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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Birth Of A Leather-Kippah Jew

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Honesty, integrity, morality, sensitivity, passion, meaning – all these seemed to me to be missing from the world, and all seemed to be present in that beis medrash.

So I walked out of the yeshiva racked as if by a fever. The things I wanted most seemed to reside within. Yet my values were not welcome there. I was not welcome there.

I went to war. Desperate to somehow, some way, find a space where I could recreate the passion and values of the yeshiva, I fought raging battles across different times and dimensions.

I found a more tolerant yeshiva that granted me entrance. I got along well enough.

Then one Shabbos I shared a table with a kollel fellow and some friends. I was waxing eloquent on something or other I had read in the Jerusalem Post when a strange quiet descended. I continued, trying to explain myself, figuring they had misunderstood something I’d said. When I finished, the room was as deathly still as a funeral home.

Finally, as if to rescue me, the ba’al habyis offered me a fig leaf of support: “I guess, if you read the Jerusalem Post on Friday afternoon, after seder – well, I guess it’s all right,” he stammered.

It had never occurred to me that I needed permission to read the newspaper, or that doing so could be a bad thing. Reading a newspaper was a simple value of mine. Not Torah, to be sure, but a value nevertheless, and one I could not wish away no matter how much I tried.

* * * * *

Having failed at yeshiva, I joined the ranks of working bnei Torah – those whose hearts and souls remain in yeshiva even as their bodies are occupied with their jobs. Evenings were devoted to night seder and vacation time to a full-immersion Yarchei Kallah Torah-study program. I could show my secular side by day, all the while knowing it was just an act – my heart still lived in the yeshiva.

One day while riding the subway I met a friend who summed up my life perfectly. “I’m Superman,” he quietly confided. Either he had gone crazy or I had heard wrong, so I asked him to repeat himself.

“I’m Superman,” he said again. “I get up in the morning, and I’m tatty. Then I go into my room, lace up my wingtips, and I’m an entirely different person: I’m Joey the banker. Like Superman.”

But I wasn’t Superman. Much as I tried, I simply could not live divided against myself that way.

The downfall came quickly. The following Yom Kippur, I found myself struggling while klapping Al Cheit, having a hard time understanding just what I regretted, just what my sins were. Nothing came.

Suddenly, to my horror, I found myself regretting what I hadn’t done. As though I’d been seized by a dybbuk, each klap was accompanied with a vow that next year I would have something truly to be sorry for. I certainly didn’t mean to violate halacha, or to leave the frum community. But still, it was as if deep inside of me other values of mine were asserting themselves too, insisting that my greatest sin was not what I had done, but what I had failed to do.

I had failed to be truly alive, to be true to the full nature of my own self.

Yom Kippur concluded, I put my black hat back in its box. In its place, I took out an old T-shirt and jeans.

* * * * *

I briefly reveled in my newfound freedom. I could do anything and be anyone I wanted, restrained only by own conscience and the basic strictures of halacha. But I found that without being consciously attached to the world of the yeshiva, my religious devotion began to wane. Even my non-religious values seemed at risk.

Being frum and being a mensch, to me, were tied together like strands of a rope. Without one, I could see, I would have trouble being the other.

I stumbled around a little longer, and then, suddenly, the war was over; the fever had broken. Like a bee or a lion cub in a Disney movie, I had finished my journey and was ready to come home.

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2 Responses to “Birth Of A Leather-Kippah Jew”

  1. Ronnie Urfrend says:

    Beautiful!!

  2. Eli Mandel says:

    Takeaway: the yeshiva system makes people feel inadequate and tries to keep itself exclusive that way because it actually doesn't provide a deep enough meaning.

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Editor’s Note: In our July 13 front-page essay, “Birth of a Leather-Kippah Jew,” Mordecai Bienstock described his personal journey on the path to becoming what he called a “Leather Kippah Jew.” Here he elaborates on that vision.

“Let me be honest with you,” the rosh yeshiva began.

It was not a good sign. I was sitting for a farher, an entrance interview, with the rosh yeshiva of a well-known yeshiva in Jerusalem, and it was about to go very badly.

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