Books: Living history

‘From Washington Avenue to Washington Street’ can be enjoyed by both the academic and the layperson.

Rabbi Aron Rakeffet-Rothkoff 521 (photo credit: Courtesy/OU Productions)
Rabbi Aron Rakeffet-Rothkoff 521
(photo credit: Courtesy/OU Productions)
There are many reasons one could find From Washington Avenue to Washington Street, by Aaron Rakeffet- Rothkoff, professor of rabbinic literature at Yeshiva University’s Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem, a captivating work. Not only is it an engaging autobiography, but the historical information surrounding the author’s life experiences alone merit the 447-page read.
Rabbi Rakeffet, who was born in the Bronx in 1937 and lived on Washington Avenue, had been known as Arnold Rothkoff. Upon making aliya three decades later and moving to the center of Jerusalem – not far from George Washington Street – he adopted the Hebrew surname Rakeffet.
A scholarly work with stimulating philosophical content, From Washington Avenue to Washington Street can be enjoyed by both the academic and the layperson. A popular teacher for more than 50 years, Rakeffet manages to include folksy anecdotes as well as profound teachings in his book.
Modern Jewish history comes alive in this memoir. Rakeffet goes beyond his own surroundings and provides details of world events that profoundly influenced the evolution of Jewish life in the New World. His reminiscences of the World War II and postwar era would surely cause those from a similar background to wax nostalgic.
The later chapters describe his riveting experiences in the 1980s in the effort to help Jews in the former Soviet Union.
Included are little-known tales of profound self-sacrifice involving saintly leaders within the campaign to free their brethren and intensely moving accounts of the refuseniks’ tenacity.
During his youth, Rakeffet’s love of learning led him to experience diverse streams within the umbrella of Orthodoxy.
The book abounds with fascinating recollections of major Torah personalities, in particular those in the Yeshiva University world, where the author studied and was ordained.
Although “imbued with both Jewish consciousness and the American dream,” attending Yeshiva Rabbi Israel Salanter elementary school in the 1940s exposed the young Rothkoff to the bygone world of East European Torah civilization. For example, due to the influence of the émigré scholars of the Mir tradition, Talmud study “was no longer just another subject, but rather the essence and crux of our curriculum,” he explains. “It was infused with spirituality and not just academic scholarship. Our rebbim tantalized us with anecdotes about the town of Mir and its inhabitants. We could hardly believe their description of the Mir synagogues being as crowded on a simple Wednesday night for the evening Ma’ariv prayer as on Yom Kippur eve for the Kol Nidrei service.”
The author aptly describes the period surrounding the establishment of the Jewish state, the fund-raising activities of the Zionist community and the flood of emotion displayed by the staff at Salanter.
Rakeffet, a religious Zionist who served in the IDF, writes respectfully and even lovingly when discussing Torah Jews of different persuasions. He describes a detour taken as a young man to the synagogue of the Satmar Rebbe in Williamsburg, “one of the most vigorous and vociferous opponents of Zionism and the State of Israel. He considered the establishment of Israel before the advent of Messiah a violation of Jewish tradition.
Although we appreciated the vast differences between Satmar and [our religious Zionist youth group] Bnei Akiva, we were still intrigued by this Hassidic lifestyle....
“Although the Sabbath had ended more than two hours earlier in the Bronx, its sanctity still held sway in this Williamsburg institution. The Rebbe was speaking and his throng of assembled devotees listened in rapt attention. While the Rebbe spoke Yiddish, we could not easily comprehend his dialect. We stayed for a while, imbibed the atmosphere.”
Naturally, the late Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, under whose tutelage Rakeffet studied for four years, is featured prominently. A descendant of a Lithuanian Jewish rabbinic dynasty and rosh yeshiva of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, Soloveitchik – an extraordinary Talmud scholar and philosopher – is considered by many as the spiritual father of modern Orthodoxy, having promoted a synthesis between a Torah lifestyle and secular knowledge.
As a teenager, Rakeffet was active in the Bnei Akiva movement, which stressed religious Zionism and aliya and “enabled us to experience a more encompassing religious life than that afforded to us by our formal studies.”
His involvement in the youth organization led him to meet not only men but also women who radiated Torah and Zionist values. Among them was Miriam Beinhorn, who eventually made aliya and married Rabbi Moshe Levinger; together, they led the rebuilding of Hebron after the Six Day War.
It was also at Bnei Akiva that the author met the young Malkah Grund, whom he later married. In fact, his description of the circumstances of their meeting and other episodes in the book highlight Rakeffet’s respect for women’s intellectual aspirations and his belief in gender equality, both educationally and professionally. Here, too, he provides historical context: “By the 1970s the growth of the feminist movement had greatly influenced many in the modern Torah world.
Women were no longer content with basic Torah study but were desirous of mastering the entire range of rabbinic literature. An indication of this trend was its impact upon Emunah Israel, an organization of women who were committed to the vision of religious Zionism....”
“I never had qualms about teaching women Torah on an advanced level,” he asserts. “The Rav [Soloveitchik] had already pioneered in the Torah education of women in the United States. He included the study of Talmud in their curriculum at the Maimonides School in Boston.”
Indeed, Rakeffet credits Soloveitchik for helping him to attain not only “an immeasurable amount of knowledge,” but also a “more refined Torah approach to life. The Rav never attempted to clone students but rather to inspire them.”
Apparently this outlook is what ultimately shaped Rakeffet’s career and entire way of life.
Although serious to the core, his wonderful sense of humor shines in this inspiring life story of a true intellectual who continues to devote his talents to the Jewish people and the State of Israel.