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Book review: Eckman, Lester Samuel. History of the Mirrer Yeshivah (from its beginnings till 1945). by Patrick Gordis

The recently published History of the Mirrer Yeshivah by Dr. Lester Eckman, a professor of history at Touro College and a noted expert in the Musar movement, is the first extended treatise of this subject in the English language. Written in a lively, readable and fast moving style, this slender volume rapidly covers the entire history of the Mir Yeshiva from its foundations in 1815 by Samuel Tiktinski up until its nominal end in Shanghai in 1945.

Although the known source material to document this fascinating history is rather meager and Dr. Eckstein has chosen to rely almost exclusively on one account only (1), nonetheless this work manages to represent fairly adequately the general development and evolution of the Mir Yeshiva from its rudimentary origins as a preparatory academy of local importance to a world renowned institution of higher learning in its last period.

The various controversies and power struggles which inevitably arose in the long administration of the Yeshiva and its sometimes contentious relations with the community of Mir are touched upon. The forceful and inspiring personalities of the Yeshiva's more eminent leaders in various periods are also brought to light. As a sort of explanatory appendix to this history, Dr. Eckman has judiciously added his own brief summaries of some representative moral teachings of three prominent figures from the Mir Yeshiva to better connote the style of thinking and teaching to those unfamiliar with this world.

Despite some of the shortcomings and limitations I note in the second part of this review, the author must be strongly commended for this noble undertaking to bring to a wider readership an important history which up to the present has remained largely obscured in scattered, out of print sources mainly in Hebrew. As such it is incumbent upon all those keenly interested in the preservation of this history for future generations to purchase copies of Dr. Eckman's latest book. It is available in some select Jewish bookstores on the East Coast or directly from the author's own Judaic Research Institute (C/O of Dr. Lester Eckman, 747 Livingston Road, Elizabeth, NJ 07208-1352).

What may perhaps be deemed the author's greatest strength, his close intimacy and strong personal sympathy for the subject matter also paradoxically proves to be the main limitation of this work. By adopting a "reverential" perspective to the old Mir Yeshiva, Dr. Eckman relies too exclusively for his whole account on a single essay (2) by the late Rabbi Joseph David Epstein, himself a student of Mir, a leading exponent of Musar teaching and an inspirational mentor and first cousin of Dr. Eckman's, to whom this book is partly dedicated.

The signal fault and limitation of largely summarizing in English Rabbi Epstein's account is that in many places there is a notable lack of depth and detail to this thumbnail sketch of the Yeshiva's history. Largely missing, for example, are revealing excerpts from Yiddish and Hebrew memoirs of former students of the Mir Yeshiva which provide a firsthand sense of life at the academy in different periods. Those in quest of excerpts from such memoirs of the Mir Yeshiva are referred to the fundamental Hebrew work on this topic by the late Moshe Zinowitz (2), a work Dr. Eckman cites in his bibliography but apparently did not consult or utilize extensively.

For example, the following account of boarding at the Mir Yeshiva in the 1850s, which is perhaps as overly critical as many other accounts seem unrealistically idealized, might have been added for some much needed objective contrast:

"Study usually began at six o'clock in the morning and lasted until eight. Morning prayers, attended by townsmen, took place from eight to nine; breakfast was from nine to ten; chanting the Talmud again from ten to twelve; the lesson by the teacher began at noon and lasted usually until two in the afternoon; dinner and rest was from two to four; group reading from four to six; prayers from six to seven; group reading from seven to nine and, finally, evening prayers and rest; thus, day in and day out.

Anyone can easily imagine the exhaustion of students by this regime; especially taking into account the overcrowding, the stuffiness and the undernourishment! It is not surprising that almost all of the students of the Mir Yeshiva were exhausted, pale and anemic, somehow timid and overwhelmed by the oppressive assistant to the Rabbi, a strict instructor, who inspected the school daily taking care that students did not engage in frivolous conversations but were chanting the Talmud." (4)

There are various other points of mystery, confusion or omission in the History of the Mirrer Yeshivah which result most likely from the primary dependence on the one essay by Rabbi Epstein. This is particularly the case in the last part of the narrative history in Shanghai which has many Byzantine complications and intrigues that would not necessarily be clear to someone not previously intimately familiar with certain personalities and details of this miraculous rescue.

In the 130 year span of this history, some famous alumni of the Mir Yeshiva are mentioned by Dr. Eckman and somewhat detailed, as well as others in passing who supported the institution in various ways. However, a great number of well-known graduates of the Mir Yeshiva are inexplicably unaccounted for and there is no evident logic or pattern as to why certain persons are briefly listed while very many others are completely omitted including some famous authors, leading Zionist activists and future leaders of Israel (5).

The index of names is a useful addition and reference even to so brief a work. However, even here, the casual reader or researcher looking only for references to a particular person must exercise due caution as the index only covers references to complete names and more often than not a rabbi will appear familiarly as, for example, "Rabbi Chaim Ozer" rather than "Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky".

Finally, the work could have benefited greatly from more careful English proofreading and editing of syntax. Occasionally, there are some comical transpositions of letters, such as on p. 118 where three times "martial law" appears where "marital law" was meant: "From 'within' however, martial law consists of trust, companionship and partnership." As Dr. Eckman projects writing in rapid succession the histories of all the major yeshivot in Eastern Europe, of which the History of the Mirrer Yeshivah is but the first installment, it is to be earnestly hoped that forthcoming volumes will utilize a much more extensive set of sources, will provide greater detail and depth and will be more carefully edited. Some of Dr. Eckman's previous work, including the highly respected biography of the Hafets Hayyim, Revered by All , is an example of serious scholarship which would be a fine model to emulate in forthcoming volumes on the history of other Eastern European yeshivot.

Patrick Gordis
Berkeley, CA

(1) As Dr. Eckman himself notes, "This work on the history of the Mirrer Yeshivah is based primarily on the erudite information provided by Rabbi J.D. Epstein in the above mentioned work." (p. 31).

(2) Epstein, J.D. In Jewish Institutions of Higher Learning in Europe: Their Development and Destruction [in Hebrew], S. K. Mirsky ed., New York, 1956.

(3) Zinowitz (i.e., Tzinovitz), Moshe. Mir: Toldot Yeshivat Mir . Tel Aviv, 1980. The further subtitle of this book, "moreha, hayeha, talmideha, ve-toratah" indicates the wider scope of its historiography.

(4) Kovner, Abraham Uri (1842-1909), Notes of a Jew [in Russian], Istoricheskii Viestnik , v. 91 (1903), p. 993 (for the whole Mir Yeshiva account see pages 990-997). The reviewer has a complete English translation of this available upon request.

(5) Toldot Yeshivat Mir , cited above, though by no means comprehensive, provides a much wider range of short biographies of notable graduates and faculty of the Mir Yeshiva.


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Updated February 2005


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