Soulmate Wanted

By Yehudah Mirsky
Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Slowly but surely, the divide between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in Israeli society is ebbing. But in one sector it continues to stand fast. This is the community of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, obsessed with issues of purity and boundaries—to the point of not only separating from other Israelis, religious and non-religious alike, but, on the part of Ashkenazi Haredim, enforcing strict internal divisions between themselves and their ethnically suspect and allegedly less rigorous Sephardi brethren.

The acuteness of this internal obsession was made painfully clear last summer when Ashkenazi Haredim in one Israeli town preferred to go to jail rather than obey a court order mandating that their schools integrate Sephardi children with their own. In the face of such fanaticism, even Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, towering Sephardi authority and victim of Ashkenazi condescension all his life, held his tongue.

In recent weeks, the issue has come up again as Rabbi Haim Amsalem of the Sephardi Shas party, a maverick member of the Knesset, called for introducing general studies in Haredi yeshivas and for persuading the vast majority of able-bodied Haredim to enter the work force. For good measure, Amsalem added a plea to end Sephardi obeisance to the ideologies and prejudices of Ashkenazi Haredim. His challenge to ultra-Orthodox fundamentals has set off a political storm. 

The same fierce inner divide is also at the heart of a powerful new novel, Yedid Nefesh ("Soul's Beloved"), by Ari Eitan, a young Sephardi and first-time author. The latest in a burgeoning Israeli genre of spiritual memoirs written from within Orthodoxy, Eitan's is also one of the first to emanate specifically from the Haredi world. It is based on his own experiences as a student in an elite Ashkenazi yeshiva (one of the so-called "Lithuanian" yeshivas, modeled on the great institutions that flourished in Eastern Europe). Since its publication, the book has garnered positive reviews and stimulated discussion in less-inhibited Haredi internet forums. 

The book's narrative spans nine months, an appropriate interval for its protagonist's costly gestation, labor, and rebirth. Seventeen-year-old Tsiyon ("Zion") Taharani (the family name implies both purity and Persian origins), a diligent pupil from a poor Jerusalem family, enters the prestigious Ishrovitz yeshiva as the winner of a coveted slot in the "Sephardi quota" rigorously maintained by supreme Haredi authorities.  Admittance to the yeshiva, as to any elite academic institution, promises intellectual challenge and social advancement (within limits—Tsiyon knows he can never dream of marrying a Haredi girl from an Ashkenazi family).

But Tsiyon is no less driven by a longing for absolute spiritual spotlessness and submission to God, ideals he sees as incarnate in the intense and august yeshiva.

For the sake of these sacred ends he is willing to endure the rigors of endless study, punctilious observance, the relentless policing of earthly desires—and the institution's unapologetic anti-Sephardi racism. Time and again, the fact of his inherent inferiority is reinforced by explicit reminders by others that he is there on sufferance, by the efforts of his fellow Sephardi students to hide their origins, and by the free use around him of the epithet "Frenck," the Israeli equivalent of the "n"-word.

Try though he might, Tsiyon also cannot find a havruta, a study partner—until, that is, he meets Amram Biton, a dirt-poor Sephardi from the desert town of Beersheva who, even more than Tsiyon, bears the fine lineaments of his non-Ashkenazi spiritual heritage: a gentle piety, accompanied by the eschewal of intellectual gymnastics in favor of a more prosaic understanding of the plain sense of holy texts. Amram is desperate to gain entry to the beit midrash, the great communal study hall; in a tragicomic episode, he succeeds when Tsiyon blackens his friend's ragged fedora with enough shoe polish to meet the yeshiva's unforgiving dress code.

As the novel progresses, the yeshiva is swept up in a bitter leadership struggle between two leading rabbis. The students, with few legitimate outlets for their youthful energies, are egged on by their spiteful elders to choose sides. Soon enough the place descends into a maelstrom of character assassination and physical violence. (Fantastical though it may seem, struggles like these have racked great yeshivas past and present.)  Throughout, Tsiyon and Amram keep their distance and maintain their idyll of study, but finally one of the dueling rabbis decides to enlist them in his ranks, setting in motion a chain of events with, for Amram, a terrible end.

On the long walks he takes in search of peace and perspective, Tsiyon repeatedly encounters a homeless Jerusalemite named Isaiah who quotes Maimonides but seems more like one of the sages that roam the pages of the Zohar. Isaiah speaks in a mix of deep faithfulness and rich inner freedom, worlds away from dogmatic certainty. "The one thing keeping you from seeing the truth," he tells Tsiyon, "is the belief that you already know it."

By the story's end, broken by tragedy but liberated by this gentle wraith, Tsiyon decides that he must leave, not Judaism or God but the Haredi world.  To an incredulous classmate's question: "Are you Haredi or not?," he answers: "I want to serve God. And in truth, I tend to think that, if I want to be a servant of God, it is forbidden for me to be Haredi. . . . I've understood that the Torah lies in a corner, and whoever wants to can pick it up and become a servant of the Holy Blessed One."

Ari Eitan's descriptions of the contortions undergone by his young characters for the sake of abstract religious ideals—sacred transfiguration,  forgiveness, transcendence—and for the approval of the authority figures who seem to embody those ideals will stretch the credence of many readers. They stretched this reader's, too, until he recalled that he had once been quite like them. Still, one wishes that Eitan had rounded his portrait with evidence of the genuinely compelling sides of yeshiva life, especially the intellectual intensity that is its chief drawing power and greatest collective achievement.

There can be no doubt, however, that institutionalized contempt for Sephardim is the official norm in Israel's Ashkenazi-dominated Haredi society, rooted not only in historic privilege but in the ideology of a self-described spiritual and intellectual elite at war with the surrounding culture. (Shas and its yeshivas hardly figure in Eitan's story, except as a sad, pale imitation of Ashkenazi dogmatics.) Although cruelty, prejudice, power games, and emotional obtuseness are hardly unique to ultra-Orthodoxy, the movement invests its institutions and authorities with superhuman legitimacy and rectitude, rendering them blind to their own baser impulses and impervious to critique.

Israeli though he is, Eitan writes in a self-consciously traditional Hebrew. This has its strong moments, though the novel's prose rarely achieves the lyric power of the Cairo-born writer Haim Sabato, whose fiction (Aleppo Tales, Adjusting Sights, The Dawning of the Day) redeems the honor of Sephardi spirituality by drawing deeply from the well of its rabbinic and liturgical legacies. As for Eitan's characters, though movingly drawn, they tend to one-dimensionality, and in limning them he hardly attains the psychological depth of the greatest chronicler of yeshiva life, Chaim Grade.   

Modern Jewish literature produced a flood of autobiographical novels tracing their protagonists' painful way out of traditional society and religion, typically ending up lost and with nowhere to go. In contrast to such utterly uprooted souls, Eitan's Tsiyon has no doubt that union with God and Torah are waiting and in some sense looking for him, if only he can find the right path. Without reducing Eitan's fictional intensities to mere sociology, one may observe that present-day Israel does in fact offer a broader horizon of spiritual possibilities than did Eastern Europe—and, perhaps more importantly, a free society in which to explore them. 

And so it is that in the book's last, haunting pages, Tsiyon buries the past (along with his and Amram's hats) on the outskirts of Jerusalem as he prepares to set out on a new and uncharted course. Having seen religious life at its ugliest, he is comforted by the exquisite 16th-century hymn Yedid Nefesh, an entreaty for the illumination that always slips from reach and a prayer for and to the divine havruta.

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