Yenem Velt: Yeshiva Bochur | Jeremy Freeman

Think of a world-renowned academic institution: is it Oxford, Cambridge, Yale or Harvard? Or is it the Sorbonne in Paris? Now do the same for the Yeshivas: is it Ponevezh, Mir, Lakewood or Gateshead? Or is it Hitchin in Hertfordshire?

From the property, take the country lanes to the dual carriageway. Stay on the ring road to the old A6. Head south to Route B, turn off onto a farm road, then down a track (once a major Roman road) then (via a thousand puddles and potholes) dodging pheasants, rabbits and deer passing by. Finally, turn left into a clearing.

To the right and to the left, tall trees. Before you, the ghostly off-white shadow of a now abandoned stucco Victorian boarding school. The clearing itself has traces of tar, reminiscent of a parking lot of yesteryear. Standing in the clearing, in the cold of the morning, hair still dripping from their bath in the mikveh, are 40 young Hasidim. Each is dressed in a bekeshe and Garden. Each has a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other.

When we moved to Yenem’s Velt, my wife and I were blessed with four living relatives whose combined age was around 350 years old. Unfortunately, we have now all lost except one. Finding a kaddish minyan is not so easy here.

I was making shiva for my father when I remembered that a rabbi from Stamford Hill, who knew he was leaving London, had given me a phone number: “Hitchin Yeshiva”, he muttered. -he. “Put it in your phone, you’ll need it someday.” As he was very prescient. I called this number and at sixty I became Yeshiva Bochur.

I worked out a system to say at least one kaddish a day. With a 5am departure, I could drive to my office in London and catch a minyan on the way, anywhere from Borehamwood to St Johns Wood. A 6am departure would get me to Cambridge (only for university terms). A luxury sleep in at 7 a.m. would mean Hitchin. The schedule was demanding, too often I opted for the “easy” option.

Hitchin’s main hall resembles a giant Anderson shelter, its tin roof curving precariously from one wall to the other. Half of the floor is broken tiles, the other half mud. The assembly is covered with a permanent dust film. There are wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with holy books.

The interior is dominated by wooden furniture: a giant Aron HaKodecha bima on wheels. About 60 folding chairs, most of them broken, are lined up behind trestle tables. At the head of this decaying empire is the Rebbe, a stocky man with a puffy beard. I found his Hungarian accent made his English unintelligible and his Yiddish inscrutable. I had a feeling that I might be welcome, but I was never quite sure.

At first, I was a distraction for the “boys”. They were curious to see if I knew how to put on tefillin. I passed the test, even though they disagreed with the way I wrapped the straps on my arm. They listened intently, but disapprovingly, to my “English” Kaddish, then insisted that I adopt their text and diptongs. The real shock came when the ba’al korei overslept and, for lack of better, I offered to read the Torah. After that, every Monday and Thursday, it was: “Reb Yirmiyah, do you want lein for us”.

The davening was schlepped, the less we talked about it the better. If, like me, you think less is more, steer clear of Hitchin. Here they carefully recite everything a Nusach S’fard Siddur can offer, then add a few pieces. Worse still, the Rebbe recites every word aloud, slowly and passionately. Shacharis was scheduled to start at 7:45 a.m. There were usually 20 minutes late. It took an hour and 15 minutes on a normal weekday. I was lucky to be back in my car at 9:30. For Rosh Chodesh (with all its zuggingall sunbathe, Hallel) read 10:30. I declined numerous offers to come and stay for Shabbes.

It seems many boys are sent to Hitchin to keep them away from life on the streets of Stamford Hill (with all the temptations and inequities N16 has to offer). Others enhance the quality of the learning that takes place. The boys also learn basic technical skills that can help them find a job, if they wish.

The boys seem to have very little interest in the rural area around them, except for one thing. They excel at scanning tall trees with binoculars for bird nests. If they spot one, they erect ladders. Then they call on North Londoners who climb the ladders and fulfill the rare mitzvah of Shiluach HaKen (hunting the mother bird). This may be the only opportunity these townsfolk ever have.

Over time, I became something like a human search engine. Without internet access, but with an insatiable curiosity, the boys wanted to know so much about the world. I was kosher (fair) enough for them to ask. Many times I would get up and chat with the boys in the clearing after prayers. Once a boy told me he knew there were Jews who didn’t dress like him; but he did not know that there were Jews who did not dress like the Jews who did not dress like him. I was one of them – all in a ponytail and jeans.

My year in the Yeshiva went excruciatingly slow. When it finally ended, I felt a little regret and a lot of relief. I didn’t ask for Shanah Bet but my mom arranged it for me anyway. Three months later, she too died and my second year began.

One of the things I learned during my time at Hitchin Yeshiva was how to handle a burning passion. These young men get engaged at 19 or 20 and marry soon after, so hardly a week goes by without a simkha celebrate. The custom they taught me is that when a young man becomes engaged, his friends must each smoke a cigarette with him. Why? Because they can be jealous of his good fortune, and jealousy burns. Cigarettes burn too. Smoking a cigarette symbolically dispels the burn, so you instead feel joy for your friend. Although married for 40 years, the consensus was that I too could be jealous and therefore should join the selected in a smoke. After all, I was their friend.

Family solicitor in Hampstead and smallholder in Bedfordshire. Guard sheep, goats, poultry, Shabbat and kosher.

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