- From Washington Avenue to Washington Street by Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff
In an article in which he analyzes the writings of Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff as a case study of American Modern Orthodox historiography (“‘Absolutely Intellectually Honest’: A Case-Study of American Jewish Modern Orthodox Historiography,” in Creation and Re-Creation in Jewish Thought: Festschrift in Honor of Joseph Dan on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, edited by Rachel Elior and Peter Schäfer ), Kimmy Caplan distinguishes between academic scholarship and American Orthodox historiography, and finds Rakeffet-Rothkoff’s works, which preceded the volume under review, to “provide a unique border-line case study of Orthodox historiography” which also “teach us a great deal about the change of mode and attitude of American Orthodox-oriented publishers over a relatively short span of time.” Use of the phrase “unique border-line case study” suggests that Rakeffet-Rothkoff is not quite representative of American Modern Orthodox historiography, and he is not. Also, coincidentally, just as this is being written, the Israeli branch of the publisher of two of his biographies has declared bankruptcy, and that too may say something “about the change of mode and attitude of American Orthodox-oriented publishers over a relatively short span of time.” The volume under review is not a history but what the author calls a “scholarly memoir.” He uses the term “scholarly” because, as he avers, he “attempted to forge a volume in which the details are historically accurate,” and he “did not rely solely on memory” (xi). Perhaps another reason is the high status of academic scholarship among those who were reared in the Modern Orthodox community during the middle decades of the previous century. But it is not academic history and, in fact, it stretches the limits of credibility to accept that all of the details in the book are “historically accurate.” For example, since there were no tape recorders, let alone digital ones, when Rakeffet-Rothkoff was in the first grade—1943—it is implausible that the comment made by teacher and which he put in quotation marks (7) is a verbatim rendering of what she said.
Whether or not it meets the standards of academic scholarship, it is a fascinating memoir which provides rich material and valuable insights into many of the events that were experienced by one sector of American Modern Orthodoxy during the second half of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries. Rakeffet-Rothkoff is a lively raconteur and a longtime lecturer who is sought after in many Orthodox communities, and, as one reads this volume, one can almost hear him speaking and sense every [End Page 120] inflection in his words, sentences, and paragraphs. It is written in his inimitable style and is, in more than one sense, reminiscent of what the French historian Pierre Nora termed “ego-histoire,” that is, a work that that hugs the border between personal memory and public history.
Rakeffet-Rothkoff recounts details of a range of events he experienced over the course of his lifetime until now. Some of these were global events, some societal—American or Israeli, some specifically Jewish, and some unique to American modern Orthodoxy from the middle to the end of the twentieth century. He was and continues to be a modern Orthodox individual who is open to the spectrum of Orthodoxy. He recounts his fondness as a youngster for certain prominent hasidic rabbis and his experiences at hasidic gatherings, as well as his admiration of and associations with Lithuanian-style yeshiva Talmudic scholars. Much of that may be related to the fact that the Orthodoxy to which he was exposed as a child and which he was reared is very different from its contemporary manifestation. Rakeffet-Rothkoff attended the Salanter yeshiva, a day school in the Bronx, New York, in which some of his Torah and Hebrew studies teachers were Zionist maskilim, followers of the Enlightenment movement, who were religiously traditional but not Orthodox in the contemporary sense, and the secular studies principal studied at Hebrew Union College and later became a...