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In memory of Yaakov Elman

As a teenager, the renowned Talmud professor was a fan of Scottish Ballads, Luis Borge and Babylonian mythology

Around the time I began studying for my bar mitzvah, my mother reported on an irksome conversation she had had with a neighbor. She had told Isaac Unger something about my upcoming celebration, and he asked “What is there to celebrate? Is he really going to observe the mitzvos?

It was an unusually acerbic comment from our normally reserved neighbor.  I remembered that question though, and perhaps it contributed to my surprising decision to try to observe the commandments fully on my bar mitzvah, to become more observant than the norms of the home in which I was raised.

A few months later, I began wearing my kippah in public, not just in synagogue and Hebrew high school.   One day, as I walked along Allerton Avenue, Mr. Unger hurried out of his clothing store to greet me, and began a conversation with me.  Would I welcome the opportunity to study Torah with an older teenager?

I must not have said no, because shortly thereafter Mr. Unger introduced me to Yaakov Elman.  For the next few years, Yaakov and I would meet regularly, just about every Shabbat, and he would guide me through the texts of classical Judaism, advancing my linguistic skills and giving me a context for understanding what I was studying.   My decision to become a strictly observant Jew might have devolved into a short-lived phase without his attention; my efforts to become a sophisticated, knowledgeable Jew probably would have stalled without his instruction.

We learned Torah together for several years.  My mentor was a young man of enormous enthusiasms, though, so we did not only learn Torah.   He had other excitements to share with me.  So he introduced me to the various kinds of arts and sciences that enthralled him:

  • Folk music: especially the old Scottish ballads (especially as sung by Ewan McColl), and the traditional Hebrew prayer poems of Yemen (sung by the now-forgotten Itamar Cohen), and the Nubian oud-player Hamza el Din, and traditional spiritual songs of American slaves.
  • Classical music: especially Georg Philip Handel, but also Karl Orff.
  • Literature: the prose of Jorge Luis Borges, and the poetry of Conrad Aiken.
  • Babylonian mythology, though perhaps this interest counted as a contextual source for knowledge of the background of the Torah.

We also engaged in political discussions, during which he expressed his profound counterculturalism: he offered trenchant critiques of bourgeois capitalism, of American triumphalism, of racism in any guise, and even of Zionism.  I do not know to what extent these enthusiasms endured into his later life.

For one brief period, he took an intense interest in chess, a game that I had played since I was four.  In the weeks before his inquisitive gaze switched to other pursuits, he had far surpassed me at the game.

Once, as a favor to a mutual friend who was a psychology student, he agreed to be subject to a sensory-deprivation experiment.  Afterwards, the psychologist who administered the experiment reported that most of the subjects eventually experienced discomfort and disorientation during the prolonged sensory deprivation.  Yaakov reported that he enjoyed the experience.  During the entire session, he delivered a lecture on Babylonian mythology; he remarked that he usually cannot find anyone interested enough to endure an update on that fascinating topic.

His interests in Torah were, even then, without apparent limits; so too, his growing competence in all areas of Torah.  Just one example:   He reviewed the weekly Torah portion, as the Talmud recommends, twice the text and once the Targum, the Aramaic translation. Undoubtedly the authors of that recommendation chose the Aramaic translation for the benefit of Aramaic-speaking Jews of antiquity, who knew that language better than they knew Hebrew, and could use the help of a Targum when confronting a difficult Hebrew word.  Yaakov, as a teen, read the Torah portion with the Aramaic translation week after week in the Bronx, where no one spoke Aramaic as a native language, with the result that he became fluent in Western Aramaic.

He had learned Hebrew grammar from his father, who died shortly after I met Yaakov.  Yaakov excelled his Hebrew, even winning a public school award as the best student in the city (which even then had Israeli students).  Even after winning the award, he felt shy about speaking Hebrew with Israelis.

He had learned much else from his father.  When the name of Shabtai Zvi came up in one of our study sessions – I had never heard of Shabtai Zvi – Yaakov began recounting the history to me, but he ran into an almost insuperable difficulty.  He could not keep himself from switching into Yiddish.  He explained that he had learned his material from his late father in Yiddish, and so as he recalled it, the material came back to him in his father’s words.  The experience brought tears to his eyes.

I remember Yaakov’s brimming excitement when he found an article about a practice in ancient Mesopotamia of granting a powerful man a wife, with whom he would have children, and an auxiliary wife, who would not have children.  Rashi’s comment on Genesis 4:19 attributes this same arrangement to Lemech, a descendant of Cain.  He asked: Do you think that Rashi could have had access to a reliable tradition about a practice of ancient Mesopotamia, so many hundreds of years after the Mesopotamian practice had disappeared?

I think that insight formed the basis of Yaakov’s first scholarly publication; the first, followed by an army of other publications

Yaakov Elman’s undergraduate degree was in Meteorology, and for years after graduating from college he made his living doing tasks such as predicting weather for ship’s captains, work which made no particular use of Jewish sources.  Eventually he began working in a Jewish bookstore, making use of this wide-ranging curiosity about, and knowledge of, every sort of Jewish text.  Eventually he found his way to graduate studies in Judaica, a trajectory that seemed inevitable in prospect, and even more so in retrospect.

The barriers that people set up between their various areas of knowledge did not seem to operate for him.  As a young man, he was fascinated by the ways in which performers, decade after decade, and across the globe, performed the old Scottish ballads, preserving the ballads, even as they polished and modified them. Different performances were significantly different, and yet recognizably the same ballad.  In his dissertation, he wrote about remnants of oral transmission in the text of the Babylonian Talmud. What he knew about Scottish ballads turned out to be relevant to the Talmud.

Other people know him as a mature man much better than I.  I leave to other memorialists the task of describing in what many fields he wrote important and original scholarship.  My task here is only to contribute to the portrait of the artist as a young mentor, and to express my gratitude.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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