Viennese Pastries vs. Pickled Herring

On May 30 I posted below some sketchy thoughts (“American versus Israeli haredi sector”) I had in my initial reaction to a Jerusalem Post op-ed by Elliot Jager “American haredi triumph” . There were quite a few comments by people who read my blog entry and this stimulated me to write a more formal essay, which appeared in the Opinion section of the Jerusalem Post today (24 b Iyar, 2 June) as US Haredim versus Israeli and subtitled: Viennese Pastries versus Pickled Herring. (BTW the Post was very fair and added a complimentary photograph of Ponivezh yeshiva students in heated debate). In the essay I try to respond to and incorporate some of the issues the Cross-currents comments raised and I want to express my appreciation here for the feedback.

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via

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6 Responses

  1. Shimon says:

    Nice piece, but just a technical quibble.

    “It is true that the average Brooklyn Mir yeshiva student studies accounting at Brooklyn College night school”

    That’s certainly not the case. In fact, the average Brooklyn Mir yeshiva student couldn’t and wouldn’t go to (sex-segregated) Touro College at night if he wanted to, let alone Brooklyn College.

  2. Justin A says:

    The article is wonderfull for it’s attempt to avoid machloket… but.. you missed the point. No one would ever argue that spending 100% of your time on one subject would not make you a greater expert (all other factors being equal). No one would argue that Talmud Torah is central to the existance of a Jew.

    One does wonder however if a life intentionaly divorced from gashmiut is really holy in the Jewish context. Was the Chafets Chaim the preminent leader of his generation inspite of or because he worked daily at his makolet? Is the job of a Jew in this world to follow the chasidic concept, discovering the real pinimiut and throwing off the yoke of this world. Or is it like Rav Solovetchik, to ebrace the imperfect physical world and transform it into the perfection it is aspired to in the Torah.

    It certainly isn’t the our goal to have the ritziest wedding/barmitzvah/brit we can afford; tempting as it is. What is pereferable to travel the middle road, or to take refuge from gashmiut entirely in ruchniot?

    (let’s not forget the excesess and issues that a ruchniot life style has created in the Israeli Haredi sector)

  3. jabrams says:

    what comments from your commenters did you incorporate?

    any number of commenters (myself included) wrote in to tell you that the analogy is in the opposite direction – the israeli teenagers learn like hungarians, with less analysis and understanding. That any advantage of israeli teens in knowledge is in large part due to language, and that the americans catch up easily, with the exception of torah shebiktav (which you were not discussing in this piece).

    so why do you persist & publish that the level of learning among israeli kids is higher than american kids, when many argue that this is not the case?

    “it is true that the average Brooklyn Mir yeshiva student studies accounting at Brooklyn College night school”

    this was true twenty-five or thirty years ago (and even then not “average” students), not today.

    “But if Jerusalem were to become more Americanized, why would the thousands of haredim from abroad come to Mir for total immersion in Torah and Talmud?”

    a major reason is to get away from family and other local distractions.

    “The issue of East versus West is personified by Rabbi Yaakov Yehiel Weinberg”

    no, that would be torah im derech eretz, MO vs charedi, not american charedi vs israeli charedi.

    “Second, the learning in Israel is relatively more profound”

    in Israel you have many men who are avoiding army service, and a socialist government that helps them out, so fewer men enter the workforce and more stay in kollel very long term. This has nothing to do with the educational system and teenagers (as you insinuate earlier in your article), the overall profundity of learning, or opposition to secular education.

  4. Max says:

    A number of points on Mrs. Shmidt jpost article:
    1) Number of boutique stores is not a good measure of the level of materialism. Just because t public can not afford to support larger number of such stores does not indicate that this public is not materialistic, and does not wish to invest in gashmius, had it had the means. I am afraid that the danger is the opposite. If people are forced to choose between haredi lifestyle and material wellbeing, they may either choose the latter or grudgingly stay true to their ideals, while harboring unquenched materialism and a sense of lost opportunity.
    2) The first point is illustrated by the fact that the great Eastern European yeshivot were also a hot-bed of leftwing radicalism. Certainly a few extremely pious individuals can sacrifice all or most physical comforts for maximum spiritual gain, but many spiritually require certain level of physical comfort to have any spiritual success what so ever. Does Israeli haredi education system address the needs of latter group?
    3) Finally the nature of yeshivah education has changed significantly since the end of nineteenth century / beginniing of twentieth century. Today it is rarely feasible for a person to become financially self-sufficient without obtaining certain set of technical skills. The time invested in the pursuit of these skills does take away from tiem allocated to Torah study (I am not sure if Allmighty does not send additional Heavenly assistence to those who combine pursuit of Torah and bread). Members of Haredi community and their children should not choose between staying within community and obtaining such skills. So the question is what is the right place where these skills can be taught? Can it be done within the walls of Yeshivah, or in a separate technical focused haredi institutions which lack challenges and foolishness of secular universities. But it must be done somewhere! Otherwise we will be looking at continued systematic poverty, unfullfilled potential, unfullfilled but powerful material drive, and G-d forbid, continued exodus out of Yiddishkeit.

  5. Menachem Petrushka says:

    Mrs. Schmidt bemoans the fact that there are more and more fancy boutiques in Jerusalem’s charedi areas. I on the other hand rejoice at the chasdei hashem.

    Did not Rabbi Yishmael cry out
    “Indeed, all Daughters of Israel are beautiful, only that poverty renders them unattractive.” Nedarim 61.

    Poverty and its accompanying unattractiveness are neither virtues
    nor things to be wished for.

  6. Zev says:

    “One does wonder however if a life intentionaly divorced from gashmiut is really holy in the Jewish context.”

    Come on, this is a very old machlokes: harbei asu … v’harbei asu …

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