Cultural Comparisons: A Dialogue with Students from Yeshiva Mesivta Menachem


Séamus Pugh, Managing Editor

The United States is not a campground. At a campground, so long as you follow the rules, clean up your trash, and leave everyone else alone, you can go about your business as you please. The land at a campground allows people to settle and live without ever mingling meaningfully. 

In our country, Americans teach each other’s children at public schools, feed each other at food banks, encourage each other to vote, and die for each other in dangerous foreign lands. America is a community, not a campground. 

It is thus impossible to claim that the United States does not have a culture. The people of the United States, however divided, tend to take for granted certain ideals which bind them together. Americans believe in liberalism: the philosophy that promotes individual rights, free trade and enterprise, civil liberties, and democracy. Roughly half of Americans are Protestants, and another quarter are atheists or unaffiliated. Americans, who tend to lack the strong family loyalties typical of many foriegn cultures, are ruggedly individualistic. The United States, at least in theory, allows every adult citizen to participate in their government. And finally, Americans like to work hard and buy things. Black or white, young or old, Democratic or Republican, Americans tend to espouse this culture. 

Certainly, at least some of these ideals are beautiful. But they were not created ex nihilo. The United States was not founded as an empty vessel to be filled by different cultures and peoples, equally exercising their democratic rights. The United States was founded by Englishmen; if America is a melting pot, Anglo-American culture is the mirepoix which flavors the whole dish. 

In America, as in many parts of the world, those who belong to this dominant culture feel uncomfortable with other cultures bunking down in their campground. These “other cultures” are either unable to assimilate or refuse to assimilate. 

To understand this notion further, I decided to speak with some students at another school in Hastings, Yeshiva Mesivta Menachem. 

Yeshiva Mesivta Menachem is a male-only bastion of Orthodox Jewish learning. It sits adjacent to the Clarewood development, towering atop a formidable hill overlooking Mount Hope Cemetery. 

Jacob Prisament, a fellow editor at The Buzzer, and I approached the building. We met two boys about my age and initiated a conversation. The two students, clad in white shirts with black blazers, were friendly, but they said they needed to consult with their administrators before speaking with us. Luckily, an older scholar was playing ball with some younger kids in the courtyard; when I asked him if I could speak with some students, he smiled and added with hesitation: “I’m not sure. We like to stay, you know…” and made a closing motion with his hands. I promised that nothing would be recorded, and he relented. 

We began speaking with the first two boys we had met, but by the end we were speaking with a cluster of about a dozen curious students. The students milled around, clutching books and loose papers in Hebrew. All wore braided tassels on each corner of their garments, called tzitzit, and all wore kippot, the traditional Jewish skullcaps. All, with the exception of one student, were maskless. (The students seemed to imply that COVID-19 had already swept through the Yeshiva: one student said, “we all have antibodies.”)  

We learned that they had an extraordinarily long school day: seven or eight in the morning to nine o’clock at night, with breaks for meals. Most of them got six or seven hours of sleep a night. “Officially we get eight,” one student clarified, “but we typically don’t get that much.” 

Lessons primarily concerned the study of sacred texts, including the Torah and the Talmud. The students were fluent in Yiddish and Hebrew, and well acquainted with Jewish philosophy. I asked if they studied science or mathematics, and one student replied: “not really.” He emphasized that their course focused primarily on religious studies. 

Jacob and I glanced into the Yeshiva itself. In the main atrium, we saw a throng of students clustered around tables, heads bowed in study. “Our classes usually have twenty kids,” noted one student. 

We asked them who they had favored in the recent election. One student answered, “Trump, right?” and looked around at his peers. They nodded in assent. “We’re Republicans, and we like Trump because he’s pro-Israel.” They expressed a loathing for the Democratic governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, whose pandemic lockdown policies offended many Orthodox Jews. 

But their political beliefs were not so black and white. One student mentioned,: “we want to support the poor, at least those who really need it.” Another noted that partisanship was dangerous: “It’s best not to support only one side or the other.” Another remarked: “A lot of us belong to first or second generation immigrant families. I think that there should be processes to vet immigrants, but I don’t support banning whole groups like Muslims.” 

We asked the students about their futures. “After our time at the Yeshiva, we’ll go to college,” one student offered. “There are rabbinical colleges in New York, Paris, Baltimore, all over.” Another exclaimed, “I want to study philosophy!” 

We asked them what they like to do for fun. “We play sports together,” provided one student, “but not on organized teams.” I could, in the distance, see a group of students playing basketball. “On Fridays we get a four hour break to perform outreach,” added another. Most students seemed to like the outreach programs; aside from prayer, it was generally regarded as one of the most enjoyable parts of their religious practice. 

Amazingly, these students rarely used smartphones. “If you have a cell phone, you can use it on Friday if you want,” said a student. 

Finally, we asked them what foods they liked. “Sesame chicken!” cried a student. “We eat a lot of chicken here,” said another, “but today we had pizza bagels for lunch.” As we expected, their diets were kosher. 

Some aspects of life are the same for students at the Yeshiva and students at Hastings High School. We both get about the same amount of sleep. Our class sizes are about the same. We both devote plenty of time to studying. And, on occasion, our cafeterias break out the pizza bagels. 

But the lives and perspectives of these students are very different from those of the students at Hastings High School. Perhaps most obviously, we permit girls to learn, study, and enrich themselves at our school. Almost two thirds of Westchester voters cast ballots for Joe Biden in 2020 (the total is almost certainly higher in Hastings). At Hastings, we all wear masks indoors and our hardworking custodial staff furiously scrubs the classrooms between every period. Hastings students feel the comforting weight of their phones in their pockets or hands during the entirety of their waking hours; according to a 2019 study from Common Sense Media, most American teenagers use their phones for entertainment for almost seven and a half hours per day. We throw on sweatshirts, jeans, and t-shirts every morning, not traditional black and white garb. 

The dominant American culture, certainly reflected in the students at Hastings High School, has a habit of crushing other equally valuable cultures. When enslaved Bantu-speaking Africans arrived in the New World with a totally different perception of time (they believed that the past, present, and future were one and thus did not bother to keep track of dates or the time of day), white American slavers and planters crushed that belief. Prior to the 1962 Supreme Court ruling Engel vs. Vitale, school districts all over America required classroom prayer in an effort to exclude religious minorities like Jews. And almost 70% of American women who choose to wear the conspicuous hijab face discrimination, according to a recent study from the Women’s Rights Project. 

As members of the prominent culture, let us make an effort to appreciate the merits of Orthodox Judaism. The students at the Yeshiva spend their lives contemplating the divine. They are extremely well versed in philosophy and theological law. Hastings students rarely delve into such matters. The Yeshiva students clutch sacred texts, not smartphones. Their actions have an incredible sense of purpose: their behavior is derived from their interpretation of scripture and tradition. 

Nevertheless, as members of a community and not a campground, we have a right to question certain aspects of Orthodox Jewish culture. Students at Hastings High School, including me, find the male monopoly on education to be problematic at best. But, in the words of former President Barack Obama, “[t]he arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” Rightness will prevail in the end. Besides, our culture is hardly devoid of its own issues! 

Perhaps this Thanksgiving, we can give thanks for our nation’s beautiful array of cultures. We all have something to learn from America’s diversity.

* This article was originally published with spelling errors which were corrected on 11/23/2020. *