The Yeshivish community, also referred to as “Litvish” or “Lithuanian,” traces its lineage to the “misnagdim,” led by the Gaon of Vilna and his students, who vehemently opposed the Hasidic movement when it emerged and swiftly gained adherents in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Much has changed since that time. The communities now evidence a great deal of respect for each other and work together in some shared communal bodies and collaborate on issues of mutual concern.11
Despite the rapprochement, the communities are yet distinct, each with their own educational and social institutions, and there is limited intermarriage between the two. Fundamentally, the Hasidic community, as discussed above, has defined its mission as replicating and perpetuating its conception of pre-War eastern European Hasidic life, whereas the mission of the American Yeshivish community has been to take a specific educational institution of pre-War Eastern Europe – the yeshiva – and to build communities around this institution devoted to the broadening and deepening of Torah study and the strict observance of Jewish law.
Like the Hasidim, the Yeshivish community has enjoyed great success. There are now hundreds of yeshivas and kollels (yeshivas for married students) in America and the community continues to grow at an exceptional rate.
The American Yeshivish community is quite integrated into American society, but at the same time makes concerted efforts to insulate itself from certain aspects of society it considers dangerous to its religious scruples. The daily dress of male members of the Yeshivish community is not terribly distinctive, generally consisting of dark business suits with white shirts and ties, and a fedora hat. Women dress modestly, but have more flexibility in what they wear as compared to Hasidic women and many wear fashionable clothing. Married women also cover their hair, typically with a stylish custom human hair wig. Men are not immune to fashion – designer suits, watches, and eyeglasses especially are popular vehicles for the expression of personal style.
Although the Yeshivish community is not as prolific as the Hasidic community, it is also highly fecund, with large families of five plus children the norm. According to the UJA-Federation study, the mean number of children for Yeshivish women ages 35-44 in the New York area is 5.0.12 The marriage age is also different, with the target age for Yeshivish men being 21-23 and for Yeshivish women 19-21. Marriages are usually arranged, typically through a professional matchmaker or sometimes by the parents themselves. Men and women are separated in social venues and the maintenance of standards of modesty, especially on the part of women, is stressed. Socializing among married couples is frowned upon.
The Yeshivish community is far more open to secular studies as compared to the Hasidim. More hours are devoted to secular studies in elementary and high schools, although there are elite high schools for boys that provide little or no instruction in secular studies. As is the case in the Hasidic community, young women generally receive more instruction in secular studies than do the young men. The major difference between the Yeshivish and the Hasidic communities is that the native language of the Yeshivish community is English. Yiddish is only taught to boys beginning in high school, and women generally are not fluent or conversant in Yiddish.
Higher educational opportunities are limited by the community’s insistence on the separation of the sexes in schools and classes and by its objection to the mores and sexual ethics of American college campuses. Although the standard American college is considered off-limits, there are many alternative options to attain undergraduate and post-graduate degrees. Most well-established higher yeshivas offer their students the opportunity to receive a college degree for their yeshiva studies — a Bachelor of Talmudic Law, or “BTL.” By doing so, the yeshiva and the student are able to receive government educational allowances and loans. A small number of young men are able to gain acceptance at elite graduate schools, such as Harvard Law School, with their BTLs or other undergraduate degrees.
The Yeshivish community is far more homogeneous than the Hasidic community. However, there is significant variation within the community with respect to levels of stringency in complying with Jewish law, dedication to Torah study, enjoyment of American popular culture, and social mingling among the sexes. The border between the “leftwing” or “modern” end of the Yeshivish community and the “rightwing” Modern Orthodox community (discussed below) is indistinct. The Yeshivish community is also more accepting of outsiders than the Hasidim, and it has numerous programs and initiatives dedicated to bringing non-religious Jews closer to their form of Judaism.