Learning With My Grandson

My grandson was excited.  His yeshiva was having a Sunday morning program to celebrate his 5th-grade class’s start to learning Gemara.  This would begin with Shacharit and continue with breakfast, speeches, songs, and a presentation to the boys.  Fathers and grandfathers were invited.  Mothers, sisters, and grandmothers were not invited.

“Women should not come to this,” one of the Rebbes had told a group of mothers, just in case they were unclear on the point.  “And if your sons have any questions about their Gemara homework, you do not help them.  They should go to their fathers.”

My daughter-in-law sounded more perplexed than annoyed when she told me this.  “Some of the mothers were pretty learned themselves,” my son added.  “One is a yoetzet halacha trained by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.”

“What did she say when she heard that she couldn’t help out with Gemara homework?” I asked.

“She just shrugged,” he said.

The Sunday program was well-organized.  After breakfast (bagels, lox, red onions, slabs of cream cheese, donated by a local caterer), we returned to the shul.  A young boy raced by, saw me, and stopped to hold the door.  Manners toward elders (middos) are both taught and learned here.

For the benefit of his father and both grandfathers, our young man zipped through an amud of Hamafkid, the traditional first chapter I learned myself starting out.  That was back in 6th grade, to the annoyance of my own zeyde.  He disapproved of my Ivrit B’Ivrit Day School and wondered why they took so long to start Gemara.  My grandson knew his stuff, too.  He read fluently, and actually understood what he was saying.

The speeches by selected boys, nicely turned-out in suits and ties, were brisk and short.  Then the guest speaker rose, a Rebbe from one of the numberless Brooklyn yeshivas.  He told a story about President Harry Truman, quoting a man he identified as serving later as a Member of the Israeli Knesset.  (This is noteworthy.  My grandson’s school, though yeshivish in orientation, is rather Zionist.)

“Truman did not want to support the creation of the State of Israel,” said the speaker.  “He didn’t want to go against the Arabs.  But he said, ‘I have learned that the Jews follow the Torah, and the Torah is the essence of all creation.  And so I am going to support the Jewish State.’”

This version of events might surprise those who thought Truman’s change of heart had more to do with the urgings of his former Kansas City business partner Eddie Jacobson.  But never mind.

Then the speaker told another story, this one about a religious old man who flew from Israel to America.  “A secular Israeli, a chiloni, asked him how he managed to get such a good seat in first class,” he said.  “’My son arranged it,’ said the old man, ‘so I would be more comfortable.’

“’I wish my son would do that for me,’” said the chiloni.

“’Tell me,’” said the old man, “in the school you sent your children to, do they teach the theory evolution?’

“’Evolution?  Of course!’’” said the secular Jew.

“’Then what do you expect?’ said the religious man.  “’Evolution teaches that the older generation is one step closer to the monkeys.  Why should they have any respect for you?  My children learn that parents and grandparents are closer to Har Sinai and our Avos.  That’s why they treat us with respect.’

“’How many grandchildren do you have?’” continued the old man.

“‘Three,” said the chiloni.

“’I have sixteen!’” said the old man.

Our speaker then concluded his remarks by encouraging the boys and praising their families.

I glowed with nostalgia.  The haredi line hadn’t changed since I heard it as a kid in summer camp all those years ago.  The defiant self-confidence.  The indifference to historical facts, at least as others understand them.  The insistence on building yourself up by tearing your rivals down.   Tradition!

Historical figures may have lived, but their only value is to teach.  In the Rebbe’s reckoning, Harry Truman could just as well have been the Roman general Vespasian.  Vespasian’s purpose on earth was to establish the yeshiva at Yavne.  Truman’s was to create the State of Israel.  Anything else about them is trifling irrelevance.

As for the speaker’s airplane story, he could have had the frum old man point with quiet pride at his kind son and prolific offspring, and let the secular Jew draw his own conclusions.  No!  It is necessary to gloat at your own success and superiority (16 grandchildren!), to denigrate your opponent (everyone different is an opponent), and to dismiss modern notions in the crudest possible way.  (Women cannot understand Gemara!  Seculars are closer to the monkeys!  Ha!)

Yes, indeed.  The yeshiva world is every bit as charming as I remember it.

Of course, all this polemical stuff was lost on my grandson, who glowed with excitement and pride.  Soon he would get his very own dark-wood mini-shtender to put seforim on.  He will have plenty of time to figure out the politics behind the program, which he can then accept, reject, or ignore altogether.  Who really listens to speeches anyway?

In the meantime, all he wants to do is learn Torah.  He has four study chavrusas on the phone every week, one of them with me.  He is eager, enthusiastic, and his mind is like a sponge.  Having a chance to connect with a grandchild about something that actually matters is something no grandparent should take for granted, certainly not this Saba.

The larger yeshivish package holds many attractive elements.  It promotes study, seriousness of purpose, reverence for tradition, and respect for teachers and parents, none of which seem high on the current American child-rearing agenda.  It offers deep and, nurturing warmth (to those inside).   It also includes smug self-satisfaction, fierce and contemptuous rhetoric (toward those outside), and a dodgy approach to what the rest of world likes to think of as “facts.”

That my own yiddishe nachas should come as a direct result of this mixed package is, I suppose, ironic.  But that is for thinking about some other time.

Irony tomorrow.  Chumash and Rashi tonight.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff lives in Newton, Massachusetts