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From Washington Avenue to Washington Street, by Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff. Jerusalem and New York: Gefen Publishing House and OU Press, 2011. 498 pp. $29.95
In an article in which he analyzes the writings of Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff as a case-study of American Modern Orthodox historiography (“‘Absolutely Intellectually Honest’: A Case-Study of American Jewish Modern Orthodox Historiography,” in Rachel Elior and Peter Schäfer, eds., Creation and Re-Creation in Jewish Thought: Festschrift in Honor of Joseph Dan on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday [Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2005]), Kimmy Caplan distinguishes between academic scholarship and American Orthodox historiography, and finds Rakeffet-Rothkoff’s works which preceded the volume under review, to “provide a unique border-line case-study of Orthodox historiography” which also “teach us a great deal about the change of mode and attitude of American Orthodox-oriented publishers over a relatively short span of time.” Use of the phrase “unique border-line case-study” suggests that Rakeffet-Rothkoff is not quite representative of American Modern Orthodox historiography, and he is not. Also, coincidentally, just as this is being written, the Israeli branch of the publisher of two of his biographies has declared bankruptcy, and that too may say something “about the change of mode and attitude of American Orthodox-oriented publishers over a relatively short span of time.” The volume under review is not as a history but what the author calls a “scholarly memoir.” He uses the term “scholarly” because, as he avers, he “attempted to forge a volume in which the details are historically accurate,” and he “did not rely solely on memory” (p. xi). Perhaps another reason is the high status of academic scholarship among those who were reared in the Modern Orthodox community during the middle decades of the previous century. But it is not academic history and, in fact, it stretches the limits of credibility to accept that all of the details in the book are “historically accurate.” For example, since there were no tape recorders, let alone digital ones, when Rakeffet-Rothkoff was in the first grade—1943—it is implausible that the comment made by the teacher, which he put in quotation marks (p. 7), is a verbatim rendering of what she said.
Whether or not it meets the standards of academic scholarship, it is a fascinating memoir which provides rich material and valuable insights into many of the events that were experienced by one sector of American Modern Orthodoxy during the second half of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries. Rakeffet-Rothkoff is a lively raconteur and a long-time lecturer who is sought after in many Orthodox communities, and, as one reads this volume, one can almost hear him speaking and sense every inflection in his words, sentences, and paragraphs. It is written in his inimitable style and is, in more than one sense, reminiscent of what the French historian Pierre Nora termed “ego-histoire,” that is, a work that that hugs the border between personal memory and public history.
Rakeffet-Rothkoff recounts details of a range of events he experienced over the course of his lifetime until now. Some of these were global events, some societal—American or Israeli, some specifically Jewish, and some unique to American modern Orthodoxy from the middle to the end of the twentieth century. He was and continues to be a modern Orthodox individual who is open to the spectrum of Orthodoxy. He recounts his fondness as a youngster for certain prominent hasidic rabbis and his experiences at hasidic gatherings, as well as his admiration of and associations with Lithuanian-style yeshiva Talmudic scholars. Much of that may be related to the fact that the Orthodoxy to which he was exposed as a child and which he was reared is very different from its contemporary manifestation. Rakeffet-Rothkoff attended the Salanter yeshiva, a day school in the Bronx, New York, in which some of his Torah and Hebrew studies teachers were Zionist maskilim, followers of the Enlightenment movement, who were religiously traditional but not Orthodox in the contemporary sense, and the secular studies principal studied at Hebrew Union College and later became a Reform rabbi. That kind of Orthodox day school is almost inconceivable today.
He also describes what life was like for young religious Jews in his era and how his interests in things like baseball helped him better relate to the American students he had in israel. He was a member of Bnei Akiva, which was a co-ed youth group that promoted aliya—immigration to Israel.
He loves to reminisce about his relationship with his revered teacher, the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, but he doesn’t stop there. He consistently writes of the many prominent personalities, rabbinic and other, whom he met, and he makes it almost appear as if knew each one of them personally.
He recounts many episodes that influenced him and/or in which he played a significant part, initially as a pulpit rabbi and then as a teacher of Talmud. He recounts his momentous decision to make aliya, and he details his extensive and intensive efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry. The latter, in fact, comprises a quarter of the book. At one point, Rakeffet-Rothkoff makes reference to a distinction, suggested by Rabbi Soloveitchik, between two types of memory: “image memory,” in which the past is recalled but it does not now motivate the recaller, and “event memory,” where ones recalls the past and relives it. “The Rav,” as he was known to his students and followers, then suggested that each parent has his or her typical type of memory.
A father has an image memory. He recalls the past but does not relive it. A mother has an event memory. She not only recalls but relives the past. My wife used to show me pictures or our children when they were small. She could recall where and when the pictures were taken. She could recall all the circumstances and even the detail about the clothes they were wearing. A father lives in the present with his children. A mother, however, dwells in both the present and the past. (pp. 279–280)
Scholars may debate Rakeffet-Rothkoff’s status as an historian, but there seems little question that he is a gifted raconteur who uses his skills to conjure up event memories and engage the listener in his commitments to Judaism and the Jewish people.
Chaim I. Waxman
Rutgers University, Emeritus
Van Leer Jerusalem Institute