Monday, May 09, 2005

Rabbi Yeyin tells it like it sort of was

Dateline: April 19, 2155. Rabbi Shmerel Yeyin sits down and is about to put finger to keyboard and begin writing his history of the Jews, Herald and Triumph: The Story of the Jews in the Postmodern Era from 2000 to 2150. Rabbi Yeyin, a popular writer and speaker on Jewish history, will of course discuss the Schottenstein edition of the Talmud (but not the Steinsaltz), the fact that more students studied Torah in this period during any earlier era in Jewish history, rebuilding from the ashes of the Holocaust, the teshuva movement, the economic development of Israel, the chessed infrastructure of the Jewish communities in America and Israel and elsewhere. The absorption of the Russian immigrants. Shiurim. Hatzolah. Daf Yomi. Joe Lieberman. Dark moments will be discussed too. The watershed events of 9/11, the Second Intifadeh. Maybe a nod to the 'shidduch crisis' and Rebbetzin Jungreis' heroic role in its solution.

But will Herald and Triumph give mention to tefillin dates and unmarried women going to the mikva? Will it discuss crises of faith, the Nosson Slifkin ban and near-schismatic issues such as metitzah be-peh and eruptions of bans on Indian hair wigs (come to think of it, will it discuss expensive wigs?) and bugs in the water and backlash and the gross materialism of Flatbush and Boro Park and the staggering burden of tuitions and the high cost of frum living and frum kids dropping out of yeshivas and dying of drug overdoses and the too many cases of rabbinic sexual abuse and the myriad other social ills that we face -- as all earlier generations did? Chances are he will not. Or at least the treatment will provide a generally very positive picture of the holy generation of early 21st century American and Israeli Jewry. Yes, if one knows how to read between lines one will catch glimpses of much of the dark side. But in general, this book of historia will enable its readers to pat themselves on the back and sigh when they think of the memory of us, their heilige bubbes and zeides.

Certainly books that give the warts and all will be written too. But there is no reason to believe that the good old Jewish hagiography we've come to know and love (or hate) will predictably come too.

There are basically two views of these historical distortion-by-way-of-omission literature. On the one hand, viewed from within, they are lamentable. As a frum Jew I do not feel that it is enough that I will read whatever literature I like and form, hopefully, a more realistic view of history regardless of what the hagiograpghies say. Even though there is a small minority that knows what happened and how it happened that is not enough. The nearly-Soviet version of How It Was is widespread. It is how we were taught, it is how our children are being taught. If history gives us a perspective with which to shape the present then those of us who are outraged when realistic depictions of personalities and events are distorted for polemical purposes are not just outraged at the depictions themselves, they are outraged for these falsehoods have real world implications.

On the other hand, such hagiographic literature is a realistic record of the values, hopes and longings of the communities which they serve. Whether or not we wish to change it, much can be learned about how these communities are rather than how we wish them to be.

It has been my observation that there is a growing awareness that the official literature is not the entire picture. It will be interesting to see what comes down the river.

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