‘Whoever Desires May Come and Take It’: On Baalabatim and Torah Study in Frum Culture
How are baalabatim depicted in Orthodox Jewish music? What function do they serve, what are they praised for and how are they held up as role models? These seemingly bizarre questions occurred to me recently as I was listening to one of my favorite songs, “Joe Dimaggio’s Card,” which is sung masterfully by Abie Rotenberg on his album Journeys III.
I’m a big fan of R. Abie’s work, and I appreciate his unique ability to deliver religiously inspiring messages through the use of plain, folksy English lyrics and relatively simple melodies. However, listening more closely to the lyrics this time, I picked up on how baalabatim are treated in “Joe Dimaggio’s Card,” and it rubbed me the wrong way.
For those unfamiliar with the song, it tells the story of two American Jewish boys growing up in 1950s-era New York, whose close friendship is rooted in their mutual obsession with all things baseball. One day, they both buy packs of baseball cards, and one of the boys finds a valuable Joe DiMaggio card in a pack. He hides it “deep inside” his drawer and vows to keep it “forever and forever,” for “it was so precious to me.” It’s a sweet depiction of friendship and captures the magic that sports and athletes hold for young boys of a certain age.
In the next stanza, however, they go off to yeshiva and everything changes:
“When we grew older, and left for yeshiva
A change could be seen from the start
Sam loved to study while I loved to daydream
Slowly we drifted apart.”
Their friendship fizzles out and they go on to take very different paths in life. Sam, the studious one, becomes a rosh yeshiva, while the daydreamer becomes a baalabos of some sort. Over the years, his Joe DiMaggio card becomes incredibly valuable, but he turns away would-be buyers who make lucrative offers to purchase the card, demurring, “it’s not for sale.” Then, the moment of drama in an otherwise pretty prosaic song arrives:
“…there was a fire that ravaged his school
I knew it just might break his heart
So I reached in my drawer and said my goodbyes
To the great Joe DiMaggio's card.”
A tragedy leads to an inspiring sacrifice. To make the story come full circle, the ending sees our baalabos’ grandson arrive home from school holding a new “gadol card” and declare:
“Look Zaide! Reb Shmuel is one of the gedolim
And I'm giving his card to you.”
And of course, the response has to be that our protagonist lovingly hides it “deep inside” his drawer, and vows to keep it “forever and ever,” for it truly is “so very precious” to him. With that, the song ends and we are left feeling warm and fuzzy and a bit teary-eyed, unless that’s just me.
You might be wondering why anyone could possibly have an issue with this inspiring, heartfelt song. Does it not depict an incredible act of sacrifice on the part of our unnamed baalabos, who parted with a beloved childhood baseball card in order to save his old friend’s yeshiva? Did he not selflessly choose to support harbatzas Torah instead of pocketing a cool $500,000? What kind of monster could object to the moral lesson here, you might ask?
Allow me to explain myself: It is indeed noble, generous and heroic for someone to sell a sentimental object of great value in order to support a Torah institution. If any readers out there have a spare Joe Dimaggio card lying around, I’m sure YU would be profoundly enriched by your generous donation.
What bugs me are — as I mentioned in the beginning — the implicit messages that this song sends about what it means to be an ideal baalabos, and by extension, the limited place of Torah learning in communal Jewish life.
First and foremost, it’s sad that the setting of a yeshiva is what caused the end of a childhood friendship. The implication here is that once Sam started learning Torah, the boys had nothing left in common. From there, one becomes a rosh yeshiva and the other a baalabos, and never the twain shall meet. I object! Why couldn’t Sam and his buddy continue bonding over sports bein hasedarim, as is quite common in many yeshivot? I’m speculating here, but what message might Sam have received from his rebbeim such that he completely cut sports out of his life, thus shredding any last connection with his old friend? In my time at Yeshivat Har Etzion, I heard R. Ezra Bick fondly reminisce on more than occasion about playing basketball with R. Aharon Lichtenstein and various other college students and kollel fellows at YU. Not everyone on the court was a talmid chacham, but everyone enjoyed playing together nonetheless.
More troublesome to me is the end of the song and the mussar haskel therein. The baalabos has made his laudable donation, which must have been very painful, and as a consolation prize, he gets a “gadol card” from his grandson that features his old pal Shmuel the rosh yeshiva. There’s no indication that the two men resumed their boyhood friendship after the DiMaggio card donation, and the song sadly ends without them meeting once again.
Here’s the rub: The baalabos, who was a daydreamer in yeshiva, is celebrated solely and exclusively for his tzedakah. That, apparently, is his one great maalah in life. Learning Torah, teaching Torah and matters of frumkeit are all left in the hands of Reb Shmuel at the yeshiva. A child listening to this song might reasonably deduce that talmud Torah is confined to the yeshiva, while those outside its walls are the daydreaming Jews who fulfill their chiyuv in talmud Torah by writing a check — or selling a card, as the case may be.
Why must this be? Why isn’t there a stanza anywhere that acknowledges and praises the Torah learning of our baalabos, be it early morning daf yomi, learning the parsha with his children or a weekly iyun chaburah he attends at night? In the song, there is a clear and strict division between those who learn Torah and those who support Torah. The supporters are the “daydreamers” who couldn’t make the cut in yeshiva, and their solace is to provide for the “top guys” who did. To be clear: I have no issue with praising tzedakah, which the Talmud says is greater than offering korbanot (Sukkah 49b), but why does our song hold it up as the only possible religious experience available to laymen? The message certainly can’t be that non-roshei yeshiva should only aspire to work hard in order to give money to roshei yeshiva. Their own Torah learning — either as part of the chinuch of their children or for its own sake — surely matters too.
The Rambam in Mishnah Torah (Talmud Torah 3:1) puts it well:
“The crown of Torah is set aside, waiting and ready for each Jew, as it says: ‘The Torah which Moses commanded us is the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob (Deuteronomy 33:4).’ Whoever desires may come and take it.”
Indeed. The religious contributions of baalabatim that our community celebrates should not be limited to charitable giving. Next time, our baalabos should get a chavrusa at the yeshiva instead of a gadol card. Torah learning is a “team sport,” and frum music would do well to reflect that.