Sunday, August 30, 2009

What Kind of Yeshiva is Chaim Berlin?

There has been a lot of interesting discussion on the Internet about a photo taken of Yeshivas Chaim Berlin’s Beis Hamedrash. It is a photo that is being used in their 2010 calendar. It happens to be the same photo they used last year (shown here). Most people would look at it and say that this is a very nice depiction of their Beis Hamedrash. It is full of students all being Omeil BaTorah - toiling in the study of Torah.

But the discussion is not about how wonderful that picture is. It is about how this year the picture was altered to remove a flaw. To the unsophisticated eye, that change would hardly be noticed. But in the Yeshiva world this ‘flaw’ was cause for great concern. In the original picture one of the students is wearing a blue shirt. In the altered one that student is now wearing a white shirt. And one empty table now has a couple of students added to it.

What’s the big deal - one may ask? Why does anyone care what color one student’s shirt is? Or if one table happened to be empty? And so what if it was photo-shopped?

The answer to this question is not as simple as the photo-shopping was. This is a perfect illustration of how important appearances are in the Charedi world. It is not enough for Charedim to be learning Torah B’Hasmada Rabba - with great fervor and intensity. One must wear the Charedi uniform that goes with that image. The uniform - for those who haven’t figured it out yet - is dark pants and a white shirt.

Why is that important to Judaism? The answer is that it is utterly unimportant. There is absolutely no significance whatsoever to that ‘outfit’ - other than as an identifier. If you wear that outfit, you are clearly a Ben Torah. If you don’t…

What is the thinking that goes into this mindset? Why the emphasis on belonging to this particular slice of Orthodoxy? Why do Chaim Berliners - or anyone in the right wing Yeshiva world - care so much about being identified this way?

Apparently the very thought of being misidentified frightens them. So much so - that they are upset by even a small detail in a picture that all but the most sophisticated eye would even notice. The sophisticated eye in this case is the world of right wing Yeshivos. They notice.

The fact is that the typical right wing Yeshiva Bachur shuns - or at best looks down upon other Orthodox Jews who are not like themselves. They refer to them as ‘Nisht Fun Unzera’ - a Yiddish aphorism meaning ‘not one of us!’ ‘Us’ is defined as Torah true Jews. All other Orthodox Jews are therefore dubbed... not quite Torah true.

Well - if one is not Torah true is he then Torah false? That's quite the insult if you are an Orthodox Jew.

White shirts equal Torah true. Blue shirts equal Torah false.

Who wears blue shirts? Goyim, secular Jews, modern Orthodox Jews, some Balei Baatim, and of course YU students. It is apparently an unbearable burden for them to be thought of as any of these - especially as a YU student!

YU is an actual Yeshiva where many of the students learn with the same fervor and intensity as many of the Chaim Berlin students do. But no matter. It may as well be UC Berkely. In fact YU is worse they will tell you. It teaches the wrong things and claims to be religious! Besides - everyone knows that YU guys are a bunch of Shkotzim. At least most of them are. The few there who happen to be sincere - Nebech… they don’t know any better. Someday they too will see the light, change their shirts, and dissociate themselves from YU.

In any case the world of the right wing Yeshiva Bachur - of which Chaim Berliners are card carrying members - want a clear separation from all of that. They want separation from anything that is not ‘Torah true’. Like blue shirts. Chaim Berliners are real! No different from any right wing yeshiva student. They wear white shirts to prove it. And they want the world to know it! There is no way they will let their image be tarnished by a blue shirt in their calendar!

I’m sure there are plenty of people reading this who think I am exaggerating. This is probably nothing more than an artistic decision by a photographer to take a photo and make it prettier. Pictures are photo-shopped all the time. There is nothing wrong with tweaking a picture to make it look more aesthetic. There was no nefarious plot to alter the truth – neither physically nor spiritually.

Well, think again.

Dr Yitzchak Levine sent this message Friday to an email list to which I belong. I republish it here with his permission:

Someone associated with Yeshiva Rabbenu Chaim Berlin told me the following this morning:

He inquired about the photo-shopping of the original picture so that in the new picture the fellow wearing a blue shirt is wearing a white shirt and so that the empty table is now full. Last year after the picture appeared there was a great deal of discussion about it on the Internet.

"What kind of a yeshiva is Chaim Berlin, if boys wear blue shirts?" etc.

The empty table was also used as a vehicle for criticism of the yeshiva. The photographer, who is not employed directly by Chaim Berlin but who does their photography work, decided on his own that he would "fix" this situation by making the blue shirt white and by adding two people to the empty table.

There you have it. It was the photographer's decision. But it was not made for artistic reasons. It was made to salvage the 'poor image' projected by last years unaltered picture - as evidenced by all that talk over the Internet last year. The photographer had to do something to make things right!

What kind of yeshiva is Chaim Berlin? Answer this year: A yeshiva where all the Bachurim wear white shirts.

Hat tip: Mordy Ovits of the