Growing Up Orthodox
Wake Up, Wake Up, to Do the Work of the Creator.
by William B. Helmreich.
Harper & Row. 210 pp. $8.95.
When Mimi Sheraton, the New York Times food critic, writes that there are 83 kosher restaurants in New York and adds (realizing it does make a difference) that one of the most famous of them, while strictly kosher, is not glatt kosher, then one knows that the New Orthodoxy has arrived. The statistics of this phenomenon, at least, are impressive enough: more than 6,500 students of the Talmud at the post-high-school level, academies of advanced learning springing up even in the Sun Belt, day schools that now account for fully one-fifth of all students receiving a Jewish education, and a host of institutions, from the most spiritual to the most mundane, adapting themselves to a more fervent and adamant religiosity.
The view one takes of these developments is likely to depend on one’s own religious predispositions, but whatever one’s view, it remains the case that the phenomenon of the New Orthodoxy of the postwar period has been too little studied. A 1965 article by Charles S. Liebman in the American Jewish Year Book remains the standard work, now supplemented by the recent essays of David Singer in COMMENTARY.1 AS for imaginative depictions of Orthodox life, we have had to do thus far with the writing of Chaim Potok, who is, to say the least, somewhat deficient as a chronicler. So far there has been nothing that resembles a literate account from within the New Orthodox camp itself—at least not until this attempt by William B. Helmreich.
Helmreich, born in 1945 to survivors of the Holocaust, was brought to this country as an infant, and Wake Up, Wake Up, to Do the Work of the Creator is a recollection of growing up Orthodox on New York’s Upper West Side in the 1950’s. The memoir focuses on the years immediately before and after bar mitzvah—years in which Helmreich attended a yeshivah day school, played and studied at a very Orthodox summer camp, and, finally, spent a crucial year at a yeshivah whose name appears here as “Gates of Israel.” Throughout, Helmreich tries to convey the quality of Orthodox life by describing in elaborate detail the observance of Sabbaths and festivals in his home. The book thus proceeds through the Jewish calendar, informing the reader about Orthodox practice and attempting to communicate as well the “feel” of Orthodox life.
A fateful year for the young Helmreich was the one in which he left New York for his freshman year of high school at “Gates of Israel.” Helmreich’s elementary school had been a “modern institution, by Orthodox standards,” at which boys and girls together undertook a double program of general and Jewish studies. There, Helmreich had acquired the basics of a Jewish education, ranging from an initiation into the mysteries of the Talmud to the bricolage of day-school culture: trips to the Jewish Museum, TV appearances on the Sunday religious hour, inspection tours of matzah factories. There was no conflict between the observant life as taught in school and as practiced at home. This “balanced” world was tipped somewhat when Helmreich went off to camp. There he met boys from less “modern” backgrounds than his own (unlike his school, the camp was segregated by sex); and when, after wandering into a neighboring bungalow colony and befriending a girl, he was severely reprimanded by his counselor, he came to see that being Orthodox was more problematic than he had been led to think. A counselor “who exemplified everything I wanted to be” advised the young man to enter “Gates of Israel,” “an institution approximately two hundred miles from New York and universally recognized as belonging to the ‘Ivy League’ of such institutions,” there to become a better Jew.
At “Gates of Israel,” Helmreich entered a new world, with new styles of dress (“large black yarmulkes, plain pants and jackets, white shirts open at the collar, with woolen fringes hanging down the waist at both ends”) and a new and apparently negative attitude to secular study. He came to believe that “the brand of Orthodoxy practiced by those in [his elementary school] was as different from that to which I was now being exposed as it was from the non-Orthodox Jewish community.” After a year of allowing himself to become absorbed in the intense study of “Torah for Torah’s sake,” he decided to leave, not out of religious rebellion but out of a desire to devote more time to secular subjects. As the book ends, the author has come home to the more “acceptable” Orthodoxy of his parents.
In focusing on day school, summer camp, and yeshivah, Helmreich’s memoir is valuable in suggesting how the New Orthodoxy even two decades ago was sufficiently institutionalized to make its present growth comprehensible. Equally useful is the book’s delineation of the tensions that exist between the Orthodox laity and the life it has made for itself in the United States on the one hand, and many of the institutions which that laity has built up on the other.
Unfortunately, Helmreich’s memoir suffers from his decision to portray the New Orthodoxy in terms of a child’s experience. The first fatality of this decision is the book’s narrative style, which wavers hopelessly between what the author imagines to be the way a child thinks and records experience and a clumsily ironic commentary that is supposed to embody the voice of maturity. Another and more serious problem arising out of the same “child’s-eye” view of things is the persistent reliance on stereotyped situations and characterizations, at the expense of any more complex or nuanced portrayal of what the New Orthodox life is actually like. Thus, the young and innocent yeshivah student is beset, Potok-like, by the twin temptations of “science” (“As my geography teacher discussed life in faraway lands. . . I was gripped by a desire to know more about them”) and sensuality (“I found myself unable to speak to, yet unable to draw away from contact with, this girl who became the embodiment of my dreams and desires”). The mawkish tone here carries over to the sentimentalizing of religious life at home, as holidays become “an oasis of joy amid the dreariness of New York City’s tenements,” or “an island in the midst of an alien world.”
The strait-jacketed, black-jacketed institution Helmreich portrays as “Gates of Israel” is actually (as my own one-year experience there, and the experience of many others, can attest), a much richer, more human, more interesting place than one would suspect from this book. For every student who thought of nothing but the day’s Talmud lesson there was another who thought of a great deal more; above all, there was a widespread attempt to make sense of the role of a yeshivah training when its professed ideological aim—“every student a future talmudic giant”—was patently preposterous.
Helmreich confines himself to an analysis of yeshivah life in terms of pubescent conflicts, and neglects the vastly more intriguing issues raised by that life for contemporary Orthodoxy. Although Wake Up, Wake Up . . . tells us in great detail about the daily routine of the yeshivah, it never quite puts its finger on what distinguishes the “Gates of Israel” from the world of Helmreich’s parents and elementary school. The crux of the matter is that the latter world holds out the promise of combining a life of religious observance with general education, college, and professional advancement—briefly, the middle-class dream as it is dreamed by Orthodox Jews—while the former entails a single-minded commitment to study for its own sake that effectively forecloses any such dream. Attending yeshivah, in other words, is as much a social and economic choice as it is a religious one. The important question about the New Orthodox is how they make this choice once they reach an age—considerably later than Helmreich suggests—when they can do so in a reasonably independent and socially meaningful way.
Today’s Orthodox are at once more acculturated to America and less acculturated than their predecessors. Charles S. Liebman pointed out in 1965 that “the Orthodox who value secular education only for its vocational benefits have in a sense deliberately rejected acculturation,” but today a confluence of factors—among them the general decline of the old ideal of liberal education and the corresponding professional and vocational orientation of undergraduate education, the growth and legitimation of Jewish studies within the academy, and the proliferation of career opportunities in various Jewish communal institutions—has enabled many Orthodox individuals to attain positions that carry prestige and social status while remaining within the Orthodox fold. The tensions and contradictions inherent in this situation—one in which a growing number of Jews are both a part and not a part of American society in a new and distinctive way—offer a prime subject for investigation by a rigorous sociology and a perceptive imagination. Helmreich’s memoir only vaguely suggests the outlines of this subject.
1 See, for example, “The Growth of the Day-School Movement,” August 1973; “Voices of Orthodoxy,” July 1974; “The Yeshivah World,” October 1976.