Remembering the Y.U. of Yore


By Jerome A. Chanes

Published December 08, 2006, issue of December 08, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

My Yeshiva College: 75 Years of Memories
Edited by Menachem Butler and Zev Nagel
Yashar Books, 387 pages, $21.95.

With all the hoopla surrounding last year’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Yeshiva College, the most interesting retrospective came about through the efforts of two recent graduates of Yeshiva University, the central institution of Modern Orthodoxy. Menachem Butler and Zev Nagel pulled together a tour de force of 64 short essays (originally published in the student newspaper The Commentator) in which former students, teachers and administrators share their reminiscences. The result is a highly idiosyncratic, often moving, frequently provocative collection illuminating an institution that has been both hyped and hissed over the years.

“My Yeshiva College: 75 Years of Memories,” with its many adulatory tributes, at first blush appears to be a hagiography of Y.U. Readers, however, ought not be gulled. Probe not too deeply, and you will find a rich cholent of penetrating and incisive observations. The adulatory is interspersed with the acrimonious, and the editors cleverly oblige the reader to work a bit to pull out the succulent pieces of meat from a somewhat schmaltzy stew.

Among the more intriguing chapters in “My Yeshiva College” are those that recall for a new generation long-forgotten teachers, especially roshei yeshiva (professors of Talmud and rabbinic codes at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological, known as RIETS), some of whom had a profound impact in an Orthodox world of yesterday in which the boundaries between Jewish denominations, as well as within Orthodoxy itself, were often permeable. This is especially important in light of the fact that the impression within the Orthodox community in recent years has been that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the late spiritual leader of Modern Orthodoxy, was the only rosh yeshiva of significance at RIETS. There were in fact numerous voices influencing the undergraduates at Yeshiva College. Chaim I. Waxman’s wonderful evocation of his father-in-law Rabbi David Lifshitz is a sociology-in-miniature of the positive interaction of religious values and learning, communal affairs, and a progressive approach to secular study. While I would have preferred that Moshe Bernstein emphasize more the fact that his rosh yeshiva father, Michael Bernstein, was one of the premier although unsung Aramaic scholars of his time, Bernstein’s essay is a valuable reminder of an era in which some roshei yeshiva celebrated, albeit in a nuanced manner, critical study. And Jay Braverman, on the antics of the brilliant, wildly idiosyncratic, world-class Classicist, and truly great teacher Louis Feldman, tells us all that we need to know about what was for many the intellectual atmosphere of Yeshiva College.

These portraits, and many other, illustrate a central theme that comes to the fore in a book that traces patterns over seven decades is that of the dilution — nay, the virtual disappearance — of the venerable “Torah u’Madda” (“Torah and secular study”) ideal; it’s the classic Y.U. notion of “synthesis,” that religious studies and secular studies are not in inherent conflict but indeed enhance and enrich each other. “Torah u’Madda” was more than a slogan; it was for virtually every contributor to “My Yeshiva College,” over many decades, the reality of the Y.U. experience.

The reality of recent decades, however, is something very different.

For many at the theological core of the institution — the Y.U.-affiliated RIETS and its Beit Midrash, or religious study hall — the “Torah u’Madda” mission lost its resonance long ago. Whatever the reasons for the increased polarization in the Orthodox world — and they are both broad and deep — the question remains about how many in the contemporary Y.U. community do take seriously “Torah u’Madda,” compared to the contributors to “My Yeshiva College,” whose reflections are for the most part deeply informed by the concept.

Two essays, one very different from the other but both intensely personal, are suggestive of the issues that the college needs to confront. Why did alumnus Yehudah Mirsky, a scion of one of the giants of rabbinic literature of an earlier generation, and himself one of the more distinguished of a cadre of young Jewish-studies scholars, feel moved to “leave my Yeshiva College B.A. off my résumé”? Mirsky’s essay (“Love Hurts: My Family and Yeshiva”) would be a “side-show” story about how Mirsky’s visionary father, Rabbi David Mirsky, was cruelly cast aside by Y.U., were it not for the fact that it tells us much about Y.U.’s unhappy institutional culture throughout the years, in which students and faculty were treated with contempt all too often in order to protect a dollar or an “image.”

But perhaps the most important essay in “My Yeshiva College” is Lawrence Grossman’s “An Open Letter to My Children,” in which historian Grossman tracks a pattern, related to shifts in American cultural values and developments within the Jewish community (including the “Haredization” of American Jewry), in which Y.U. of the 1960s, a place of intellectual inquiry and serious academic standards, “collapsed like a house of cards.” It was replaced by a Yeshiva College in which the religious leadership at Y.U.’s affiliated seminary increasingly frowns upon liberal arts study, and in which a college education has little value beyond “parnassah” (making a living). In many ways, the rest of the essays serve to flesh out themes developed in Grossman’s trenchant piece.

To be sure, some essays in “My Yeshiva College” assert that the atmosphere of intellectual inquiry at Y.U. is yet vibrant, that there are professors and roshei yeshiva both who value academic challenge and discourse, even as Torah u’Madda is questioned. And this is as it should be; one hopes that the Y.U. situation is yet fluid and that academic inquiry, on Chaucer and Picasso as well as on revered rabbinic commentators, might yet be valued. But the collective thrust of the contributors to “My Yeshiva College,” the message that comes through, is that things ain’t what they used to be.

This is a powerful message to the young scholars and teachers at the college, who represent a splendid cadre of potential academics — and the message needs to be heeded. At bottom, the personal voices recorded in “My Yeshiva College” lived in a rich atmosphere that nurtured Caro and Cicero, Maimonides and Malarmé, and in that these giants took each other very seriously indeed. Will future generations have an opportunity to breathe this fecund air?

Jerome A. Chanes is the author of “Dark Side of History: Antisemitism Through the Ages”(Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, 2001) and co-editor of “A Portrait of the American Jewish Community” (Praeger Publishers, 1998). He has taught at various divisions of Yeshiva University, including Yeshiva College and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war?
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah:
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.