It was over a decade ago and the large Yeshiva University beis medrash was full of books and tables, but only a few students. It was time for college classes and, at that time, the kollel learned in a different building.
The main beis medrash was never completely empty, but at certain times it came close. I was cutting class and learning in the beis medrash when a thirty-something chassid walked in, looked around, came up to me and innocently asked, “Es dos a yeshiva oy a college?” – “Is this a yeshiva or a college?”
I answered that it was both, to which he responded with a question that has resonated in my mind for years: “Ken zein a lawyer?” – “Can one become a lawyer?” I answered in the affirmative, which seemed to satisfy his curiosity.
This brief exchange, from over a decade ago, exemplifies the identity crisis that encompasses Yeshiva University, and Yeshiva College (the undergraduate school for men) in particular. Is it a professional training ground or a place for instilling Torah values or modern secular studies? The answer offered in the new book My Yeshiva College: 75 Years of Memories is that this institution of many contradictions is different things to different people.
YUdaica Two years ago, in commemoration of Yeshiva College’s 75th anniversary, an industrious student named Menachem Butler proposed telling the stories of Yeshiva. Not the history of Yeshiva College, but the stories its graduates and instructors have to tell about their experiences in the college and its impact on their lives.
Together with Zev Nagel, the tireless editor of the school’s newspaper, The Commentator, Butler set out to publish a special section in each issue of the paper with essays by Yeshiva graduates from throughout the decades. Little did they know that this project would turn into a phenomenon and then a book. What follows are my own perspectives on this enterprise – first as an avid reader, then as a contributor, and finally as the publisher of the resulting book.
One of the secrets to the success of this series, known by the clever name YUdaica, was Butler’s ability to find Yeshiva graduates and ask them two crucial questions: Will you write an article for the YUdaica series? And, more important, can you recommend other possible writers?
In this simple way, Butler was able to access a wide range of graduates and obtain contributions from professors, community leaders, prominent rabbis, judges, lawyers, and a number of simply fascinating personalities from a broad spectrum of Yeshiva alumni.
Butler encouraged them to write not just history, but their story. What did Yeshiva mean to them? Which experiences or personalities changed them? Not surprisingly, this led toquite a bit of selective history, in which people wrote from their memories and impressions rather than from historical records. In a sense, this is even more telling about the impact of the school on its graduates.
When the articles started coming in, their topics were wide-ranging: biographies of some of Yeshiva’s world-famous roshei yeshiva, reflections on controversial episodes in the school’s history, discussions of teachers’ educational philosophies, and general musings from illustrious graduates.
The Rosh Yeshiva
At one point during the gathering stage, Butler e-mailed me that he was able to contact Rav Nosson Kamenetsky, whose biography of his illustrious father had recently been publicly banned, and was looking for an idea for an article that he could propose to Rav Kamenetsky to write.
I remembered back to my time in Yeshiva, when Rav Kamenetsky would occasionally come for Shabbos and Yom Tov to visit his revered father-in-law, Rav Dovid Lifschitz. I therefore suggested that he write a biographical article of “Reb Dovid.” However, his brother-in-law, Dr. Chaim Waxman, wrote that article, so, remembering a discussion in Rav Kamenetsky’s book of R. Shlomo Polachek, the Maichater Illui, I recommended that he write a short biography of the head of the yeshiva that later opened as Yeshiva College.
Who was the Maichater Illui? In Rav Kamenetsky’s words: