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Searching for Myself at Jerusalem’s Hippie Yeshiva

I didn’t fit in among the scruffy rock musicians and young women in shawls and drapey skirts, but my Shavuot visit changed me

Ruchama King Feuerman
June 02, 2014
Linda D. Epstein/MCT/MCT via Getty Images
Shavuot sunrise prayers at the Kotel.Linda D. Epstein/MCT/MCT via Getty Images
Linda D. Epstein/MCT/MCT via Getty Images
Shavuot sunrise prayers at the Kotel.Linda D. Epstein/MCT/MCT via Getty Images

I was finishing up my first year of college at Bar-Ilan University when an old classmate invited me to spend Shavuot with her at the Diaspora Yeshiva on Mount Zion.

What’s she doing there, of all places? I wondered, surprised to learn that she’d become a full-time student at the yeshiva.

Lots of my friends from high school had signed on for a year of rigorous Torah study at one of the Jerusalem seminaries that were starting to become de rigueur for frum girls after graduation. I was all set to go myself, especially as my little detour at Bar-Ilan was winding down; it was the end of the semester, and my yeshiva beckoned. But my intended yeshiva was what I considered “normal”: It attracted girls of the same age with a fairly strong background in Jewish studies—girls from middle-class, religious homes. We were coming to enrich and to build upon the Judaism we had already encountered in our earlier years. We weren’t looking to be transformed.

This Diaspora Yeshiva, known to outsiders as the hippie yeshiva, was altogether different. It carried a countercultural cachet, an air of the illicit. The men’s division had a band with scruffy-bearded newly religious musicians singing Hebrew lyrics set to wild rock music, way before this became accepted everywhere. The women students—whether teenagers or in their thirties—dressed in scraps of hippie-like cast offs, shawls, and long drapey skirts. The students, most of whom came with little knowledge of Judaism, and even less Torah observance, seemed bent on totally remaking their lives. Many marriages happened between the men’s and women’s divisions, and those couples lived in near poverty in Mount Zion’s caves. Sure, the students at the Diaspora Yeshiva made great music, but was that reason enough for my old classmate to have joined up there?

You never knew who might show up at the Diaspora Yeshiva. My friend told me how Tony Curtis popped in one day with his agent, and so did the drummer for Lynyrd Skynyrd—a lost soul if ever there was one; sometimes it was people who were less famous but no less unexpected, like the woman who’d just emerged from many years at an ashram, or a Hasid from Williamsburg, or a Harvard-educated scientist. But one type of person rarely ventured there: suburban Modern Orthodox girls like me.

But why not spend Shavuot with my friend? I figured the whole experience would be a lark, an adventure. And there was another powerful draw: Her apartment was in the Old City of Jerusalem, a 10-minute walk from the Kotel, where, as per custom, the thousands of people from across the city who’d been studying Torah the whole night would flock at sunrise to pray together, an event not to be missed.

I met up with my friend at the apartment she was sharing just off Ararat Street near the Armenian Quarter. She seemed as quirky as ever, the same girl who back in high school would call out flotz or pook (the Yiddish and Hebrew words for flatulence) in Chumash class to rile up the teachers. But she had changed. She explained that she’d been visiting a relative at the Diaspora Yeshiva, but as soon as she got a taste of the place, she decided to stay for good. It made me squirm the way she kept quoting the heads of the school—the rabbi and rebbetzin—with an intensity and allegiance that suggested she’d found her true parents. Nobody was forcing anyone to stay, but the place still seemed awfully close to a cult. She spoke as if she were on some life journey beyond anything I might ever experience.

I met her roommates—fellow students from the Diaspora Yeshiva—young women who came from France, Germany, the States, and other places. They greeted me warmly but then turned back to what I’d interrupted: a women’s mussar va’ad. In addition to regular Torah study, the Diaspora Yeshiva’s dean organized small daily groups practicing Mussar where they discussed everything from chores to their complicated upbringings to what they wanted in a husband, while focusing on whatever character trait they were “working on.” They invited me to join their discussion, and I did, although all of this consciousness-raising talk was beyond me.

But as I listened to everyone talk so openly, I realized that I knew so little about myself. What little I shared sounded tinny and guarded, and the whole thing made me uncomfortable—but part of me craved it. My own childhood was something of a wreck, and my parents’ 20-some-year marriage was just then ending. I imagined that here one might acquire a kind of re-parenting, although I couldn’t have articulated it to myself like that at the time.

Later, we dressed in holiday clothes, candles were lit, and it was time to pray. The davening was nothing like the tuneful yet staid services I’d encountered at my Orthodox synagogue in Silver Spring. This was wild stuff: On the men’s side, people were leaping around. I heard singing that seemed to come from deep in the throat, and even deeper. On the women’s side, they rocked, swayed, raised their arms. It was heartfelt. It was intense. A sweet delirium infused the air. Insane, I thought, as I saw the unembarrassed joy on the worshipers’ faces. I was frightened by it all, and yet enchanted. I didn’t know the religion I’d grown up with could produce such ecstatic feeling.

We ate in a huge hall that I think had once been a Greek Orthodox Church. The meal included lots of grains and vegetables, and I’m pretty sure there was tofu because I remember someone comparing it to manna, even finding an impressive biblical link (ofu tofu et ha mann—“thou shalt surely bake the manna”); luckily I found chicken, kugel, and other food I was more used to. Some of the male Yeshiva students tried to talk with me but I brushed them off. Each one looked too gangly or hairy, with ill-fitting clothes, not the kind of person you could bring home to parents or introduce to people. My friend told me that most of them were hungry to get married, and the last thing I wanted was to tie myself to anyone here.

Afterward, the men and women separated as we prepared to study Torah throughout the night, and in this way receive it anew, like the Children of Israel. It felt like a big Torah study party. We drank lots of coffee. We studied late, later. Chumash, Midrash, Prophets, Rambam, Maharal. I was in my element here, thanks to my yeshiva high-school education. Later, when the sun rose, we would all go down Way of Life Street, crossing Chabad Avenue and Jews Street, all streams coming together to make a river of people flowing down to the Kotel to pray. As it is written in the Rashi commentary: And so they stood at the base of the mountain, one people, one heart.

Around midnight, the rebbetzin, a sturdy-looking woman in her fifties wearing a faded blond wig, unfurled a large white cloth—perhaps it was a tallis. Four women held its corners. Our sages have likened God to a groom and Israel to a bride. Shavuot, when Israel received the Torah, is then the wedding. With the tallis serving as a chuppah, was the rebbetzin trying to simulate that experience?

She stood in the center and called one of the students, a young woman from Germany, under the canopy. She spoke to the young woman while she clasped a book of Torah to her breastbone. I couldn’t hear what the rebbetzin said, but from the utterly serious and warm look on the girl’s face, it sounded like the rebbetzin was telling her things about herself, beneath-the-surface things, speaking to her soul, if you will. This went on for a few minutes, and then the rebbetzin kissed the book of Torah and handed it to the girl as carefully and tenderly as if it were a baby. One by one the rebbetzin called the young women under the tallis and spoke to them, human to human, soul to soul.

I couldn’t stop watching them. This is so hokey, I thought, inwardly rolling my eyes. But each time I saw another young woman emerge clutching a Torah book as if she were holding a jewel, I wanted to join in. It felt like some Sinai experience was happening from a woman’s point of view. Suddenly, I wanted that experience badly. Something about the rebbetzin, her matter-of-factness, her Torah knowledge, her warmth, and the fact that my own family thousands of miles away was breaking apart, made me hunger for her eyes to rest on me, to know me, just a little.

But I couldn’t step under the chuppah. It was too dangerous. By now, I’d gotten used to the all-consuming intensity, the enveloping intimacy of this yeshiva, its very funkiness and the way it sought knowledge of God and self in the same breath. Some part of me sensed that if that rebbetzin spoke to me and got to know me, I might forget my seminary plans and go instead to the Diaspora Yeshiva, the weird yeshiva, and that would be it: I’d marry one of those scruffy, gangly band members with the painfully soulful eyes and be stuck there forever in one of their caves. I was clueless about myself, but there was one thing I did know: I was vulnerable, especially now, with my parents divorcing. So, I stayed on the sidelines

When I was a little girl, maybe 4 or 5, when my father would come home from work, he’d spread a blanket on the floor and invite my siblings and me to a game of tackle. As soon as one kid put a toe or hand onto the blanket, that gave my father license to wrestle him or her to the ground. From the delighted squealing of my younger brother and my older sister who must’ve been 7, I knew they were having a great time. I remember how I’d circle, again and again, watching, eager, desperately wanting to put a toe on the blanket, wanting to join in the fun, but unable to, drawing back each time. Finally, my father, exhausted from seeing me go round and round, would reach out a long arm and pull me in.

But here, now, the rebbetzin wasn’t reaching out any arm to me or even smiling. It was up to me to make the move. I felt myself weakening. I told myself it was just a single moment on a Shavuot night. For goodness’s sake, one talk with the rebbetzin wouldn’t turn me into a Diaspora Yeshiva groupie. I took a step. I was a hairsbreadth away from entering when I noticed how the rebbetzin’s faded blond wig had gone staticky under the tallis chuppah. Her wig hairs were sticking up, Martian-like. I held back a grin, but kept staring at the staticky wig, the Martian hairs under the canopy. It was easier than looking at the young women’s faces as they emerged from under the chuppah, trembling, pure, like freshly peeled hard-boiled egg. Follow your bliss, one part of me screamed. Then—No, don’t. I focused on those ridiculous hairs, protecting myself and keeping my distance.

Sometimes you hold back—you won’t let yourself experience something beyond your usual realm—because of an inner strength, a strong core of belief. That’s what keeps people from marrying people who excite them but aren’t right for them.

But in my case, was it the strength of knowing this yeshiva wasn’t for me, that I could never be a groupie, that I would’ve suffocated there? Or did I hold back because I feared surrendering to the unknown or unconventional or transcendent, even if just for a moment? I suspect it’s a combination.

I went on to study at my “normal” yeshiva and stayed there for two years, an exemplary student. At times, though, I chafed at the conventionality, the lack of passion, and I’d sneak off to classes taught by charismatic Breslov rebbes or I’d rush off and spend Rosh Hashanah on the mystical mountain of Meron with thousands of worshipers, an experience that could best be described as Hasidic Woodstock. All for a breath of transcendent air, for the ecstasy I’d encountered at the Diaspora Yeshiva. But then I’d always scoot back to the regularity and safety of the steady Judaism I knew.

That struggle—between the ecstatic on the one hand and the steady, the decent, and the potentially dull on the other—has stayed with me my whole life. It played out in the men I dated, each one a rebound or reaction to the previous one: the solid yet predictable actuary followed by the handsome Hasid who lived in a forest for two years followed by the companionable straitlaced lawyer followed by the rangy, angst-ridden rabbi who fed my soul but would never make a living. In the end, the man I married was just safe enough and just wild enough to satisfy those divergent parts of me. A combination.

My friend stayed on at the Diaspora Yeshiva for many years, marrying, having children, living for a time in one of those caves. I visited her there. (That’s where I broke bread with the Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer—in her kitchen, which was outdoors.) I never envied her. I never felt that same intense tug to throw off all convention and join the funky, off-limits Yeshiva. I guess that was something I only felt once, briefly, when I was 18, when I was young and seeking on a Shavuot night in Jerusalem.

Ruchama Feuerman is the author of the novel In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, and just recently The Mountain Jews and the Mirror, a children’s folktale about the Jews of Casablanca.