From Washington Avenue to Washington Street
By Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff
Gefen Publishing House & OU Press, 2011, 498 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - October 3, 2011
Henry Adams wrote in his Education of Henry Adams, "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff is such a teacher. His skill is shown in this excellent, analytical, very readable autobiography that introduces readers to the history of Judaism during the past century and to its distinguished rabbinical and lay personalities. While narrating his life, Rakeffet mentions hundreds of men and women that he met or heard about, and informs readers about them, their history, personality, and impact upon others.
Describing one of his distinguished teachers in New York, for example, he writes that the man dressed and acted as if he was still walking the streets of Lithuania. And he adds, "He was a chain-smoker and constantly broke his cigarettes in half. He smoked each down to the very end. His fingertips were charred and yellowed and the skin hardened from this routine. At times you were mesmerized by Reb Mendel as he neared the end of the half cigarette. You were convinced that he would burn his fingers. When he finally discarded the miniscule portion of the cigarette that still remained, the viewer was relieved."
Rakeffet was born in 1937 and is still a respected teacher at the Gruss School in Jerusalem, Israel, which he helped organize. He has taught well over eleven thousand students, males and females, including many of today's rabbis. He was and still is greatly influenced by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), wrote about him, and sometimes mentions his teachings in this book. For example, Rabbi Soloveitchik was asked why does the Torah says "eye for an eye" when tradition states that it means money compensation for inflicting an injury? Rabbi Soloveitchik answered that the Torah is teaching that although money is paid, this disciplinary action is really insufficient. "How can there ever be adequate compensation for the loss of an eye?" Thus by emphasizing "an eye for an eye," the Torah is highlighting the dignity of humans who are created in the image of God. To cite another example, Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested to Rabbi Rakeffet: "Teach what you do not know. Thereby you will also master new material."
Rakeffet discovered early that besides becoming a Talmud scholar, he was able to present lectures on Jewish history and Jewish personalities that people delighted in hearing. He began to offer speeches on history before he came to Israel when he was the rabbi of small congregations, instead of sermons that spoke down to congregants, and he saw the attendance at his synagogues increase. Readers will see this skill displayed in this book.
He mentions stories about himself that reveal how American Jewry functions. He quotes Rabbi Mordechai Teitz, who said, in the past "if you chanced upon classic Torah volumes in a Jewish home, you could be certain they belonged to the grandparents. Nowadays these texts would invariably be the property of the grandchildren." Rakeffet relates that while he was a rabbi in an American synagogue, he was invited to a synagogue reception and the congregants requested that he turn around and not watch while they drank non-kosher wine. He refused to do so. He describes other difficulties in the congregation. Rabbi Soloveitchik gave him his grandfather's advice. "If the lay people did not wish to chase the rabbi out of town, it was a sign he was not a true rabbi. However, if the rabbi allowed himself to be discharged, it was an indication that he was not a man!" One of the many fascinating stories about his service as a congregational rabbi is about how he handled the funeral services of a man who served in the Israeli Mossad and then came to America and used his training to become a crook.
Rabbi Rakeffet writes about his training experiences as an army reservist after he settled in Israel in 1969 and about his later military service. He reveals his and his wife Malkah's remarkable dangerous experiences on behalf of the Mossad in Russia. He describes the Jewish Russian refuseniks that he and Malkah met and how he taught them about Judaism during three separate visits in 1981, 1985, and 1989, how the Russian government went to great lengths, including long interrogations, secret listening devices, and searches, to stop tourists from teaching Russian Jews and aiding them, what happened to the Russian Jews that they met, and how he helped persuade over two hundred others to make similar trips to aid these harassed Jews.
He tells about many other interesting and significant events. For example, while in the past Orthodox rabbis were strongly opposed to the introduction of the scientific study of the Torah and the study of Greek literature, some of the great Jewish Orthodox scholars today have studied this literature and made it part of their worldview. Similarly, today, Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism are separate and have their own seminaries, Yeshiva University and Jewish Theological Seminary, among others. However, in the mid-1920s the two institutions, YU and JTS, considered merging. Likewise, the far-right Agudat Harabanim considered accepting the rabbinical graduates of the more moderate Yeshiva University into their organization but, surprisingly, this fell through because the Agudat rabbi came to the meeting a half hour late and thought the meeting started without him. He also describes how rabbis allowed Russian Jews to leave Russia on the Sabbath even though generally this would be a violation of the Sabbath.
In summary, while this book seems to be autobiographical, it contains a large amount of information that will tantalize and inform readers about modern Jewish history.