The Silk Road
Jul 22, 2023
Despite its chaos and dysfunction, or perhaps as a direct result of it, New York City is an infinity of different paradises. The bleacher bums at Yankee Stadium and the bird-watchers in the Central Park Ramble have each found their utopias. Bushwick, land of amoral excess, is a mile from the part of Williamsburg where everyone is a strict Satmar Hasid. And of course there are differences, mostly visible only to Hasids themselves, between the ideal of structure and meaning on display on Lee Avenue in Williamsburg and the ones evoked in the side streets off 13th Avenue in Borough Park a few miles south, where other mystically inflected Jewish notions of the good life hold sway.
One such vision is expressed through Mitchell Silk’s townhouse. It has a pantry that doubles as a Pesach kitchen, which is a less typical feature than the nearby cabinet of silver Judaica or the dining room display of photos from the old country, great-grandparents looking severe and half-dreaming under babushkas and frock coats. But Silk is among the very few Nadvorna Hasids with a shelf of books in Chinese.
The shelf is in a skylit office built atop the townhouse’s roof, separate from the impressively spotless two floors where his wife and eight children live. This cube-shaped room has an exercise bike and is at eye level with a loudspeaker on top of a nearby school that announces the arrival of Shabbat every week. When I visited him, Silk, the first Hasidic Jew ever to hold a Senate-confirmed position in the U.S. government, wore cuff links bearing the seal of the U.S. Treasury Department.
Silk, now 61, served as assistant secretary of the Treasury for international markets in Donald Trump’s administration. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Silk helped pioneer the highly specialized field of China-related trade law. Someone of his background could be working as a lobbyist or an executive at an investment bank or a hedge fund. They could live in Potomac or Teaneck, where they’d be able to afford their own swimming pool. Silk’s priorities are different. For instance, there are few neighborhoods in America other than Borough Park where Yiddish is a language of daily use. “What we speak at home here, what my kids speak, what this whole neighborhood speaks, is a more haimish Yiddish,” compared to the Litvak dialect you’d learn in a college classroom, Silk explained.
When I recently emailed with Silk, he was in Taiwan teaching a two-week business course to officials in the island’s government. Another big project at the moment is advocacy for the Orthodox community—he is a pro bono counsel for Agudas Israel, and one of the people in charge of the Know Us campaign pushing back against The New York Times’ coverage of yeshiva education. The communal response to the Times' reporting notched a major success when the newspaper’s controversial package was left off the longlist for the Pulitzer Prize. A groundbreaking translation of the Torah commentaries of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, which Silk has been working on for over a decade, was released this month.
As with other Orthodox Jews who balance observance with successful careers outside the Jewish world, Yiddishkeit exists on a different horizon for Silk than the more mercenary terrain of secular, gentile-dominated society. The conviction that Judaism is the higher priority—that kashrut can never be fudged, that work must cease at sundown on Friday no matter how important it might seem in the moment—is exactly the thing that makes it possible to exist in both spheres. Living according to HaShem’s rules and expectations puts the affairs of the human world in perspective. I told Silk that Trump administration alumni had told me that the staffers least affected by the unending chaos, backstabbing, and partisan witch hunts were the religious ones—Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians, frum Catholics. Those who had made this observation, I noted, had been disillusioned by what they’d seen in Washington and no longer possessed any strong urge to work in government.
“I feel sad for the people that made them feel that cynical,” Silk replied, “because all their life is being a political animal. I think there’s much more to life than being a political animal.”
Silk is a compactly built man with a beard thick enough to hide his facial expressions. Whether it’s Chinese energy regulation in the 1980s, the poetry of the Tang dynasty, the Senate confirmation process, or the davening options in Orthodox Baltimore in the early ’80s, Silk discusses all of it with great deliberation and and evenness. Sometimes, however, his evenness lapses just long enough to give a hint of what he cares about most.
“Of his maternal grandfather, Max Friend, Silk spoke with an emotion that even the true moments in history he had gotten to witness, like the runup to the 1997 Hong Kong handover, didn’t produce. His grandfather was a Yiddish speaker who “went through Austrian, Hungarian, and Polish governments” before arriving in Chicago in 1920. He was a short man, likely because he’d grown up malnourished in a poor corner of Eastern Europe. His father and grandfather were both soifrim, scribes of the Nadvorna Rebbe. “I have seven notebooks that he wrote,” Silk said of his grandfather. “Beautiful ksan [handwriting]. He wrote a novella in Yiddish, which I actually translated into English. It’s essentially about his family, but it’s written as if you were a neighbor, written from the outside looking in.”
In America, Silk said, his grandfather “secularized.” Newly arrived Hasidic Jews had little choice—they were penniless immigrants with no real communal wealth or infrastructure waiting for them. “My grandfather didn’t have a beard,” said Silk. “He didn’t have a library in his house. Nobody had seforim. Who had the money? Who had the space? He had one set of chumashim.” The books weren’t strictly necessary, since he had whole volumes of Talmud and Midrash memorized. “He was an embroiderer,” said Silk.
Secular-presenting schmatta-makers who prayed three times a day and recited pages of Shas off the top of their heads established a community that became much richer and more comfortably Jewish a couple generations later. Traditional Orthodox Jews followed a recognizably American immigrant pattern of greater prosperity and confidence over time, except without the usual subsumption into the mainstream society. Today there are doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs on the stricter ends of Jewish observance. “We’re able to enjoy liberty, independence, freedom in ways that we couldn’t 60 years ago,” said Silk.
As with other Orthodox Jews who balance observance with successful careers outside the Jewish world, Silk feels that Yiddishkeit exists on a different horizon than the more mercenary terrain of secular, gentile-dominated society.
Silk grew up in Chicago and Florida in semi-observant Jewish homes—though not so observant that he couldn’t work in a Chinese restaurant while attending his public high school. He picked up Cantonese on the job, and then realized after a year of college that he’d have to learn Mandarin, which is far more widely spoken, if he wanted to follow a nascent dream of working in and around China. An intensive summer at Middlebury’s language program and a year in Taiwan meant he had a strong grasp of both major Chinese dialects by the time he graduated from Georgetown University in the early ’80s. “I actually was very fluent in Chinese when I started to bolster my Yiddish,” he said—that was in his early 20s, shortly after his grandfather’s death, and with the help of programs in London and at Columbia University. “I didn’t have the same background that he had, so I spent a lot of time playing catch-up.”
While studying law at the University of Maryland, Silk lived in Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, a couple miles from the Ner Israel yeshiva, one of the major institutions of Litvish America. Silk lived in a close-knit community of sharp rabbinic minds, just as he was preparing to spend the next several years in a place with no religious Jews at all. “When you roll out of bed, you decide which direction you want to walk for two minutes to go to shul,” he said of his time in Baltimore. “I went from that to living in Beijing.”
A National Academy of Sciences fellowship allowed Silk to teach in China and to work as an intern at one of the few international law firms operating in the country in 1986. Just recently removed from the self-isolation and internal upheaval of the Mao years, China was in the midst of a fitful process of opening up its economy and society to the rest of the world. “There was a challenge of novelty on both sides,” he explained—in the mid ’80s, the Chinese and American systems were mutually unintelligible. The country could be bewildering even for an American who spoke Chinese. “It’s a very, very complicated regulatory environment,” Silk recalled. “And a lot of that came out of the way that China rules itself, which was a combination of 5,000 years of dynastic administrative process combined with governance in a communist country.” Silk’s work focused on foreign investment in electrical generation projects, requiring him to navigate a dense bureaucracy and to learn how large-scale power plants actually work. The bookshelf in Silk’s rooftop office also has an especially daunting corner dedicated to texts about steam engineering.
‘I think there’s much more to life than being a political animal’
For a time he lived in Shenzhen, the city across from Hong Kong that is now home to 20 million people. “Back then it was a rice paddy,” he recalled. Silk happily subsisted on vegetables and cans of tuna in a country with virtually no kosher food. “I had some of my best years from the Yiddishkeit standpoint when I was in China and when I was in Hong Kong,” he explained. “I just felt like I looked much more inward because of my outward circumstances.”
Silk moved to Hong Kong in the late ’80s, ”though only after checking out what the shul situation was,” he said. For his entire decade-plus of living in Hong Kong there were never fewer than three minyanim a day, which is two more than Vilna currently has. Silk’s two oldest children were born in Hong Kong. He served as a gabbai in one of the city’s synagogues, and helped lead both the Hong Kong Chevra Kadisha and the local Jewish Benevolent Society. The family moved back to the United States in the late ’90s, around the time China assumed control over Hong Kong.
During his 15 years in China, Silk saw the country at what proved to be its most liberalizing and outward-facing. In the 2000s, Americans increasingly—and often correctly—viewed the world’s most populous country as a threat to the United States’ security and economic well-being, with the offshoring of U.S. manufacturing jobs to China feeding the populist backlash that helped elevate Silk’s eventual boss to the White House. Trump was elected in part because of the obliviousness of American elites toward the damage caused by China’s entry into the global economy, something they had almost universally supported.
Silk did not come away from 15 years in China, followed by another 20 years working on the legal side of Chinese investments in the United States, convinced that the country’s relationship with America was benign. In government, Silk was one of the people responsible for the Trump administration’s trade negotiations with China. Silk believes Trump’s “trade war” policy of tariffs against Beijing succeeded in pressuring China into taking a fairer stance toward the United States. He is convinced the Chinese would have made even more concessions if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t scuttled the negotiations. “Without those tariffs, we would not have been able to make one iota of progress in all of the other areas where we furthered our agenda,” Silk claimed, citing agriculture, energy, and semiconductor production. “We were able to break down barriers to get more financial institution access to China. And that would seem to suggest, to me at least, the Chinese are sensitive to pressure from the United States and that confrontation is not inevitable.”
That Silk could go from being an early participant in U.S.-Chinese trade to being an implementer of the Trump “trade war” is not evidence of a wild swing in perspective. Silk had worked on the issues long enough to see how much the world had changed. China became more centralized and more authoritarian, and Americans started to realize that the social costs of labor arbitrage might outweigh the blessings of cheap consumer goods. Silk’s outlook on China, and his sense of what its relationship with the United States should be, shifted with reality.
“There are 300 classical Tang dynasty poems that people will learn and memorize when they’re studying Chinese literature, and there’s one that I use very frequently when I want to talk about differing viewpoints of people,” Silk explained. He launched into a hypnotically rhythmic recitation of metrically balanced Chinese before translating: “‘The white sun sets over the mountain, the Yellow River flows into the sea. If you want to get another thousand lee’—thousand miles of vision—‘go up one more floor on the pagoda.’ Which is to say that if somebody’s on the 20th floor and somebody’s on the second floor, they’ll have a very different view of the same thing that they’re looking at.”
Silk headed the China practice at the white-shoe New York firm of Allen & Overy beginning in 1998. In early 2017, David Malpass, a former law colleague, was nominated as undersecretary of the Treasury for international affairs and recommended Silk as an assistant secretary. Silk understood that the stakes of his Senate-confirmation hearing went beyond the future of U.S. economic policy. “It’s the difference between a kiddush hashem and a chilul hashem,” he explained. Someone who lives as a public religious Jew walks a constant, barely visible line between sanctifying and disgracing God’s name.
Safely out of government, Silk is now nearing the completion of the first phase of a project that invites less earthly and metaphysical risk, and promises far greater spiritual enrichment, than appearing before a panel of senators. The translation of the Kedushas Levi, the Torah commentaries of the Berditchever Rebbe, is one of the topics where Silk relaxes his lawyerly sense of balance. Acing a trade negotiation or a Senate hearing is certainly important, but Silk understands that a new sefer is an accomplishment of a different kind.
Silk explained that in the ’90s he grew interested in making the four major seforim of Nadvorna Hasidism available to English readers. “If you wanted to learn about Hassidus 25 or 30 years ago the only thing that you could read in English was from Chabad,” he explained. He realized that the gap in English availability extended to Hasidic texts even more foundational than Nadvorna’s Maimar Mordechai, however personally important the book was to him. Even the Berditchever, the intellectual giant of 19th-century Hasidism, was out of reach for all but the most advanced readers of loshon kodesh.
Fifteen years ago, Silk approached ArtScroll with an idea for a multivolume translation of the Kedushas Levi. After a series of false starts, he was able to build a team of translators and solidify ArtScroll’s interest in the series. The entire three-volume work was released this month.
The Kedushas Levi is not a line-by-line gloss on the Torah. “Rashi is commenting on every pasuk,” Silk said. In contrast, “The Kedushas Levi is commenting on concepts.” The commentaries are built around one central concept in particular: “The whole of the sefer is dedicated to conveying the Berditchever’s formula for every Jew’s avoidah, their divine service, in order to bring them closer to God.”
He gave an example of the Berditchever’s approach to the Torah. The Rambam wrote that Yaakov had a vision that the rock he had slept on while fleeing Esau would be the cornerstone of the Temple. When he said, “how awesome is this place?” Yaakov was seeing the future Beis HaMigdash materialize in front of him. The Torah says that this occurred in a place called Luz. Silk explained that luz has a second meaning in Hebrew. It’s a bone at the top of the spinal column which, according to rabbinic tradition, can never be destroyed. “And it is the bone that they say is going to roll through the tunnels at the time of mechayei meisim back to Jerusalem and the bone out of which every person will be regenerated.” Silk saw that I was struck by such an unreal image. “You never heard this?” he asked. “There’s a Rashi on it.”
For the Berditchever, the two uses of luz were all about “actualizing potential,” Silk said. They were “a lesson for us about our personal growth and what potential we can realize.” Visions of future temples and bones rolling to Jerusalem point toward the urgency of nurturing our minds and spirits so that they can see beyond the ever-present cynicism. The only Hasid ever to pass a Senate confirmation is giving curious American Jews a powerful antidote to the times they live in.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.