Mordecai Bienstock’s Dec. 24 front-page essay – “Death of the Blue-Hat Jew?” – was an interesting, important, and for the most part accurate assessment of what is happening today in Jewish America.
The author injected into his wonderfully well-written piece a warm feeling of nostalgia, invoking a time when we were able to enjoy family meals on Thanksgiving Day without any guilt. He was also quite articulate in describing the evolutionary process that gave birth to religious Zionism and rise to ultra-Orthodox – or what we today call haredi – Judaism.
What he failed to mention, however, was how the “Blue-Hat Jew” became that way in the first place and how he arrived at that not-too-frum-and-not-too-frei niche on the spectrum of Jewish religiosity.
When we fully understand the circumstances or events that created the so-called Blue-Hat Jew, I believe we will better understand why we now have this schism in Orthodox life, which Mr. Bienstock understandably laments.
At the turn of the century, more specifically between 1880 and the start of World War I in 1914, about 2 million Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews immigrated from Eastern Europe, mostly from Russia and Russian-controlled portions of Poland. My mother, a”h, was part of that wave of immigrants. The majority of those Jews settled in New York City.
Jewish leaders at the time urged assimilation and integration into the wider culture, and Jews quickly became part of American life. My mother and most of her co-religionists and co-immigrants spoke with very pronounced Yiddish accents, which was considered an embarrassment by younger Jews who strove desperately to shed that old-time tradition and become real “Yankees.”
It was not only the Yiddish accents that caused discomfort to many Jews; the European mannerisms also plagued and even humiliated young Jewish Americans as they strove more and more to distance themselves from their immigrant parents. Nor was it only the children who felt this way; it was the dream of most immigrant parents to make sure their children not only had a better life than they had, but that they were accepted as equals by other Americans.
After World War II, Jewish families joined the trek to suburbia as they became wealthier and more mobile. The Jewish community expanded to other major cities, particularly around Los Angeles and Miami. Young Jews attended public high schools and secular colleges, met attractive and marriageable non-Jews, and in time intermarriage rates soared to nearly 50 percent.
I believe that even before the advent of wide-scale assimilation and intermarriage, Hashem had seen how His people were being decimated and sent a yeshuah in the form of the Young Israel movement. I believe the creation of Young Israel was a major factor in stemming the tide of assimilation, affording the children of religious immigrants the opportunity to mingle with truly American Jews, which was of paramount importance to them, while at the same time keeping them from abandoning, or even severing, their Jewish heritage.
Even so, when I attended Torah Vodaath in the early fifties, the Young Israel on Bedford Avenue was off limits to yeshiva students. To be caught attending Young Israel services was to risk severe penalties, even expulsion.
Though that punishment may be viewed as somewhat severe or an overreaction, the logic behind it was understandable. The philosophies and goals of the yeshiva and those of Young Israel were totally at odds with each other.
The reason d’être of the Young Israel movement was to attract young people who no longer wanted to be viewed as “shtetl Yidden” with long beards and peyos and all the other trappings of religious Jews. They wanted the clean-cut, modern American lifestyle, with English spoken correctly and without accents, with hats and jackets not being a requirement, with secular studies encouraged and admired, and with the freedom to socialize with their similarly situated peers.
I believe these are the people Mr. Bienstock was referring to when he used the term “Blue-Hat Jews.”
But that was a long time ago. Today, Baruch Hashem, we have thousands upon thousands of good, solid American boys learning in yeshivas. We have thousands of the more “modern” Jews who are in business or professions while at the same time scrupulously attending daily Daf Yomi lectures. The Young Israel movement itself, no longer merely a vehicle for stemming the tide of assimilation, is a shining example of how Jewish life has evolved.