Minhagei Lita, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Poliakoff, Baltimore: 2008, 116 pp.
The author's stated purpose is to "clarify for present generation the authentic customs of Lithuanian Jewry in prayer and in common Jewish practice" and highlight the Torah true approach and values that form the underpinnings" of those customs. Minhagei Lita at 3. Aside from the difficulty in determining what the author means by "common Jewish practice," "Torah true approach" this book, unfortunately, has little value. This book, which is really a screed, suffers from numerous problems, which we will highlight below. This book has so many flaws that I was not even going to review it, but it seems to have garnered some media attention and thus we have decided to review the book.
The author apparently spent eight years in Telshe Yeshiva in Lithuania, between 1930-38. It does not appear, according the brief biography at the end of the book, that the author went anywhere other than Telshe. See id. at 101-02. He makes no mention of visiting more established and larger Lithuanian cities of Vilna, Kovno, or Mintz for example. Indeed, in his introduction, he provides that he is "not so presumptuous and foolish to claim knowledge of all or even most of the area of Lithuanian avodah." Id. at 4. But, throughout the book, the author fails to remember this disclaimer. Instead, for example, the author asserts that "the minhag in Lithuania was to beat the Aravos," id. at 48, or that the neither "in the Telshe Yeshivah or anywhere else in Lithuania," id. at 50, did they repeat to the two readings of the zekher. How the author knew that these customs were uniform throughout Lithuania is unclear.
This is not the only piece of his own advice the author ignores. The author records a conversation where another Lithuanian Jew bemoans the current state of Judaisim and particular its failure "to walk humbly with G[o]d?" Id. at 61 Poliakoff agrees this sentiment but a few pages later states about himself, without irony, that "I am much more of a scholar and more pious than many people in Baltimore who denigrate the eruv." Id. at 74. Additionally, Poliakoff decides that he can offer his own "novel" solution to solving the agunah problem and dispensing with the second day of Yom Tov. The idea that in one fell swoop he can deal with these weighty issues doesn't smack of humility. Moreover, in dealing with both of these issues, as well as others in the book, Poliakoff's lack of awareness of relevant sources is stunning. He seems to think that only with the very recent technological advances is the Yom Tov Sheni issue problematic. Of course, since communication has been improving for hundreds of years, many, many people have raised and dealt with the issue of continuing to keep a second day for Yom Tov. See, for example, J. Katz, Divine Law in Human Hands, Magnes Press: 1998, 255 ff. Perhaps, as Poliakoff appears to still live in Baltimore, which to my knowledge, has no good Judaic library he had no access to these sources. When it comes to agunah, his "novel" solution is annulment. Of course, as anyone who has even the most basic familiarity with the history of the agunah issue knows that this approach has been raised on countless occasions. For a recent comprehensive history, one just needs to read the comprehensive articles in Yeshurun on this topic (many of which are online at Hebrewbooks, and thus, mitigates Polikoff's unfortunate status as a Baltimorian). Maybe Polikoff will suggest in his next book that his has novel approach to Pesach where he wants to abandon the prohibition against kitnyot.
This is not the only example where a better library would have assisted him. He asserts that "one of the new trends today is to pronounce the word for rain in the second brachah of the amidah - gashem. The traditional pronunciation has always been, geshem." Minhagei Lita, at 22. First, this is not a "new" trend, it was started in the early 1800s. Second, there is much written on this topic that could have clued him in on this. There are at least three books that are entirely devoted to this issue. See, e.g., Hayyim Kraus's books, Mekhalkhel Hayyim, Jerusalem, 1981 and Ot Hayim, Beni Brak, 1984. Polikoff also asserts that there that is only "recent" is pointing one's little finger at the torah during the hagbah ceremony. His "proof" that is a custom that has no basis and is a new one is that he "asked a person whom [he] noticed performing this act why [the pointer] did it and from where he learnt it." The pointer "was unable to find a traditional source for it." Just to be clear, Poliakoff, based upon one persons failure to elicit a source, proves his point. Rabbi Hayyim Palagei in Lev Chaim, Orach Chaim (167:6) records this custom as does the Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez (Deut. 27:26) records this custom as well as others. I am not suggesting that these sources end the discussion, or if this is an appropriate custom, but merely that the notion that there are no traditional sources is wrong.
Then, we get to, for lack of a better descriptor, the really silly things that Poliakoff says. For example, he asserts that it is a "misconception" that a mourner should lead the prayers, instead a mourner is only supposed to say kaddish. Minhagei Lita at 32. As an initial matter, this is a highly questionable assertion, but let's assume he is correct. Based upon this assumption, Poliakoff then goes on to complain that sometimes people have decided to take upon themselves to lead the services not for a dead relative that would render them an avel but a grandfather for example. As they are doing this for hesed they should have priority over an actual avel in leading the prayers. So, according to Poliakoff, if you are leading the prayers in memory of your great uncle Bob then you are somehow doing more hesed than if you are merely leading the prayers for one's father John who died two weeks ago. Why if for Uncle Bob are you doing a hesed are you not doing it for John? Or we have the especially silly comment since "more than fifty percent of marriages today contracted by the parties themselves end in divorce, we ought to consider whether we would not be better off if we required the consent of the parents to contract a marriage." Id. at 79.
Poliakoff, is quick to offer his own sociological take on why it is current customs and practices don't conform with his limited experience in Telshe Yeshiva in Lithuania. According to him this was in part brought about by the rise of the ba'al teshuva movement. Id. at 55. I assume the argument is that since ba'al teshuva don't have their own family customs, they relied too heavily on books, books like the Mishna Berurah, which, according to Poliakoff don't accurately represent the Lithuanian practice. But, did all ba'al teshuva become religious via the same experiance that Rambam attributes to Abraham? That is, was it based solely on their own introspection, did they not have teachers who were not ba'alei teshuva, teachers who presumably had their own traditions and customs that they could impart to their ba'alei teshuva students? Did these ba'ale teshuva take over all the yeshivas and shuls and institute their "new" non-traditional customs and force everyone else to follow them? Of course, as Hayyim Soloveichik points out in his own article on this topic, people today may be too willing to rely upon books rather than tradition (ahh what a idyllic world we would have if we all only followed the advice of Fiddler on the Roof) but this suggestion of Poliakoff seems too much of a generalization. For his broader point that people have uncritically accepted certain customs, there is no doubt that he is correct. The fault with his work, however, is that he provides little basis for this criticism other than his own displeasure. To be sure, there are numerous books and articles discussing this phenomenon, indeed, one of his examples, the pronunciation of kaddish was discussed on this site here. And had Poliakoff done even minimal research he could have located similar objections that would have bolstered his understanding of what minhagei lita was comprised of.
In all, if one is looking for what the customs were in Telshe, Poliakoff provides some of that and is especially strong when he limits himself to that topic. But, as of late, Telshe as a Yeshiva has been dying a slow death, it is unclear what relevance that will have to most. For a comprehensive work on minhagei lita, however, we will still have to wait for that.
Update: I have learned that this book was never intended to be a presentation of minhagei Lita, Telshe, or any other customs. Instead, the book was written for personal reasons and was not expected to generate such press. Thus, according to representations I received, no halakhic or any other conclusions were to be drawn from this book. The sole conclusion that is excepted is that it is "proper" to kill the messenger.