Jewish Journal

Involuntary Participant Observation in the ultra-Orthodox World

by Pini Herman

February 25, 2013 | 10:05 am

There's Comfort In Being Chained Together

The recently published The Rebel and the Rabbi’s Son is a fascinating read, even for someone such as this reader who grew up among the ultra-Orthodox without the heavy burdens of a dynastic lineage on his shoulders as did the author, Izzy Eichenstein. The situation is rare and the readable recounting is even rarer, but exceptionally instructive.

The story recounted has a very small element of open rebellion, but rather it’s a description of some choices that were made generations back, first by Izzy’s grandfather to leave the chassidic home kingdom where his future place in the Ultra-Orthodox world may have been prescriptively assured but ultimately, as seen in retrospect, swept away by the tides of World War II.  Later Izzy’s father’s decision to answer the call of a large congregation of Jews who were experimenting with bonafide emancipation, freedom and the experiment that is the retention of Judaism in America.  For Izzy this has consequences that place him into the rebel’s role that was not his choice.

The well-intentioned father/rabbi inadvertently let his young Ultra-orthodox princeling glance through the cracks in the the walls of the fortress of ultra-Orthodoxy.  The tragedy is that this is something that neither Izzy’s older brother and sister as well as their extended families had ever done at such a young age, and try as he might, Izzy cannot bond and cleave to a pre-emancipated Jewish life that everyone else in his immediate and extended family seems to like and is happy to live in from cradle to grave.

Fortunately, Rita, the classically modern-Orthodox Jewishly-raised woman and eventually Izzy’s wife,  is willing to accompany Izzy on his journey of exile.  Izzy and Rita slowly and painfully go from a “narrow” but status-rich ultra-Orthodox life to a new life where they can embrace their Judaism which they claim as their birthright rather than being driven out to a desert of historical discontinuity. Izzy ultimately has to ignore his Rabbi-father’s devastating opposition to name his son after Izzy’s grandfather. That was Izzy's first open act of rebellion, the open claim of the family heritage on his own terms.

Izzy and Rita continue to struggle with the recurrent experiences of discontinuity and their children struggle with the effects of the the discontinuity. The well-intentioned roads are a paved at great cost until a place of congruence is found and traveled to.  It's a lonely journey often travelled to other narrow places with peril and potentially disastrous outcomes. Just a couple of real-life situations I personally have had the opportunity to witness:  A 12 year-old girl yanked out of a co-ed modern Orthodox school by her ultra-Orthodox dynastic court family for having a crush on a boy and married off by 16 to a ultra-Orthodox European banker and mother of two children by age 18.  The tragic death of a lively-minded gay descendent of a venerated rabbinical line. Only two stories of dynastic children, such as Izzy, in the name of preserving the admittedly rich tradition and life of ultra-Orthodoxy lived and loved by many Jews.

The exercise of spiritual life-choice is not undertaken without hazard. The autobiographical author describes his ultra-Orthodox milieu, at one point, as a cult. He describes being slapped across the face for reciting a prayer for the State of Israel and being torn away from an idyllic religious-Zionist camp after two weeks, but the author neglects to elaborate on the schism between the ultra-Orthodox non-Zionism or anti-Zionism and the Zionism of the other streams of Judaism such as modern-Orthodox, Conservative and Reform that he explores and ultimately thrives in.

This book puts sorely needed flesh on a representative ultra-Orthodox dynasty, a group I often research and is the fastest growing demographic segment of the Jewish world,  but is often only poorly understood and described in caricature.  It is not a group that is going to fade in time, but rather ultra-Orthodox are emerging more and more in the crucial issues of the day within the life of the Jewish community of America and Israel because of their sheer demographic success.  It’s a well-written contemporary personal journey with great Jewish descriptive and demographic relevance.

Pini Herman, PhD. has served as Asst. Research Professor at the University of Southern California Dept. of Geography,  Adjunct Lecturer at the USC School of Social Work,  Research Director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles following Bruce Phillips, PhD. in that position and is a past President of the Movable Minyan a lay-lead independent congregation in the 3rd Street area. Currently he is a principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. To email Pini: pini00003@gmail.com To follow Pini on Twitter:

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Bruce Phillips is Professor of Sociology and Jewish Communal Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. He has conducted Jewish population...

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