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Remembering the Y.U. of Yore

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.

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