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My great-great-grandfather, an encyclopedia, and a yeshiva education

My son's yeshiva education contradicts everything I know, except my desire for his happiness
Illustrative: An archival photo of diners at B&H Dairy restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side. (Courtesy)
Illustrative: An archival photo of diners at B&H Dairy restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side. (Courtesy)

This week, my son will graduate from a yeshiva high school and I credit my great-great-grandfather for making it happen.

At first glance, Jacob, a mid-19th century German immigrant to America, seems an unlikely inspiration for the merits of a yeshiva education in Israel. But several years ago, the chance discovery of a family memoir made him just that.

Jacob was what today would be called a helicopter parent. For his daughter, Rosie, he envisioned a musical career and purchased a second-hand piano that barely fit into their Manhattan tenement apartment. Despite Rosie’s lack of interest or talent, Jacob tied her to the piano stool and forced her to practice several hours a day. He wanted his son, Joseph, to become a physician, of no less than national eminence, and relentlessly pushed him to study hard in high school.

All of this was extreme, albeit understandable, behavior for an ambitious immigrant. Jacob himself had risen from peddling schmattas to selling custom eye glasses. At the end of each winter, he took the railroad out to the newly settled Great Plains. Travelling the length of Kansas and Missouri by stagecoach, he asked local innkeepers to display a poster bearing the self-proclaimed honorific of “professor,” despite never having finished high school. He returned home each winter with a full money belt and tales of those whom he had helped see better.

Yet like the shoeless cobbler or heartless cardiologist, Jacob was completely blind when it came to his own faults. One year, he made a tragic mistake: he purchased a set of Chalmers Encyclopedias. These books with their repository of knowledge must have seemed essential for the educated life to which Jacob himself aspired. But the costly purchase bankrupted the family. Joseph was forced to quit school and apprentice himself at a pharmacy. Rosie also dropped out of school to take a secretarial course. Jacob was apparently so humiliated that his utopian dreams for his children had shattered that he deserted the family, to the relief of everyone, including his long-suffering wife.

I thought about this extraordinary story of parenting gone wrong three years ago when my then 15-year-old son told me that he wished to study in a yeshiva boarding school. It was our first serious mother/son conflict.

The school had the minimum requirements for a high school diploma, but would emphasize religious over secular studies. It was far from the education that I wanted for him. I had already agreed, with trepidation, that he could move from a secular to religious school, but one that offered more secular studies than the new school he now wished to attend. I argued that he could do whatever he wanted when he was older, but that a solid secular high school education was a necessity. He argued that he was miserable and alienated from his classmates who weren’t imbued with his level of religious devotion.

I agreed to let him spend a weekend at the new yeshiva. He returned home excited and optimistic. He described the students as warm and welcoming, words I had never once heard him use when describing the several secular and religious schools he had attended both in Israel and the United States.

I agreed to accompany him for a second visit which confirmed many of my worst suspicions. It took at least two and half hours to commute there over a route that wasn’t especially safe. His dorm room was spartan with a thin mattress. Sometimes, he had already told me, there was no hot water in the shower and the food wasn’t great. To me, the school was something out of Oliver Twist minus the evil staff. I was appalled at the thought of my child attending this school.

I considered refusing to pay for the tuition costs. That’s what Jacob surely would have done. That’s what a lot of perfectly reasonable parents would have done. Maybe that’s what I should have done.

But, after weeks of deliberation, I thought about Jacob’s misguided attempts to force his children to achieve his dreams, not theirs. I had obligations as a parent, of course, but I also had to remember that my son was the student, not me.

I agreed that he could try the new school on a trial basis. A part of me hoped that he would hate it there and want to return home quickly. But I also understood that he needed, finally, to find a home away from home that suited his unique personality and needs. This yeshiva proved to be just that.

His move there strengthened our relationship and I eventually found several elements of the school to appreciate: caring teachers, nice students and, most of all, a happy child.

As a secular person, I remain skeptical of the merits of a primarily religious education and I disagree with several aspects of his education. Yet, I believe that allowing him to study there made up for, in a small but meaningful way, the actions of a great-great-grandfather whose vision of his children’s life ended up fracturing the family beyond repair.

According to the family memoir, some 40 years after his disappearance Jacob walked into the Greenwich Village pharmacy his adult son now owned. He had returned to peddling; his nascent optometry career having foundered. Joseph tenderly relieved him of his pack and let him rest.  But his son was then forced to send his father away again, so he wouldn’t create another scandal. Jacob died alone and broken, buried in some forgotten grave in Hoboken, New Jersey, a place familiar to me only during drives from New York to New Jersey. What a tragedy.

About the Author
Former journalist -- The Washington Times, USA Today, New York Daily News, Women's International Net -- among others. Co-author -- Arafat: A Political Biography (Oxford, 2001), Hating America (Oxford, 2003). Completed the Masters in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan.
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