Filling the void

Orthodoxy induced emotional scars fueled Dov Elbaum’s ambition to affect the world.

Dov Elbaum (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dov Elbaum
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Dov Elbaum has come a long way since he left the recognized religious fold. Then again, he has come full circle.

Forty-three-year-old Elbaum is known to TV viewers across the country as presenter of several popular programs, including Mekablim Shabbat (“Receiving Shabbat”) currently running, Fridays, on Channel 1, and cozy interview show Hotzeh Yisrael (“Crossing Israel”).
He has also produced a number of well-received tomes over the years, one of which goes by the somewhat enigmatic title of Into the Fullness of the Void. It is the subtitle that gives the game away – A Spiritual Autobiography. The book was originally published in Hebrew around six years ago and recently came out in English.
Today, Elbaum makes part of his living as an educator at the BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv, and is one of the founders of BINA’s Secular Yeshiva. BINA came into being at the end of 1996, a year after the Rabin assassination, at the end of 1996. One wonders whether that was just chronological coincidence, or if the tragedy actually sparked a general urge to seek some new spiritual avenues of meaning.
“Some managers of BINA say it was formed as a result of the assassination, but I’m not so sure,” says Elbaum. “But I think it was part of the mood in Israel after the assassination, of an urgent need for new understanding between the different worlds in Israel.”
Elbaum is certainly someone who has delved into different worlds. He hails from a revered Jerusalemite family, and spent his early years cocooned in a closed world in which everyone knew their place and the everyone was expected to follow a beaten path to spiritual improvement and strict religious observance. The young Elbaum was certainly toeing the haredi line when, as a teenager, he started studying at the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem. “That’s the top yeshiva for the Lithuanian Jewish community,” he notes. “It’s the Cambridge and the Oxford of the community.”
All seemed to be going to plan until, one sunny day, Elbaum reached a life-changing realization.
“I suddenly understood: that was the way it was going to be for the rest of my life,” he recalls. “I wasn’t going to make any new discoveries about life. I had made it to the required place, and that was where I was going to live the rest of my life. These were the thoughts I was going to have. That was the ghetto and that was where I was going to stay.”
In truth, Elbaum had been harboring rebellious thoughts for some time.
“I always had one eye on the big outside world, beyond the confines of the community,” he says. “I did not think it was logical that, just because I was defined as haredi, I had to be so isolated from society in general, or that I couldn’t read books or talk to girls, or that I couldn’t write poems.” The latter exercise got him into hot water, divine subject matter notwithstanding.
“I wrote poems when I was in yeshiva.
I wrote love poems to God, like a kind of [11th century Jewish philosopher and poet Solomon] Ibn Gabirol – of course I wasn’t on his level, I’m talking about the style,” says Elbaum. “I hid them in a Gemara and some snitch told on me. I was really in for it after that. I was spoken to by all sorts of people. They asked me why I wrote the poems, and what right I had to do that. Can you imagine? They told me that people don’t write love poems to God anymore, and that it was only permitted in previous generations.”
The fallout, naturally enough, did not further endear the haredi way of life to Elbaum, and his departure from the fold began in earnest. The strictures placed on his freedom-seeking soul eventually proved to be too onerous for him to keep up the pretense of sticking to the straight and narrow and he duly left the yeshiva.
“How can you live like that? When you are told what to think, how to act, whom to talk to and how to talk. For me that was intolerable,” he says.
Notifying his parents of his religious turn-around was never going to be easy, for either side. His father took the news very badly.
“He went to [venerated leader of the Lithuanian haredi community] Rabbi Shach to ask him whether he should sit shiva for me,” Elbaum recalls. “Rabbi Shach told him not be stupid, and to go home and take it.” Elbaum senior didn’t quite manage that. “My father didn’t say a word to me for 10 years,” says the errant son. “My mother never abandoned me, but you learn to keep your emotions bottled up inside, and you learn not to trust anyone. You become a loner.”
Worse was to follow.
“I have an older brother – he is 17 years older than me – whom I love and whom I looked up to, he was like a father figure for me. When he heard I was leaving the yeshiva he came to me and said he would have preferred if I’d died in a traffic accident.
I was really shaken,” says Elbaum. “He also explained why he said that. He quoted a saying from the Scriptures [commentary of the Sages on Deuteronomy 21:18]: ‘It is better to die innocent than to die obliged’ – that is better to die before committing all sorts of transgressions.”
Coming from his beloved sibling that was quite a blow. “I didn’t deal with my emotions head on,” explains Elbaum. “It was like being a soldier in the middle of the battlefield. You can collapse or you can push the fear to one side and run around like crazy.” He went for the latter.
“I set myself a goal of doing my bagrut [matriculation] – we didn’t have any secular education at the yeshiva – join the army and start life on an equal footing with secular Israelis.”
Elbaum’s frustration and emotional scars fueled a burning ambition to make his way in the big wide world.
“I knew I wanted to be a writer. It was clear to me that I was going to be a creative person, and well known, and that I would influence people. I kept on setting targets for myself and going for them come what may.”
Setting goals is one thing, but achieving them, in a world that was still essentially foreign, proved to be more challenging than he’d expected. While he labored under the constraints placed on him in the cloistered haredi sector, he encountered all sorts of prejudices in the flipside world.
He discovered that were plenty of secular Israelis with set ideas about the haredim and he was expected to jump on the anti- religious bandwagon.
“I heard so many stupid comments about the religious,” he recalls.
Luckily, Elbaum managed to get onto the Bamahaneh IDF publication writing team.
“That really saved me,” he says. “I don’t think I could have sur vived coming f r o m the haredi community into abrasive violent world of the IDF, and doing basic training. As it was I did very easy basic training, and that almost killed me. I got lots of stick over my religious origins.” So the youngster had three years to hone his writing skills, in khaki, and to get some valuable insight on Israeli society in general, and has never looked back.
Besides his TV work, Elbaum has three adult books to his name, all of which feed off his religious upbringing and address the difficulties of bridging the religious- secular divide and coming to terms with freedom outside the cosseted confines of his initial formative life domain.
There are also three children’s books in the Elbaum bibliography. He also lectures, at BINA and elsewhere, on a wide range of topics, including the Bible, hassidism and Kabbala.
The latter features strongly in Into the Fullness of the Void. The 10 chapters in the book correspond to the 10 sefirot, or levels in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, from Keter – the crown – down to Malkut, kingdom.
It is easy to see the analogy between the empty space mentioned in the book title, and the aching vacuum Elbaum experienced when he struck out on his own, to forge his own singular way through the alien, but longed for, morass of the secular world.
“In Kabbala the concept of the void is a difficult one,” explains Elbaum. “It is a place of renewal and regrowth, but you are warned not to go there unless you are sure you can find your way back out.”
Elbaum has been plying his way through the void, and disseminating the wisdom he has accrued en route, for over 20 years now. Into the Fullness of the Void is a fascinating account by someone who has been there and done that in both worlds.