The Head of an Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva and His Surprisingly Good Pseudonymous Novel

Oct. 16 2019

Set in New York in the late 1950s, The Idiom and the Oddity (2017) tells the story of a young man who decides to revolt against his parents’ drift away from Jewish tradition and observance, leaves his family home in suburban Long Island for the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn where he grew up, and eventually finds himself studying in a rabbinical seminary in upstate New York. While the novel was written under the pseudonym Sam Benito, Henry Abramson recognizes the author as a certain prominent ḥaredi rabbi, and the story as highly autobiographical. Abramson does not reveal the author’s identity, but argues that the work is a rich, if imperfect, coming-of-age tale:

[T]here’s certainly no salacious or otherwise inappropriate content in the 300-page novel, but even a superficial reading alludes to youthful experimentation with activities that, in the ḥaredi world, range from the merely frowned upon to forbidden outright. . . . The [author] describes his quasi-heretical youth, from attenuated adherence to kashrut to a non-Jewish girlfriend who lives in, of all places, the Long Island community of Babylon.

Readers with an appreciation of yeshiva culture (and baseball culture) will appreciate this work, but the author clearly assumes that his readers also possess a basic working knowledge of the great canon of Western literature and philosophy. . . . The sheer breadth of his reading is sometimes a liability. I often found myself groaning at the excessive puns-per-page ratio, many of which involved several languages. [Take, for instance], this Steinbeck-inspired Yiddishism: when a character named Roth defuses a tense moment with an ear-splitting belch, the incident is referred to as “the greps of Roth” (greps being Yiddish for burp).

The book is an homage to Joyce above all: the trajectory of the plot borrows happily from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the style from Ulysses (the main character is even named Bloom), and even Joyce’s most enigmatic work gets a nod when an Irish character departs the story, leaving “Finnegan’s wake” in the aftermath.

Unfortunately, in contemporary yeshiva culture, fiction is strictly forbidden as bitul zman, “wasted time,” and the medium that might best express [its author’s] vision is off-limits under his own name.

Read more at Henry Abramson

More about: American Judaism, James Joyce, Jewish literature, Ultra-Orthodox

When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount