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An Unforgettable Forty-Year Shabbos Journey


At the restaurant farewell dinner, Professor Dov Zlotnick asked the dozen or so students of his forty-year-running Saturday afternoon Talmud shiur to continue their learning despite his approaching retirement to Jerusalem.

Though he would be putting a cap on his career at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Professor Zlotnick promised to rejoin the shiur during his occasional return visits to its Riverdale, Bronx base. But not long afterward – due to the loss of its “rebbe” and the advancing age of its students – the shiur came to an end.

Since talmudic etiquette calls on those who finish a tractate to pledge a return to its holy pages rather than bid goodbye, it is worth exploring why this shiur succeeded both as a learning enterprise and as a warm Shabbos experience.

Most members of the shiur were Modern Orthodox, but the paths they’d traveled prior to settling in Riverdale were far from homogeneous. Some were European born and, having attended venerable yeshivos, sprinkled their talmudic references with Yiddish. By contrast, a medical doctor in the group had no formal yeshiva learning whatsoever.

Among the group there was the academician of Libyan ancestry, teased by Professor Zlotnick for his prowess with colloquial Yiddish. When yekkes in the shiur failed to arrive on time, Professor Zlotnick needled them, citing punctuality as a virtue of their German forbears. Naturally, over the years there were losses due to deaths and people moving away.

Professor Zlotnick wanted the shiur to be a learning experience rather than a lecture. Though he could easily have filled the hour with erudite discourse, relying on the thousands of mishnaicchapters he knew by heart, his goal was for us, his students, to recite and grapple with the text.

What that meant pedagogically was that we were not there to be spectators entertained or awed with his knowledge or subtleties, but instead to do the necessary preparation ourselves. He emphasized that the journey to becoming a yodea sefer (a knower of the book, i.e., conversant with rabbinic literature) demanded not only time but also review and intense concentration. Osmosis was not the way to talmudic mastery.

“You can attend shiurim for twenty years, but unless you prepare the text yourself, “warned Professor Zlotnick, “your level of learning won’t increase.”

As he went around the table calling on readers, he corrected when necessary our mistakes in pronunciation or translation, continuously throwing out questions: “Who was that amora’s (scholar’s)teacher? In which academy did he study? Where else in the Talmud is this word found, this argument used?”

Often he came to the shiur armed with comparative texts illustrating a literary point or something intriguing or inspirational about a talmudic sage. Over time, he recognized our relative skills, purposely trying to avoid embarrassment by not assigning a reader who he felt was inadequate to the task.

In addition to its format, what made the shiur distinctive was its physical setting. Rather than being located at one fixed site, it rotated to a different home each Shabbos. These changes in locale meant rejuvenating afternoon walks both to mansions in Fieldston and modest apartments on Henry Hudson Parkway.

For me, the act of hosting involved a few hours of preparations – duplicating the talmudic text and carefully studying the material, transporting the Torah ark, arranging for prayer books for the afternoon Mincha prayer service, food shopping.

Determined to capture the spirit of Shabbos menucha, Professor Zlotnick saw his shiur not simply as a talmudic study session but rather as an integral element in the day’s celebratory character. For that reason, Mincha was followed by seudah shlishit, the traditional third Shabbos meal. Profusely thanking the hostess, he would joke before taking his place at the table that the upcoming meal was really the highlight of the program. Cuisine varied depending on the calendar, with more elaborate meals served on the longer days of spring.

Though officially we came together for the Shabbos learning experience, strong social bonds were forged during the meals. This was the case despite our varied personalities, professions and income range. We celebrated and danced together at life-cycle events. Support was also there in unhappy times.

In my own case, invitations and advice from members of the shiur softened the pain of my divorce. They opened their homes with receptions for my wife-to-be when she came to town. In more mournful moments, the shiur consoled bereaved family members. Following the death of a twenty-five year veteran of the group, we placed an obituary notice in The New York Times signed “Professor Zlotnick’s Talmud Shiur.”

Once the eating was over, the host would briefly discuss the week’s Torah portion. Professor Zlotnick would then shift the agenda to politics – not politics in a generic sense, but more specifically the past week’s events as they related to the well-being of the Jewish people, particularly in Israel.

Professor Zlotnick followed the news closely. He saw news through an ideological prism – Jewish survival depended on political strength. He reserved special ire for secular Jewish liberals for what he considered their self-destructive illusions.

Similarly, he objected to relativism in religious standards, complaining about the leftward drift in Conservative Judaism, at whose seminary he taught, especially its decision to ordain women rabbis.

Though most members of the shiur seemed at least tacitly to agree with his politics, he was not unchallenged. One retired professor and bibliophile strongly stood his New Deal ground. When the amiability of the previous two hours seemed threatened, shiur participants could be counted on to wisely drown out debate by spontaneously singing the introductory verses to the benching (Grace after Meals), thereby bringing the meal to a close.

Now that the shiur belongs to the ages, I pursue my Talmud study most Saturday afternoons by attending the Daf Yomi class at the Riverdale Jewish Center. Since a lot of text must be covered each day in order to fulfill this group’s seven-year cycle of completing the Talmud, I feel a sense of nostalgia for the graceful rigor with which Professor Zlotnick guided us in grappling with complicated concepts (quite a few of which were over my head), and for the camaraderie provided by those in the shiur who accompanied me on an unforgettable four-decade Shabbos journey.

About the Author: Ron Rubin is a senior political scientist at CUNY and author most recently of “A Jewish Professor's Political Punditry” (Syracuse University Press, 2013).


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