The badchan at Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter’s wedding observed that the choson had learned in Satmar, Vien, Brisk and Lakewood, whose roshei teivos (sovel) indicated that he was a man of tolerance. Many people would regard serial immersions in such different cultures as equivalent to jumping rapidly between the hot mikvah in Boro Park and the frigid one. Thinking about it is enough to give people a migraine. Yitzchok Frankfurter (YF), however, found it exhilarating – and it shaped the mission statement of the new Orthodox glossy that is moving into markets across America and Canada.
Together with his wife, Rechy, he runs Ami from a non-descript building in Brooklyn’s frum heartland. Waiting for my wife to conclude last-minute preparations before the chasuna of our son, I battled traffic and impatience to meet them in person. They had both been with Mishpacha prior to starting their own publication. I had dealt many times with Rechy in the past. I had become a strong fan; it is hard not to be overwhelmed by a mother of seven who personally presided over multiple sections of a large weekly, sends you emails at 2AM, and brought a level of technical and literary excellence to Mishpacha unmatched in the haredi world. I wanted to meet this powerhouse, and she graciously consented to an interview with herself and her husband.
The main Situation Room at Ami is what you imagine the newsroom of a busy metropolitan daily to be like, just on a smaller scale. It is awash in so much adrenalin, you want to put on boots to wade through it. Much of the exuberance is communicated by the Frankfurters themselves, who preside over the madness with smiles and patience. Their charm and warmth are irresistible. It is impossible not to take an instant liking to them.
YF’s varied educational background may have opened him up to the value of difference and diversity under the big tent of Torah Judaism, but it was Yerushalayim itself that had the greatest impact upon him. There he could observe and learn to appreciate the different groups that lived side by side with each other. Rather than choose one over the rest, he decided to identify with the entire demographic cholent. Shouldn’t this city be the model for Jews around the world, who ought to learn to appreciate the contributions and styles of multiple subgroups? He was impressed by a vort of the Kaliver Rebbe, shlit”a, who said that although Klal Yisrael crossed the Yam Sof through twelve different paths, what separated them was transparent. Despite their separation, they stayed aware of and in sight of each other.
What should we expect of Ami Magazine? First of all, said YF, faithfulness to that image. He wants Ami to celebrate all the flavors and streams of Orthodox Judaism. It will go further in its inclusiveness than others, he pledges. It will not do so from a sectarian position, i.e., endorsing one brand while gingerly exploring some others. Furthermore, he believes that good, intelligent writing will sell. Citing Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s success, he argues that crisp, sharp writing can and will be a bridge to people outside the Orthodox community, even without pandering or diluting our own values.
Some of us, myself included, believe that one of the most damaging and stultifying features in parts of the Orthodox world is the insistence upon monolithic uniformity. Diversity of opinion and viewpoint is simply not recognized by many institutions, with horrible effect upon many people. YF’s promise is a significant one. Delivering on it could provide the breathing space that some people are gasping for, choking on the fumes of intolerable Sameness. His track record at Mishpacha gives us reason to be optimisitic. While at Mishpacha, he was responsible for two of the most controversial articles in contemporary haredi publication: positive treatments of Rav Hershel Schachter, shlit”a, and of Chabad shluchim. Ami will be well worth the trouble if he can open up more of us to the contributions of Torah Jews outside of our personal universes. (The magazine has not yet reached Los Angeles, so I cannot yet judge its success. Inquiring of my NY relatives, they all argued that Ami did seem to take both openness as well as graphic design to the next level up.)
One article that we are not going to see in Ami has a dividend for concerned parents – a story about the Frankfurters themselves. You seldom meet two spouses so equally passionate (and capable) about the very same pursuit. Both Yitzchok and Rechy love writing, and love making good writing available to others. Neither one converted the other to the cause; each developed it independently, yet under similar circumstances. That both of them did this while living well within the Satmar community makes them even more remarkable.
Neither of them has any formal higher education – no degree, no courses taken on the sly. They did not attend schools noted for the rigor of their secular education. Native ability clearly is a component of their achievement, but not the entire explanation of their success. It was their parents encouraging them to read that actualized their potential – and compensated for what they did not get in the classroom.
YF says that he loved writing as a child, and began writing in Hebrew before he tried his hand at English. His parents- and some rabbeim – encouraged his habit. He read voraciously. Rechy reports that her home was fully a Satmar experience, although pushing the margins a bit. The New York Times was part of her growing up, and she used to camp out at the public library, with her parents’ permission. The Frankfurters did not turn their backs on this flexibility, extending it into the next generation A married daughter edits one of the several weekly sections of the magazine.
Many of our parents quietly agonize over the abysmal standards of general education in our schools. They would not even consider trading away some of the passion for Torah that is nurtured in the schools to which they send their children, in return for a better secular education. Yet they still worry about their kids’ futures, and wonder why schools could not offer excellence all around. The example of the Frankfurters should offer them some comfort. No secular skills are as important as verbal skills, and children can make huge strides if their appetite for reading is encouraged by guided visits to the library. (Some of us can even recall Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky’s zt”l encouraging parents to regularly take their children to the public library.)
We can wish the Frankfurters well in their new undertaking, but much of their contribution has already been made simply by their example, and the hope that they can offer parents who must compensate for what their schools are unwilling or unable to offer.