Ben-Gurion, the Klausenberger Rebbe, and the Year I Left Torah Vodaath

By Fishman, Philip | Midstream, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Ben-Gurion, the Klausenberger Rebbe, and the Year I Left Torah Vodaath


Fishman, Philip, Midstream


The dominant Orthodox institution in Williamsburg, Brooklyn from the 1920s to the 1960s was the Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, where I was educated from the first grade until I graduated from its Mesifta high school in 1960, and left to attend Brooklyn College. My classmates mostly continued Talmudic studies at Torah Vodaath, attending evening college if they went to college at all. Some, more liberal, went to Yeshiva University. Only a few, like me, left the world of formal Jewish "learning" at age 17.

Under the lasting influence of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, who guided the institution for nearly three decades until his death in 1948, Torah Vodaath pressured graduates to continue on in the school as full time Talmudic students until they received rabbinic ordination, and not to attend college. As a compromise with economic and social realities, it reluctantly allowed its post high school students to attend college night school. My break after high school graduation was regarded by my rabbinical mentors as transgressive.

I left a world that was surgically bifurcated. Each day until 2 p.m., we boys studied Talmud, taught with variations of the traditional pilpulistic approach imported from pre-war Lithuanian yeshivas. Talmud study was considered devotional, a form--indeed the highest form--of religious worship. Rabbinical faculty had outright disdain and hostility towards historical or philosophical explorations of these texts. There was no room in the formal curriculum for biblical studies or Jewish literature and history. These were considered far less compelling and demanding than Talmud--and also associated with "transgressive" innovations of the Reform and Conservative movements.

After Talmud study, classes in secular subjects were taught from two to six p.m., fulfilling a New York State law requiting teenagers to attend a school with an approved secular curriculum until age 16. Echoing a Yiddish speaking immigrant past, these were known as "English classes", though the subject matter was that of a standard public high school curriculum, including foreign languages, history, science, mathematics, and civics.

I enjoyed warm relationships with some of the school faculty. The principal of the "English Department", i.e. the secular part of the high school, was Rabbi Yaakov Lonner, a refugee from Germany. In addition to his administrative talents he was also a fine mathematician and my excellent teacher of trigonometry and advanced algebra during that last senior year. He taught these elective classes after regular school hours, between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. for motivated students. As we lived within a block of each other, on cold winter nights, Rabbi Lonner would frequently ask that I accompany him on the one mile walk to his home. As we passed dark and isolated streets he glanced furtively around. I had the feeling that he was still traumatized by his youthful experiences in Germany.

Other teachers of secular subjects were secular Jews, products of the Depression, who taught at public high schools during morning hours, and had little understanding or sympathy for the religious goals of the institution. They were viewed with suspicion by the administration. Mr. Lieberman, for example, taught American history but had as his real agenda converting our young minds to recognize the virtues of socialism. He regularly challenged us as to why AT&T ("Ma Bell"), which at the time had a near total national monopoly on telephone service, spent so much money on TV advertising. He suggested that AT&T was part of a sinister capitalist conspiracy that secretly controlled the country.

My English teacher, Mr. Diamond, was an irreverent, chain-smoking, and occasionally ribald personality, with a great admiration for Shakespeare and Shaw, who tried vainly to impart literary values to a frequently recalcitrant and unresponsive group of students. Shortly before graduation in 1960, Mr. …

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