Fabled Diaspora Yeshiva celebrates milestone

Reminiscing about 50 years of the ‘musical yeshiva,’ a part of the fabric of the Old City.

Singing, dancing and playing guitar at the courtyard on Mount Zion (photo credit: BEN BRESKY)
Singing, dancing and playing guitar at the courtyard on Mount Zion
(photo credit: BEN BRESKY)
The thousands of people who visited Mount Zion on Shavuot several weeks ago may not have noticed the banners proclaiming the 50th anniversary of the Diaspora Yeshiva.
As usual, the Western Wall was packed with people who had stayed up all night studying as part of the festival. Around the corner, just outside Zion Gate, sits the Mount Zion neighborhood, which for 19 years, until the Six Day War of 1967, was the closest an Israeli could get to the Old City.
The young people who streamed in on Shavuot, prayed at local holy sites and even camped out on the grassy field outside the courtyard were not born when the Diaspora Yeshiva was first started.
Back in 1967, Rabbi Mordechai Goldstein, the yeshiva's founder, was a young man and a recent immigrant from New York.
The fabled Diaspora Yeshiva was the first Jewish institute of higher learning to cater to the newly religious. It was also the birthplace of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, which spawned an entire music scene in Israel.
“We started with just five people,” Goldstein, now in his 80s, said after a lecture in the yeshiva's main hall.
Today, the institution has about 80 students, mostly Israeli but also with strong programs in English and Spanish.
Goldstein credits the yeshiva’s location to Dr. S.Z. Kahana (1905-1998), who served as director-general of the Religious Affairs Ministry for 20 years. It was Kahana who arranged to lease several dilapidated buildings on Mount Zion to the newly founded Diaspora Yeshiva. “He was happy to have a young rabbi from America take charge and do something constructive with the land,” noted Goldstein.
Kahana also created the Chamber of the Holocaust, next door to the yeshiva, Israel’s first Holocaust memorial museum, built in 1949.
In the late 1960s, a new spirit was sweeping American youth in search of spirituality, and many who were Jewish were turning to Israel. But in the yeshivot of that time, students generally came from religious families and had an existing understanding of Judaism.
Goldstein related that if a new student from a nonreligious family wanted to attend a yeshiva, he was assigned a private tutor. The concept of an entire yeshiva catering to kids who grew up secular did not really exist. Goldstein and his supportive wife seemed perfect for the job. He was born in New York City’s Bronx borough. His mother was a lawyer and his father an employee of the Food and Drug Administration. Both were active in the Jewish War Veterans and protested against “the German atrocities,” as Goldstein puts it.
His brother Myron was a crew member of the Exodus 1947 ship of “illegal” immigrants to Palestine. His sister played a role in helping Golda Meir by exchanging passports with her during the days of the British Mandate. Goldstein personally remembers volunteering as a teenager for sometimes risky operations to support the soon-to-be independent State of Israel, but notes he swore off politics after its founding in 1948.
Over the years a diverse group of people have studied at the yeshiva from all walks of life. “The doors are open. Everybody is welcome,” Goldstein said with a smile.
The most well-known product of the Diaspora Yeshiva is the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, which has just celebrated its 40th anniversary. The group was considered revolutionary at the time for combining Jewish-oriented lyrics and themes with modern compositions and instruments.
Avraham Rosenblum was the band’s founder and composed many of the songs that have now become ubiquitous at Jewish events. Starting his musical career in New York’s Greenwich Village, he came to the yeshiva in 1971. Today, Rosenblum calls himself “The Rockin’ Rabbi” and has continued the legacy by organizing reunion concerts and releasing albums with his band, Avraham Rosenblum and Diaspora.
There were six founding members and a cast of rotating musicians. Several went on to have successful solo careers such as Ben Zion Solomon, whose sons are now making a musical name for themselves as The Solomon Brothers; Adam Wexler, who went on to help found Reva L’Sheva; and well-known figures like Menachem Herman, Chaim Dovid, Rabbi Moshe Shur, Ruby Harris and Gedalia Goldstein.
Perhaps the best person to talk about the band’s connection to the yeshiva is Rabbi Simcha Abramson, a founding member, who today works as an educator at the same institution where he was once a beginner.
“We were known as the musical yeshiva,” Abramson recounted, “so much so that a prospective student once asked me if it was okay for him to enroll even if he didn’t play an instrument.”
Abramson described Jerusalem of those days as “smaller, with less going on. Saturday night on Mount Zion was the place to be.” Those Saturday night concerts, often performed in the building known as Assaf’s Cave, became a scene hosted by a band that became a phenomenon. Today, the yeshiva still holds a weekly Saturday night kumzitz.
Abramson’s goal, as a teen from America, had never been to become a rabbi or a musician. “I came to Israel on my 18th birthday in 1969 for one year at Tel Aviv University,” he reminisced.
“My family were staunch Reform Jews and my father worked for the United Jewish Appeal,” he related. Upon returning to America, “I made the obligatory VW van trek to the West Coast.”
In 1972 he returned to Israel and attended a wedding in Jerusalem that changed his life. “I didn’t know from yeshiva,” Abramson recalled. “It was the brother of a friend, and I just went to have a good time. These days weddings are so shiny and fancy, but this was just in an open area and the band was just two guys with acoustic guitars. It was the most fantastic experience I ever had. The day after, I said, ‘That’s it, I’m going to become religious.’
“All the buildings were bombed out,” Abramson said of the post- Six Day War status of the area. “Damaged buildings were filled up with rubble. I remember cleaning out the rooms. Several had rubble from the floor to the ceiling. There were no windows or doors, and winter was quite cold.”
Goldstein remembers yeshiva students volunteering in hospitals and an atmosphere of tension as the area was just around the corner from what had been, for 19 years, the border with Jordan. Other tensions over the years have arisen due to the mix of different religions and sometimes competing claims to the historic buildings.
Abramson remembers one particular incident described in a 1974 article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as a “fracas between competing students” of the yeshiva and a non-Jewish religious institution. However, he was quick to point out that on the very day of this interview, he bumped into an English-speaking Coptic priest: “We’ve been greeting each other cordially for the past 30 years.”
The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was also a time of mixed memories. Abramson spoke of a moving experience playing for soldiers on the Golan Heights about a month after the war ended.
“We played at several different bunkers, and one time they took us up at night in half-tracks. The trip was bumpy and there was no real road. Finally, we get to this old bunker, farther north than most Israelis had ever been. We walked into a place that looked like out of a movie, with light bulbs hanging from the ceiling and sullen, tired, unshaven, dirty faces surrounded by machine guns and bullets.
“But when we started playing, the soldiers jumped up and started to dance and sing along.”
One of the more well-known musical students at the yeshiva was not Jewish at all. Artimus Pyle became famous as drummer for the American Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. A quest for meaning in life and a Jewish friend led him to Jerusalem. Pyle was a survivor of the harrowing airplane crash in 1977 that took the lives of three band members. In an interview with the Lucas H. Gordon Show posted online in 2013, Pyle is asked why he went to Israel for three years, to which he replies, “I was trying to become a human being.”
Abramson said he remembers Pyle and recalled several long, late-night philosophical conversations with him, some dealing with the plane crash. Pyle released the song “I Live in Jerusalem” on a 2007 solo album. A portion of the lyrics states: “We jumped in a sherut / and went to Jerusalem / to see who we could be / we decided to work on our character / to work on our souls.”
Today, the elder Goldstein is semiretired and several of his sons have taken the helm. Rabbi Yitzhak Goldstein serves as dean of the yeshiva. “I remember there was no water or electricity when we first came here,” he reminisces, describing an atmosphere akin to camping, with no bathrooms.
When asked for more stories of the old days, he replied, “We are looking forward to the next 50 years.”
He spoke enthusiastically of the new Spanish program, of the new wave of French immigrants and of expanding programs in Tel Aviv.
“If Coca-Cola had stopped at just manufacturing one product, they might not have lasted,” said the younger Rabbi Goldstein. “They had to expand with different beverages.”