By: Naftali Shavelson  | 

Such Sweet Sorrow

I’ve been discussing a fair amount with friends recently –– in tones, depending on the day, ranging from distracted amusement to excitement or trepidation –– about how commencement and what follows will be the first time in many of our lives where our next steps are no longer presupposed. Of course, the LSAT and MCAT class will respectfully disagree; conversely, neither yeshiva nor college were always obvious parts of many of my fellow graduates’ assumed trajectories. But for most of us soon to be set free on the Arthur Ashe Stadium dais, yeshiva high school, Israel gap years and six or eight semesters of higher education were obvious pieces of our essentially uncomplicated coming-of-age puzzles.

Straightforward no more. We now must reckon with freedom of choice, with internships and jobs and advanced degrees, with Washington Heights and the Upper West Side and Givat Shmuel. With what our professors and rebbeim have been terming, with percipient alarmism, “the real world.” We need to figure out not just what we want to study but what we want to “do,” and why we want to do it. We need to grow up and to move on.

Reaching the end of the mandated yellow brick road is frightening and exhilarating. It is also, I believe, what our entire Yeshiva University experience has been all about. It’s the real test of Gemara shiur, Interpreting the Creative and the indispensable conversations with friends and teachers and ourselves that tie the two disciplines together. The personal and professional trails we blaze will tell us quite clearly whether our education “worked.”

Kaleidoscopic banners drowned campus this year with talk of Core Torah Values, some more intuitive than others if all equally difficult to remember. But call it Torah Umadda or Torat Emet (etc. etc.) –– I think both represent the same understanding that Torah is meant not only for study hall contemplation but as a guide for bettering the world –– YU’s platform communicates on a fundamental level the notion that academic credits are nothing if not actualized. On that note, YU seems to me a rare institution driven by manifest values rather than, say, vogue socio-political fascinations. It isn’t isolated enough to be immune to those trends, not that it intends to be, but rather aims for its vision to shape the moment rather than the other way around.

I’ll miss that, though I also know I don’t have to leave it behind in Furst Hall or the Glueck Beit Midrash. The lessons I’ve learned from my rebbeim and teachers about the human condition and the Jewish experience will doubtless inform my journey, and I hope will only be strengthened by my impending rendezvous with a sharper kind of reality.

More viscerally … I’ll miss walking down 185th Street to my morning classes squinting toward a West Bronx sunrise. I’ll miss jousting with deadlines, salmon Thursdays, Shabbos on and especially off campus. I’ll miss those fantastic chills (and Maarivs!) on the fifth floor of the library, a forum where many of the above topics were aired and examined like 6th Avenue diamonds. I’ll miss the fantastic Commentator team, the news we broke and the platforms we extended to a wildly vibrant spectrum of YU community voices.

YU is far from a perfect institution. I specifically lament the renunciation of humanities and academic Jewish studies to the beckon of the white-collar vocational. Would Yeshiva College really crumble under the weight of a humble art history survey course? However, these are, in context, small things. YU remains the only school in the hemisphere that offers a full-throated, de jure dual curriculum, top-tier Torah and general studies under the same historic roof. For that it remains invaluable to students and indispensable to American Judaism.

Over the past three years, I’ve sometimes found myself high up in Belfer Hall, YU’s Streamline Moderne-meets-International Style brick-clad ivory tower, after a late event or night class. Walk up to a south-facing window there and you’re greeted with one of Manhattan’s most expansive views, a sprawling panorama of Harlem and Morningside melting into Midtown and Hudson Yards. The lights of “real” Manhattan shimmer in the distance like outlying neighborhood stars. It’s really quite beautiful, but stand there too long and you get restless. Eventually you need to take the (hopefully operational) elevator down a dozen or so flights, board a crowded southbound subway and get off in those business districts you’ve been peering at from your scholastic perch. Roll up your sleeves, chart yourself a rough path on the back of a Starbucks napkin, and consult it now and then to dodge complacency as you wander the streets of reality. 

You don’t need to have everything figured out –– I certainly don’t –– but you should try to hold on to the ideals you sipped or knocked back during your YU tenure, no matter how hard bitter realism and oblique tax forms try to snatch them away from you.

Letaken Olam B'malchut Shakkai. The Sixth Torah? Maybe. A roadmap for an era beyond the prescribed itinerary of youth? Absolutely. Slide aside your tassels, throw your caps to the skies and go do impossible things.

Photo Caption: Students celebrating commencement

Photo Credit: Unsplash/ Pang Yuhao