Dusting off Skeletons

Cleaning out a closet a few weeks ago, I came across a box with my high school yearbook (more on that another day), expecting that my college yearbook would be close by.  There was no copy of Masmid, the yearbook of Yeshiva University, for my graduation year 1973.  But curiously there was a copy of the Masmid 1971, and as I started to leaf through it the controversy slowly came back to me.

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Masmid 1971 was a two volume paperback set that looked different from any previous version of Yeshiva University’s yearbook.  It looked different because, as its Editors-in-Chief David Leibtag and Howard Dorfman explain at the outset, they were determined to break with the stereotyped yearbook that was “a ragtag collection of group shots and glittering generalities about college life”.

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The entirety of the two volume set is digitized online, and you can access it here.  Volume I is a cross-section of student opinions and experiences.  Consider the contrast between two of the authors, Abraham Leizerowski – who subsequently became an attorney in Jenkintown, PA, and Heshie Billet who became Rabbi of Young Israel Woodmere.  Leizerowski writes:

“Whether it be a sleeping place in the Catskills. a meeting place in Brussels, or an eating place in Tel-Aviv, the question that one of approaching manhood is most often confronted with is “What college do you attend?”  There are approximately 3,000 possible American answers, 3,001 if one includes the near-impossibility today that one does not attend an institution of higher learning.  Of all these responses, not one gets nearly the reaction observed as the quiet, reticent, and almost silently lost response of “Yeshiva University”.  It immediately becomes quite clear that for some unknown reason, far beyond human comprehension, the Yeshiva student is a unique and wonderful phenomenon …

Yes, one can truly say that life at a Jewish religious school is unique, but the question is how so?  The problems which confront all the students of the seventies and those which confronted those students of the sixties are also very real ones at Yeshiva College. The religious questions, the drug problems, sexual conflicts, over-abundance of nonsensical requirements, quality and quantity of education, relevancy of education to future enterprises, states of national violence and pessimism, Vietnam and the draft, and the alienation between generations are also part of one’s Yeshiva experience. Yes, contrary to the myths, propaganda, and beliefs of all older Jews, these questions are not only their’s
— the rest of the world’s problems — but ours as well.”

Billet writes:

“I am a dreamer, a member of a nation of dreamers. For the past four years I have dreamt that I attended a unique kind of Yeshiva, I have dreamt that Torah was the ideal of this institution which at the same time was not afraid to confront the powerful forces of modern secular society and conquer them …

Today, I fear for my dream. Stormy doubts disturb its tranquility. Has my dream been a
fantasy? Does profane reality desecrate the Yeshiva of my dream? Has it placed the secular idol of Mada on a pedestal making but a poor attempt to maintain the facade of a Torah Institution? Is the Yeshiva I attended nothing more than a large theater filled with many actors? If so, who and where are the producers of this colossal production? Are the Botei Medrash and classrooms merely stages where professional and amateur actors lethargically go through the motions of a tedious daily script whose content never changes?  Are those who are committed to Torah being used without their knowing it? Are the bookcases filled with the same ancient, dusty, torn, dead books that Bialik saw when he returned to his Bais Hamedrash? Is the character of the Bais Hamedrash at night that of a Bais Hakevoros? Is it possible that the Yeshiva I have attended is not a link in the tradition of great Yeshivos?  I am a dreamer. I fear for my dream. Has it been a fantasy? Has RIETS been a fantasy?”

As if the student opinions didn’t engender enough controversy, Volume II offers a cross-section of faculty opinion that is eye-popping to say the least.  Take for example this excerpt from an interview with second year instructor of psychology, Harvey Bernstein:

Masmid:  Do you find that there is anything happening at Yeshiva that is pressing that you would like to talk about?
Bernstein:  Yes. One is that there are a number of lies that are perpetrated by the administration which I resent. For example, when Dr. Bacon, whom I don’t really know at all, but with whom my limited interaction has been all right, espouses the view that
the kids here get as good an education as the kids at Harvard, it is a big lie, a put-on. It is not happening within my department, for example, and to say that it is, is untrue. Kids are not able to take courses which they would be able to take at other universities. They
are not able to get the degree of exposure to different ideas which having different people on a faculty would present.

As challenging and thought-provoking as Bernstein’s entire interview is, the most intriguing interview may be one that you will never read.  In the Table of Contents you will note that there is a black line through the entry that begins on page 34.

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In my print copy, with the light at a certain angle, I can make out “An Interview with David Berger”.  In the Jewish Studies section, Dr. David Berger is listed as a Visiting Lecturer in History.  One can only imagine how sensitive his remarks must have been because the University took the unprecedented step of issuing the yearbook with the center page of his interview cut out, its remaining pages lined out in haste, and the remnant glued together.  Now, years later, the glue has lost its adhesive and exposes the extent of the cover up.

IMG_3384I am not alone in my intrigue about the infamous 1971 partially censored Masmid.  The On the Main Line Blog has an entry on August 18, 2010 titled “Aspects of 20th century Orthodox Judaism through the pages of Yeshiva University’s Masmid (now online)”.  In the comments following the post, Menachem Butler remarks:  The 1971 Masmid is one for the ages. I wonder if  an uncensored version will find its way online…”

To that, a commenter Nachum writes: “Yes, Menachem, even 71, which seems pretty much unedited. There is a blacked out line at one point which seems to be a typo. A lot of what we’d consider “objectionable” certainly made it in. It *was* 1971.”  To which Joel Rich adds:  “I have an uncensored copy-I really have no idea how I got it (I was ’73) … There was an interview with Harav David Berger that for some reason was found objectionable. Believe me, if you were there then, you’d laugh at what was in the article vs. what was going on on campus and in the world.”

The 1971 Masmid was a literary masterpiece, its centerpiece perhaps the homage to the Wrestling Team penned by Sheldon (Shelly) Miller as an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

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I’ll freely admit that as a member of the wrestling team I grappled with Miller’s piece at the time and only years later, in revisiting the original Jabberwocky, grasped the brilliance of what he wrote.  (We lost Rabbi Sheldon Miller too soon, felled by a heart attack in Teaneck at the age of fifty-five.)

At the bottom of the page was the team’s individual record …

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… followed by commentary which noted: “It was the year of the injury for the 1970-71 Wrestling Team … Despite the crippling injuries, the Ellmen were able to give a decent account of themselves.  The record may not show it, but these guys gave their heart and soul to every match.  Coach Ellman often had to substitute an inexperienced underclassman for an injured experienced veteran.  However the 3-9 record will probably be the last of the losing seasons for Yeshiva’s most exciting team, as the subs of this year have picked up valuable experience.”

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I came to be one of those inexperienced underclassman, influenced by my dorm acquaintance Gabor (Gabe) Klein to take wrestling as a gym the second half of my freshman year, progressing rapidly to being rooted on as a sophomore varsity member by avid supporters (mat level – teammate Gary Rubin, Coach Neil Ellman; scorer’s table left-to-right Dave Present, Ira Bauman, Gabe Klein, E.J. Shapiro, and Manager/Announcer Danny Kurtzer.  Masmid 1971 correctly predicted the future, as our team excelled for the next two years and beyond.  In my junior year I became co-captain with senior Noah Nunberg and in my senior year shared the honors with Reuben Koolyk.

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A clipping from the 1971 school newspaper citing Coach Ellman’s “rating” that I had stashed along with that year’s Masmid caught my attention.  Time was a precious commodity at Y.U., particularly when one was in the RIETS program.  From Talmudic studies with Rabbis in the morning, to Bible professors (such as Dr. Reguer) in the early afternoon, and on to secular studies and science labs into early evening, I had to find the time for conditioning before it was de riguer to be in the gym.

For a period of time after graduation I would bump into alumni from Y.U. days, and get the question as to whether I had kept up with wrestling.  My standard answer became that the only wrestling I did since graduation was wrestling with my conscience.  I suspect that David Leibtag and Howard Dorfman may have shared that same sentiment along the way.

About Leonard J. Press, O.D., FAAO, FCOVD

Developmental Optometry is my passion as well as occupation. Blogging allows me to share thoughts in a unique visual style.
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4 Responses to Dusting off Skeletons

  1. doctuhdon says:

    A sensational post, Len ! The Harvey Bernstein quotes are brutally frank !

    Your wrestling team accomplishments were most impressive, particularly as a RIETS student.

  2. Thanks, Dan. Always took great pride in competing at a high level representing YU athletics when our counterparts were often recruited scholarship athletes which none of us were. Part of that was countering the perception of Yeshiva students as passive and docile to a fault.

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