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The String That Ties Us Together

The String That Ties Us Together

My summer yeshivah experience as a 39-year-old dad

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Yeshiva friends (left to right): Dov from Rhode Island, Yosef Yitzchok from Johannesburg, Joshua (the author) from Wisconsin, Eitan from Argentina.
Yeshiva friends (left to right): Dov from Rhode Island, Yosef Yitzchok from Johannesburg, Joshua (the author) from Wisconsin, Eitan from Argentina.

Jews are generally known as an intelligent bunch. For example, there’s a disproportionately large number of Nobel Prize winners who are Jewish. Yet, one group of Jews seemingly gets the short end of the stick when it comes to smarts, and that is the villagers of Chelm. Chelm folklore usually imparts lessons through stories that demonstrate the curious sensibilities of its townsfolk, but there’s one Chelm story with a lesson that has always eluded me:

A Jew from Chelm went to the mikveh (ritual bath) before praying. He was worried that, when unclothed, he would not be able to tell himself apart from everyone else, and that he wouldn’t remember who he was. Talk about an identity crisis! And so, he came up with a solution. He decided to tie a red string around his big toe to distinguish himself from all the other people in the mikveh.

But while in the water, the string became loose and fell off, and then wrapped around the toe of another person. The man who devised the plan spotted the string on the other person’s toe and asked him, “Excuse me, I know who you are, but who am I?”

It’s a weird story, no? I still don’t understand it completely, but I think an experience I had this past summer brought me closer to its lesson.

In June, for the first time in my life, I attended a yeshivah program called “Tiferes,” in Morristown, New Jersey. As a 39-year-old family man I wasn’t exactly the poster child for a yeshivah student, and my notion of identity was challenged on several fronts. (No, I did not wear a string on my big toe.) I was twice the age of most of the students, and these students became my teachers. I worried: How would I fit in with students and teachers in their late teens and early twenties? Would I be able to see myself in and relate to other students? Would our connection be as flimsy as a string?

A farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) with Rabbi Brafman (center)
A farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) with Rabbi Brafman (center)

And just who were these students? Most (if not all) the students enrolled in the program were what’s referred to as baalei teshuva, individuals who came to religious observance later in life. But I wouldn’t have known that from looking at them. They had beards and dressed in a manner typical of observant individuals. Even more, their knowledge of Jewish texts and commitment to Jewish observance was beyond impressive.

In college, I was a study-aholic. I’d isolate myself in a study carousel in the library, and sometimes even wear earplugs. Further, I come from a public school background, both as a student, and in my profession as a teacher. In public school, students move from classroom to classroom throughout a day. In this yeshivah program, students converse and learn primarily in one main study hall. Two students sit across from each other and learn, while another pair studies at the same table. I didn’t know if I would be able to concentrate. I wondered if anyone could learn in this type of set-up. Would the noise drive me to the end of my rope?

Learning in the main study hall, the "zal".
Learning in the main study hall, the "zal".

And I had other concerns, like: Who am I supposed to become? What will my friends at synagogue expect of me upon my return? Should I come back with a black hat? I’d come back to my wife and son as the same person, wouldn’t I? Or should I?

Oy. The fellow from Chelm had it easy!

So how was my yeshivah experience? At first it was jarring, like any new environment. But after a few days, I settled in. I clicked with some of the other students, and we became good friends despite our age differences. They helped me achieve my goal in going to yeshivah, and I hope that in some way I helped them, too. I was able to generally focus on what I studied (but not always). My best teachers were half my age, and far from that being a blow to my ego, I found their youthful energy and humor enlightening.

Yeshiva friends Yaphet from Phoenix, Arizona, and Joshua from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the main study hall
Yeshiva friends Yaphet from Phoenix, Arizona, and Joshua from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the main study hall

The twists and turns of the yeshivah experience enabled me to progress in ways I otherwise wouldn’t have. Like a mikveh that envelops a person, so too did my ten-day yeshivah experience. And I hope that I came out better on the other side. I don’t consider myself a full-fledged yeshivah student, and probably never will, but I can identify with those who are and can try to emulate their exemplary qualities.

Of course, it’s important to retain one’s core identity. My core is strong enough that I don’t need a string to remember: I am a Jew, a husband, a father, and more. Just maybe, though, the string in that Chelm storyrepresents being tied to notions of who one is supposed to be. It represses growth. Just like a seed has to decompose before it can grow, perhaps the string has to be dislodged in order for one to make progress and develop as a person.

In another sense, the string that becomes attached to someone else can be a bond. Maybe the fellow from Chelm was partly right: we are very much the same, despite age, background or location. There’s one string that binds us together and ties us to the same mission: G‑d, Torah and love of a fellow Jew.

Joshua Becker is a freelance writer and Spanish teacher. He has published articles on a vast array of topics that are as diverse as they are insightful, many of them on Jewish topics, found on his website.
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Boruch Hecht Morristown, J December 7, 2017

Thanks for the great article Yehoshua!
Notice for the general public:
We have a special “Taste of Yeshiva” introductory week running soon! From Sunday December 24th- Sunday December 31st! Come and see for yourself what studying in a yeshiva can do for your life!!! Reply

Adam November 16, 2017

Great peice, also Tiferes in Morristown is amazing! Reply