Wednesday, June 4, 2008

What is Yichus and where can I buy Some?

How the term yichus (let's use "high status" as a working definition) is used in Klal has been expanding and changing for some time now. Once yichus referred pretty much to family lineage. If you were looking for yichus you were looking for a family with "something special" to characterize it. Sometimes the yichus came from the financial and/or outside influence standing of a family--think the Rothschilds. Sometimes the yichus came from the a superior level of learning on the part of one or more members of the family--think marrying into the family of a Rambam or a Groh or a Chasam Sofer etc. But yichus was family oriented.

When looking at the yichus of any individual member of a family that person's individual accomplishments were also looked at--what would he be able to do for parnoseh, how learned was he, what were his personal midos and accomplishments. "Yichus atzmoh" was also a legitimate type of yichus.

Let's look at the role of yeshivas in the seeking of yichus. As I've mentioned before, Klal has never been one big happy family, and competition between geographic areas and within geographic areas was and still is alive and well. Those in one particular location looked with more favor upon the institutions in their area then in other areas. Sometimes a yeshiva would transcend this petty bickering and take its place as one of the "top" yeshivas regardless of location. Their "yichus" was acknowledged by just about everyone. In this they are not different from the secular colleges today. There are the "Ivies" at the top and then there are levels descending from there. It is not that you can't or don't get a good education at the lower ranked schools--you do. But they are not regarded as "yichusdik" as the highest ranked schools.

So what is different today? Yeshivas which in Europe found themselves separated by truly large distances are today plopped down together in close proximity. Our ability to travel long distances in comfort and in relatively short periods of time has also closed the "distance" between yeshivas today, no matter where they are located. Where once a yeshiva might have found itself "the only game in town," today it is competing for students from the same pool as other yeshivas.

Now add in that Jewish education for girls is thriving today. But also add in that the same competition that is afflicting the yeshivas is afflicting the girls' schools.

Every yeshiva struggles to make itself into "the" yeshiva. The need to differentiate between what are really fairly similar yeshivas in some cases has resulted in some awfully strange practices coming about. It seems that it is not the positive things that a yeshiva stands for that have become important but the things that a yeshiva is against that give it a certain cachet. Chumras abound. Outsiders looking at the goings on could be excused for categorizing the competition as a "My chumrah is bigger than your chumrah" contest.

So who are the players in this competition? Certainly the roshei hayeshivot and the rebbis are. Certainly the board members are. But these groups have co-opted another group into the competition: students and parents of students. Schools are insisting on a rigid conformity, one that meets with the requirements they have set out for their public image. They wheedle and threaten and do anything and everything possible to make sure that their graduates present the "right" image to the world. Whoa betide a student who does not fit exactly into the desired image. They find themselves being discarded at best and ostracized at worst. Parents are also pressured to make sure that their children "obey" the school's dictates.

In this competition the traditional yichus of family lineage has been supplanted by the yichus of the schools attended. The concept of "yichus atzmoh" has been rendered moot, as all students of a particular yeshiva are seen as being "identical." (How else could every boy be the best boy in Lakewood?) Individualism is not encouraged and is squelched whenever possible. Individuals bring down honor on themselves, not necessarily the schools they attend. This is not what the schools want.

This situation presents all kinds of problems for Klal all on its own. Yeshivas routinely denigrate other yeshivas whose philosophy and practices differ from their own--the students of these yeshivas are downgraded as well. But where the problem truly becomes sticky is when it comes to shidduchim.

What is the purpose of a shidduch? If you look at it from the point of view of a yeshiva or girls' school, the purpose is to bring the name of the yeshiva into the forefront. It's not that many people are looking for a boy who will learn after marriage--they are looking for a Chaim Berlin boy or a Lakewood boy or a Mir boy. Let's by all means talk about Bais Yaakov girls and Shulamit girls and Prospect girls. Hey, one size fits all, one name fits all. And what the yeshivas and girl's schools are also looking for is couples who will produce the requisite number of offspring so as to guarantee the future of that particular yeshiva or school.

What has this done to shidduchim? Made it a darn sight more difficult to make a shidduch. Schools are heavily involved in molding the kind of "products" that will best display the school's hashkafah. It's not just a girls' school's uniforms that identify the school--it is the uniformity of the students as well. Everyone has to toe the party line. And then students go on dates. And it is quite likely that somewhere in that dating situation what is going to come out are traits/characteristics and opinions that don't mesh exactly with what a yeshiva has told its students must be there for a "good" shidduch to take place. And shidduchim are turned down because someone isn't reading exactly from the proscribed script.

The type of social pressure that is normative in some parts of Klal--too many parts--adds nothing positive to the shidduch making process and subtracts an awful lot that is vital. Boys and girls on dates aren't finding out personal information about each other that could be instrumental in having a shidduch take place; they are only finding out what they have, all unwittingly, been programmed to find out or to display. The stringent insistance on having dates take place for only so many hours and only for so many days and with only some topics of conversation means that two actual strangers are going to stand under a chupah. And then they get married and discover the "truth." And sometimes this is a relief, and sometimes it is not.

It's no wonder that yeshivas and schools want to limit the amount of time that dating couples spend with each other. It's no wonder that they lay down sometimes wholly esoteric rules and regulations for dating. Anything less than that and they might lose their influence over the "products" they want to market their way, on their terms.

Yeshivas and schools supplanting parental choice and parental authority all for their own advancement and concerns. And we wonder why shidduchim are so difficult to make today.


Anonymous said...

No argument that yeshivas are mixing into family business and their reasons for doing so aren't so altruistic. But we are also at fault for letting them get away with it. We enable them to do the mixing in. We bought the package they are selling. And right about now a lot of people are saying to themselves that there is nothing we can do about it. Why? Revolutions all begin with one person talking to another person who talks to another person. Small groups become larger groups. And then change happens. Why aren't we pressuring the yeshivas? Why aren't we telling them thanks but no thanks? Because they have us convinced that that would be bad for shidduchim. It's the whip they use for everything. But ask yourself this--is it any better for shidduchim doing it the yeshiva's way?

Anonymous said...

It's not 100% that yeshivas do things only for their own yichus but you are right that we see it that way most of the time. Back when there was that whole business with the sheitle store by Chaim Berlin a few of the official letters that came out talking about why the store should take down the pictures was because it was not kavod for the yeshiva to put them up near the yeshiva. And kavod in that case was clearly about yichus. You didn't hear about any of the other yeshivas and schools near that store making complaints. I guess they weren't yichusdik enough to worry about their kavod.

Scraps said...


Baruch shelo asani resident of Brooklyn....

SaraK said...


Anonymous said...

The high schools play the yichus game together with the yeshivas and seminaries. When my parents were looking for a high school for my sister one of the schools told them proudly that more of their graduates were accepted into Seminary X then from any other high school. I guess the idea was that if you want that seminary you better come to us. The boys high schools do the same thing with the Israeli yeshivas.

And if you go to a smaller yeshiva or seminary or one that is a little bit different people always assume you couldn't get in to someplace with more yichus. It's never thought that maybe you just didn't want to go there.

Anonymous said...

You can also see the we're yichus and you're not attitude that the yeshivas have when they interview potential students. Almost any student who isn't exactly what they are looking for, who won't bring the right recognition to them they don't want to take in. A student who is weaker? Try another yeshiva. A student who needs some extra chizuk to do well? Try another yeshiva. A family that is not an exact copy of their ideal family? Find another yeshiva.

I went with my son to an interview at a yeshiva I was interested in possibly for him. At the interview it was soon pretty clear that the rabbi doing the interviewing was not interested in us. My son got asked about the internet and answered honestly and things went downhill from there. I was really fed up with the whole attitude so when I got up I told the rabbi that it ws a shame that we weren't a match for the school since I had money I was considering donating for the new wing they were looking to build (Not true but it served its purpose). Bingo! Suddenly I was being asked to sit down again because perhaps they were a little hasty in deciding that another yeshiva would do. Politely I told him to drop dead if not in those words. So yichus can be purchased if the price is right.

Anonymous said...

Good for you Allen! I've wanted to do something like that so many times and just didn't have the gutts to go ahead and do it.

Anonymous said...

Have to agree that part of the problem is that we have let the schools play the yichus game. But some of it boils down to money. When parents have to ask for tuition assistance then they buckle down to what the school says they want. They don't like it but what choice do they have? When it comes to shidduchim though, when the kids are no longer in the school and money is not the issue, we ought to have enough sense to say enough is enough.

Anonymous said...

Sure you can buy yichus, isn't that what a dowry is for? :-)