Some fifty years back, I had the privilege of taking a class on modern Hebrew given by Professor Livia Bitton-Jackson. She and her husband, Dr. Leonard Jackson, were kind enough to host me in their home on more than one occasion, and I had the honor of visiting them in Netanya and in Jerusalem, where they live today. During one such visit, I was compelled to ask the professor, “What have been the major themes in your life?”
In response, she relayed this short parable: A peddler in Eastern Europe comes to a village late at night. The village is completely dark, but he sees a solitary light blazing in the window of one small cottage. Drawn by the light, he makes his way to the house, and peers through the window. Inside, there are people flailing about, as if possessed, throwing their limbs out in all directions, bobbing their heads, swaying, walking forward a few steps, only to walk backwards a moment later. The chaotic scene frightened the poor peddler, and he flees the town.
What he did not understand was that inside the house, there was music playing, and what he had observed was simply people dancing.
“I have spent my life trying to hear that music,” she told me. “To have emunah, faith. To find rhyme and reason in the chaos. Every soul needs emunah. This is what allows us to go on.”
She held onto this faith with every bit of strength she could muster during the developments of World War II, as well as in Auschwitz, where she arrived with her family in 1944. Like is true of so many others, most of her family was murdered by the Nazis, but she, her mother, and her older brother managed to survive. Together, they lived in America for many years, and then eventually made aliyah together, as well. She has authored numerous books, detailing her life of tragedy and triumph.
Livia Bitton-Jackson’s life has eerily and accurately reflected the verse in Tehillim designated for her name. (Every person has a verse from the Torah that begins and ends with the same letter as his name, and is traditionally believed to relate to the person’s character in some way.)
Tehillim 118:17 – “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of God.”
Though she was brought up in a religious household, Bitton-Jackson felt that there was a dimension of her knowledge of Judaism that was missing. The common practice during her childhood was not to teach girls Gemara, but, after the war, she felt a very strong push to learn as many subjects relating to Judaism as possible. Yet, soaking up every bit of information was not enough. She felt the need to disseminate the knowledge she had gleaned. Soon, she was teaching in many different universities, living out the words of the verse, “declare the work of God.”
As she continued to speak to me, she turned her focus to another theme in her life: her love for Eretz Yisrael. Torat Eretz Yisrael, the interconnectedness of Torah, the Land of Israel and the People of Israel, as taught by Rav Zvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook, is central to her worldview. She was first introduced to this idea through her son Avinoam when he was a student at Yeshiva University. She regrets very much that we did not have Medinat Yisrael during the war years, as it would have served as a refuge for the Jews of Europe.
In the 60s, she was introduced to the ideas of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who she notes was non-violent. He presented a plan to buy all Arab properties in Yehuda and Shomron. He believed that if the Israeli government would do this, it would save many Jewish lives.
These beliefs and teachings inspired her to become an outspoken advocate for fighting anti-Semitism, and have led her to speak to audiences of Jews and gentiles alike, all over Europe, urging them to support the State of Israel.
There were two other rabbis who played an important role in the direction of Bitton-Jackson’s life. One of them, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Sheneerson, z”tl was a guiding light for her. She recounted the story of a meeting in his office in which they spoke several languages together, one after the other, and how meaningful his blessings were to her.
She was also fortunate enough to meet HaRav Moshe Feinstein, the leading posek in America at the time. He gave her a blessing for a shidduch. It was not long after that she met Dr. Leonard Jackson, a doctor from Montreal. He was passing through New York in the process of making aliyah. He had two young children, a boy and a girl, who were already living in Netanya with friends of his, while he was tying up loose ends and selling his house in Montreal.
After only three meetings in New York, Dr. Jackson said simply, “You seem like a sympathetic person who would be good mother. Will you marry me?”
In the winter of 1976, Bitton-Jackson came to Israel to meet Dr. Jackson’s children, Steve, age 15, and Sarah, age 12. They spent as much quality time together as possible, and soon all realized that yes, indeed, they could be a family. She relates, “They said to me, ‘Will you please come back and be our mother?’”
Dr. Jackson’s assessment of his future wife as a “sympathetic person” was very perceptive. Being sensitive to other people has always been another defining aspect of Bitton-Jackson’s character. Her ability to understand the inner lives of those around her is like a sixth sense. For example, when she was a little girl, if she heard someone had died, whether Jewish or not, she would cry. When asked why she was crying so bitterly for someone she barely knew, she would reply that she was crying for the children of the deceased, for now they would have no mother.
She feels an emotional connection to the neshamot, the souls, of other people. Some people are more logic-oriented, and others are more emotionally oriented. As her friends and relatives alike will attest, she is both.
Returning to her original focus on vigorously pursuing Jewish knowledge, she explained to me how this inevitably led to an intensive study of modern Jewish history and involvement in Zionism. The subject of her dissertation for her PhD was the first 25 years of Zionism in Hungary, the country where she was born.
Professor Bitton-Jackson’s abilities served her well as a teacher and later led to a distinguished career as chair of Judaic studies and Jewish history in the History Department of Lehman College in New York. She specialized in modern Jewish history, from the 1800s and on.
She shared a story about Dr. Theodor Herzl, who, as legend has it, was inspired with his first Zionist ideas after being present as a journalist at the Dreyfus trial. But this was not the beginning. At the Herzl Library, there is a school report that he wrote when he was just 16 years old. The subject was alilat dam, the blood libel against Jews.
In this report, Herzl wrote that the only way to respond to false accusations against Jews was for the Jews to have a country of their own, and (Palestine) Israel should be this country!
In her never-ending quest for knowledge, Bitton-Jackson began to extend her interest of Judaism into the vein of Islam, and how one religion relates to the other.
She developed a deep admiration for Professor Joel Yitzchak Rivlin at New York University (the father of the current president of Israel, Rubi Rivlin). He was an expert in the study of the Koran, which he translated to Hebrew, along with other Arabic literature, including One Thousand and One Nights.
She also explored the topic of women in Judaism, and how despite the fact that we tend not to credit them as we should, all the matriarchs played major roles in the evolution of Jewish thought. Bitton-Jackson decided to rectify this oversight, and began to write a weekly column about extraordinary Jewish women for The Jewish Press. Her column has run for over fifty years!
Everything Professor Livia Bitton-Jackson has put into this world is a treasure in and of itself. Books, poems, newspaper columns, the love she shows for humanity and God are all testaments to the faith and positivity she bestows upon the world.
Once, when I shared with her a picture of myself holding one of my grandchildren, she told me that “he has the smile of an angel, and this is what I love.” This way of viewing life and the world around us reflects Professor Bitton-Jackson’s own smiling eyes. They are illuminated with the glow of her young soul, as she truly appreciates the beauty of all that she encounters. May Hashem keep her well until 120, full of love for her family, friends, community, the People of Israel and all of humanity.