a Footsteps kid what it's like to lose your entire family, all your friends, your job, your home and all your social support in one day, and have that happen when you cannot read or write coherently in the English language and do not have a high school degree.)
In pre-Destruction Palestine, there was a fight between the school of Hillel the Elder and the school of Shammai. While we say today that we follow Hillel, what we really follow is Hillel's school after it had already lost many important battles to Shammai. As the Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbat 1:4) makes clear, Shammai was dirty fighter who broke rules and used violence to get his way. Much of our anti-gentile legislation comes from him and was 'adopted' only because Shammai resorted to violence against the school of Hillel to get his way.
But the real divide in those days was between Jews like Philo – who commanded a far lager following than did the rabbis – and assimilationist elements in the Jewish elite. Which side retained more Jews? Philo, by far.
We would all probably be followers of Philo if not for two quirks of history. The first was the Destruction, which wiped out the sacrificial cult and at the same time forced several generations of rabbis to get along and play fair. This created a synthesis of the Shammai and Hillel schools. (And this may have happened because many more Shammai followers died in the revolt against Rome. Why? Because Shammai's virulent hatred of all things gentile led them to believe the revolt was a good thing.) So the cultic opposition to rabbinic Judaism was destroyed at the same time rabbinic Judaism was forced to unify.
The second quirk of history was the Diaspora revolt in 117 CE against Rome, fueled by increasing Roman persecution. The revolt failed and dozens of Jewish communities across the Mediterranean disappeared as a result. Lacking both the Jerusalem Temple as a focal point and a developed unified system to unite them, the communities that survived the revolt were weak and broken. Most faded away. Some remained, eventually adopting rabbinic Judaism during the standardization campaign waged by Babylonian rabbis after the completion of the Babylonian Talmud 400 or more years later.
Babylonian Jews did not participate in either revolt or in the revolt led by Bar Kohba in the 130s CE. They also lived under non-Roman and non-Greek rule, and did not face the challenges of science and philosophy faced by the Jews of Palestine and the Hellenist diaspora. Instead, Babylonian Judaism thrived on the folk superstitions and primitive theologies of the region. While the Greeks had deduced the existence of molecules and atoms, Babylonians 'divined' the future by casting and 'reading' chicken bones. Our Judaism is primarily a derivative of Babylonian Judaism.
Perhaps that is why Judaism as we know it thrives in closed societies but flounders in open ones, and why the most blatant pagan superstitions find a welcoming home in Jewish mysticism, hasidism and kabbala.
Where are Babylonian Jews today? Many became Muslim, often converting by choice, not by the sword, before the year 1100. Babylonian Judaism could not handle the intellectual and scientific challenges brought by Islam, just as it later would fail to handle the challenges of modernity, enlightenment and science in the west.
Given the chance, Jews opt for openness, knowledge and progress. The challenge for Jewish leaders is to constantly reinvent Judaism so that it can meet the challenges posed.
The ghetto never wins. It may temporarily keep Jews trapped inside Judaism, but eventually ghetto walls fall and Jews leave in droves, just like they left before, just like they are leaving today.