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  • "Viva Yeshiva!" The Tale of the Mighty Mites and the College Bowl
  • Zev Eleff (bio)

Scholars have just begun to explore the revival of American Jewish Orthodoxy during the 1960s.1 The dominant view holds that the revitalization was powered by intellectual elites, mostly rabbis and scholars. That is certainly the impression of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain, who recently recalled the 1960s as a time when scholars sought to bring the worlds of Torah and academe together. "Interchange was once common," he wrote, "certainly in the 1960s, perhaps the high point of modern orthodoxy in America."2 Sacks's recollection of the 1960s as a golden period for America's Modern Orthodox community is an accurate depiction. Britain's ranking rabbi came of age during that decade, modeling his scholarly and rabbinic profile after Rabbi Norman Lamm, one of the most renowned American Orthodox rabbis at that time. Lamm, who would eventually become Yeshiva University's third president, then served at Manhattan's Jewish Center, where his sermons and articles made him one of American Jewry's most promising young scholars. When still a "religiously perplexed" undergraduate, Sacks traveled to America to seek out Lamm, who was "already famous as one of the most articulate and sophisticated of a new generation of Orthodox thinkers."3

American Jewish Orthodoxy's intellectual renaissance could not have come at a more unlikely moment.4 As the 1950s progressed, many predicted the movement's demise in the United States. Marshall Sklare, the [End Page 287] foremost sociologist of American Jews, wrote in 1955 about Orthodox Jews that "the history of their movement in this country can be written in terms of a case study of institutional decay."5 Historian Nathan Glazer explained the decision to omit a discussion of Orthodox life from his 1957 treatment of American Judaism because "there is little to say. It has survived—barely."6 Even Orthodox insiders held dim hope for a denomination whose crop of intellectuals was "of doubtful description and dubious distinction."7

The new Orthodox intellectual leadership that came into view in the following decade proved the naysayers wrong. Of course, Lamm was not alone in forming the firmament for Orthodox intellectual life. Many within this new crop of thinkers published important essays in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, the periodical founded by Lamm in 1959. During its heyday in the 1960s, Tradition printed articles by Lamm as well as by rabbis Emanuel Feldman, Irving Greenberg, Immanuel Jakobovits, Haskel Lookstein, Shubert Spero, Maurice Wohlgelernter, Walter S. Wurzburger, and Michael Wyschogrod. Tradition also provided a comfortable intellectual venue where established, older theologians like Rabbis Eliezer Berkovits, Emanuel Rackman, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik could reach more Orthodox readers. Soloveitchik's essays "Confrontation" and "The Lonely Man of Faith," became two of the most important articles on Jewish theology produced in America during the past century.8 Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein carried considerable influence at his intellectual home at Yeshiva University, although he did not publish in Tradition at that time. Each of these men planted the seeds of Modern Orthodoxy that came into full bloom in 1967, when the Arab-Israeli Six Day War washed a renewed religious spirit over many of America's Jews.

Yet, while these rabbinic and academic elites certainly injected an aura of excitement and creativity into Orthodox Jewish life, the Orthodox intellectual reawakening in the 1960s did not descend from the top downward. A grassroots youth movement that was quickly spreading throughout the country made this new wave accessible to America's Modern Orthodox community. Their interests in the young leaders promoted new expressions of Modern Orthodoxy. [End Page 288]

In truth, the arrival of American Orthodoxy's youth movement occurred later than American Judaism's other denominations. Conservative Judaism experienced the 1950s as a golden decade. In those years, Conservative Judaism's Camp Ramah, in the words of one scholar, had solidified itself as "a movement."9 There, at its various sites, the Conservative community's most committed young people underwent training and empowerment in preparation for later becoming leaders in their movement. Throughout the rest of the year, many of these young men and women rehearsed...


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