Reflections on Yad Samuel Belkin
I remember the first time I visited the Yad Samuel Belkin. It was during my first days at Yeshiva College. There was a library session during orientation and I arrived a bit early. I had gone to high school on the Wilf Campus, and was therefore very familiar with most of it, but I never spent significant time in the university library. So when I arrived on the second floor of the library, which had only recently been renovated, the existence of a tiny museum in an alcove next to the entrance took me by surprise. Ever the lover of museums, I made a beeline toward it and spent my spare ten to fifteen minutes there.
I’ve visited the Yad Belkin many times since, especially this year as my interest in YU history has grown. Nearly every time I exit the library through the second floor, I’m drawn in on my way out. I can’t resist the lure; I must spend a few minutes there. Though everyone else seems immune to its appeal, I am always there alone. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen anyone else enter. Nearly everyone passes it by without so much as a glance.
The space itself is quite small — about the size of a Wilf dorm room. It’s immediately distinguished from the rest of the library by its granite floors and columns. The primary feature, on an elevated platform, is a glass-encased series of black-and-white photos with explanatory captions and a handful of items along the back wall. Other than that, there are two more displays. On the left wall is a tapestry and a trophy of a lamp once given to Dr. Belkin. The right wall, at the end of the exhibit, has a portrait of Dr. Belkin and a medal given to him upon his retiring as president. In the middle of the space are the two barren pits in the granite, one covered in grime, and the other containing a shallow layer of what seem to be dirt, rocks and woodchips.
Rumors, videos and newspaper archives indicate the space was once far grander, including plants, a fountain and an audiovisual presentation. None of these items remain; all that is left are the dirty hollow pits that once housed the former two. The old rundown vibe is almost immediately felt upon entry. It even smells like history; the space has a smell I might otherwise associate with an attic or an old decaying library book. Several light bulbs have been burnt out for longer than memory. And the items in the display are coated in thick dust and cobwebs; there’s even a large dead fly.
The space was dedicated in 1979 in commemoration of Dr. Samuel Belkin, the second president of Yeshiva University, who had died three years earlier. In his 33 years in that role, Dr. Belkin took what was a small religious college and built it up into a major university. His tenure oversaw the addition of a women’s undergraduate college, more undergraduate programs for men and many graduate schools, including highly regarded medical and law schools. The exhibit tells his story.
The exhibit is framed according to the “Four Dimensions of Higher Education,” an essay by Dr. Belkin which the exhibit identifies as “a statement of educational philosophy and purpose, [which] has been widely reprinted and is required reading in many colleges.” Despite, this description, I was unable to find the essay online. Eventually, I found out about an old volume containing it that the YU library purportedly had in storage, but upon requesting it, it could not be found and was declared missing. One of Dr. Belkin’s seminal works could not even be found in his own institution’s library!
In any case, the four dimensions are “The world in which we are born,” “The people among whom we are born,” “The study of man himself” and “The moral and spiritual purpose of life.” The exhibit is divided into four sections accordingly, each beginning with the relevant quote from Belkin’s essay and excerpts from an identically named short biographical appreciation of Belkin in honor of his 25th anniversary as president.
The first brief section of the exhibit is “The World in Which We Are Born.” This section emphasizes Belkin’s personal origins but also touches on the origins of Yeshiva University itself and how both shaped Dr. Belkin. Dr. Belkin was born in Poland in 1911 and didn’t come to America until 18 years later, already a rabbi. He had no familiarity with English when he arrived but would earn his doctorate — focusing on Philo Judaeus — in just six years. He then became a Greek professor at Yeshiva College and a Talmud instructor in the Yeshiva. Eight years later he would become its second president.
The exhibit draws attention to the town Belkin was born in, Swislicz. It features a picture of the local theater troupe and another of the dedication of a Hebrew school. Belkin’s very roots drew on the synthesis between Torah and culture — a value upon which Yeshiva University is built. It features Belkin’s father, who the exhibit repeatedly refers to as Belkin’s first teacher, emphasizing his educational roots. But Belkin’s father was killed in a pogrom on suspicion of being a communist. Which leads to the next point this section emphasizes: the flight of Jews from Europe.
To understand Yeshiva University, you must understand the historical context in which it emerged. The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth saw mass migration of Jews from Europe to America. While Europe was home to many yeshivas that emerged over the nineteenth century, none were found in America; the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary was the first. Later, due to student demands and the need of the rabbinate in America to meet a highly assimilated laity, RIETS hired Dr. Bernard Revel, who went on in 1928 to found Yeshiva College. Revel’s pioneering vision was of a harmonious synthesis of faith and scholarship, of Torah and culture, where students could learn and grow holistically. This philosophy would later come to be known as Torah Umadda.
Thus, it’s not just that Belkin fled Europe in the early twentieth century. It was this mass migration phenomenon that made the existence of Yeshiva University both possible and necessary. At the time, it was people in similar circumstances to Dr. Belkin whom the institution served.
The next part of the museum is framed as “The people with whom we live.” This brief section focuses on the origin story of Yeshiva University itself, as well as Belkin’s arrival to America. It features photos of traditional immigrant sites such as Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. It also shows Belkin’s certificate of naturalization, as well as some young portraits of him. Beside these is a large portrait of Dr. Bernard Revel, the founder of Yeshiva College, who infused the institution with purpose. Looking upon Dr. Revel always fills me with reverence and awe; his vision guides my experience at YU, and I try my utmost to be cognizant of it. Below this is a famous picture of many people — most holding Torah scrolls — in front of the RIETS building on the lower east side as they abandon it for their new domed edifice in Washington Heights. In the picture, I recognize several notable figures such as Dr. Revel, Rabbi Moshe Margolies and Harry Fischel.
The history of Yeshiva University is not just the history of the college I happen to go to. YU is at the center of a much larger story: the story of American Modern Orthodoxy. In turn, many of the goings on in Modern Orthodoxy at large are macrocosmic of the developments in the university. Because of the university’s nature at the center of a small, close-knit religious community, it has the potential to foster an unparalleled attachment. Many of my community members and nearly all of my rabbis went to YU; many of the most looked up to religious figures of the last generation were affiliated with YU. The philosophy that drives my life has its origins in YU. The story of YU is not just the story of a college; it’s the story of a community and religious movement. It’s the story of my community and religious movement. YU’s story doesn’t just tell me about YU; it tells me about myself.
Below the pictures are a few personal effects of Dr. Belkin including his tefillin and a very well worn — the pages are tattered and the binding nearly snapped in two — siddur, emphasizing his religious devotion. But most interesting is Dr. Belkin’s key from the Phi Beta Kappa honors society at Brown University, where he received his doctorate. The key is attached to a pocket watch that the exhibit says was gifted to him by the RIETS Rabbinic Alumni.The fob literally intertwines the religious and academic traditions, physically manifesting the institution’s philosophy. This fob can be seen adorning Dr. Belkin in several of the pictures.
The third and longest section is framed by “The study of man himself.” Most of this section strongly emphasize Belkin’s building up of the university. Among its pictures are many groundbreakings and notable figures. Special attention is given to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, which is shown even in planning stages, but pictures are also shown of the groundbreaking for the Belfer Graduate School and a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Mendel Gottesman Library. There’s even a picture of Dr. Belkin on CBS.
What’s stunning in this section is the number of prominent figures from outside YU shown and mentioned. Among them are Albert Einstein, President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson, First Lady and U.S. delegate to the UN Eleanor Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Harlan Stone, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Harry Belafonte, Norman Rockwell as well as many others. Notably missing among the figures are rabbis or religious figures who were featured prominently in the previous sections. The only exceptions are mention of the Chief Rabbi of Vilna, who received an honorary degree at Belkin’s inauguration, and a picture of Belkin awarding a doctorate to Rabbi Norman Lamm, his future successor as president.
The figures can be fairly neatly divided into three categories: political, cultural and scientific. Several messages are conveyed by their inclusion as well as the absence of rabbis. This segment primarily serves to convey Yeshiva University’s legitimacy as a serious academic institution and cultural force in the American scene. Hence, religious figures are unnecessary. The political figures, especially ones as prominent as presidents, governors and senators, emphasize the American character of Yeshiva, and solidify it as a major institution in the country. The artists and scientists present at commemorative events bespeak dominance over the gamut of secular disciplines and embeddedness within the broader culture. Not only is Yeshiva a major player in the world of Torah and a pioneer in the synthesis of Torah Umadda, but it also excels at madda qua madda.
Despite the absence of religious leaders, it is apparent that many of the figures — Albert Einstein, Isaac Wolfson, Andre Lwoff, Senator Jacob Javits, Edward Robinson, Zero Mostel, Governor Abraham Ribicoff, Mayor Abraham Beame, David Sarnoff, Harry Wolfson — are Jewish. This, on the one hand, speaks to the Jewish character at the core of the institution, even when engaging in secular pursuits, but also, more practically speaking, indicates an institution with connections to all types of Jews, not merely the religiously practicing or yeshiva-oriented.
The sorts of events on display here speak to similar themes as the figures. They are nearly all groundbreakings, commencements, commemorations, convocations and inaugurations, and feature the bestowing of honorary degrees. All of these are ceremonies with extreme pomp and formality. They are also decidedly not things one would find in a traditional European yeshiva. This once again underscores Yeshiva’s place as a prestigious American academic institution, engaging in the traditions belonging to them.
Below this segment are some more artifacts. However, among them are some with no explanation. I suspect there once were captions, but they’ve since been lost to time. One item does have a plaque, but it’s covered in too thick a layer of dust to enable its reading.
The other element of this section emphasizes Belkin’s relationship with students. One picture features an “impromptu sidewalk session” of Belkin interacting with a hoard of students. The “impromptu” implies comfort and positive rapport with the student body, and the label of “sidewalk session” implies this wasn’t just a singular occurrence. Indeed, the biographical appreciation the exhibit draws from confirms this impression. There’s also a picture of students carrying a Torah scroll dedicated to Belkin. The very same Torah scroll is also featured in the display. The caption to the photo reads: “During the nation’s campus rebellion of the 60s, a small drama unfolded at Yeshiva University. The students expressed confidence in and devotion to President Belkin by presenting him with a Torah. A student leader carries the sacred scroll.” The exhibit implies students had unanimous confidence in Dr. Belkin in contrast to most universities at the time. However, Commentator archives tell a little bit of a different story.
According to The Commentator archives, the late sixties saw increasing tension between the Yeshiva College Student Council (YCSC) and the administration over a variety of issues. Student Council even considered striking at a meeting attended by over 500 students. These tensions eventually culminated in the announcement of a University Senate that would include students, faculty and administrators. However, as October of the next academic year came to a close, this plan had not yet come to fruition. It is within this context that the president of the student council organized the convocation for Dr. Belkin and presented him with the Torah scroll. This was not without controversy though. In the following issue of The Commentator, the YCSC president came under attack in an editorial for the convocation. The editorial claimed, among other things, that the ceremony was planned unilaterally without broad student input or agreement and that only 40% of students attended. Collective memory often supersedes history; unpleasant details can be glossed over in favor of the preferred narrative.
The final section of the display is framed by “The moral and spiritual purpose of life.” Here the focus turns away from Yeshiva University and falls back onto Dr. Belkin personally. What drove him? The emphasis here is on his family and academic work. Half the pictures in the section are devoted to Philo of Alexandria, Belkin’s primary academic focus. There is also a picture of Belkin studying Talmud — surely a central component of his life. The rest is devoted to his family. Pictures are shown of his wife and children and of him meeting his sister and her children upon coming to America. The final picture is of Belkin embracing his granddaughter, conveying continuity with future generations.
Spending time in this space always makes me nostalgic for a past I never experienced. If only YU still had the prestige conveyed in these photos. If only it even deserved it. If only YU was led by brilliant scholars and visionaries. If only YU united American Jewry. If only YU cared about its own story. It’s impossible to imagine world-renowned scholars and actors spending time at YU today, let alone presidents. The exhibit gives the most attention to the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, one of Belkin’s crowning achievements, but the school is now totally unaffiliated with YU. Belkin’s legacy was sold away.
One also can’t help but feel alone. The memorial is located on the second floor of the library, which is one of the more populated and social floors. There are so many YU students there, all talking or studying, but none seem to care about our history or what it means to be a YU student. The thoughtful stewards of our history are drowned out by the indifferent masses.
The indifference towards the space is palpable. Nobody even glances at it, not even when there’s some student who dragged a library chair into it and is typing vociferously while wheeling through the exhibit. The exhibit itself is in disrepair. The dust looks as if it has built up for over a decade. While the rest of the library received fancy renovations over the past few years, the Yad Belkin was gutted of its former aesthetic amenities. I even fear they might one day try to eliminate it completely.
Though I must wonder to what extent my nostalgia is justified. Given all the time I’ve spent rummaging through newspaper archives, I’m keenly aware that most of my grievances with the institution far predate me. Was it ever any better? Or have I overlooked that which doesn’t suit my narrative?
On the right-hand wall that you come to at the end of the display case, there is a painted portrait of Dr. Belkin. Belkin stands straight in his academic regalia, clutching his robe and a book. The caption emphasizes Belkin’s status as an “unforgettable educator,” one with dedication, vision and commitment to values and humanity. The glass in front of the portrait is very reflective; it’s difficult to fully take in the painting without your reflection obfuscating it.
Reflections feature in several places in the Yad Belkin. The wall between it and the library proper is fully mirrored. The reflection begs you to see yourself within the YU story and in Belkin’s life.
However, when I look up from the portrait, I discover the cause of the reflection. The lightbulb above this space in front of the portrait is burnt out, rendering it darker and the glass reflective. Indeed, the light over Samuel Belkin has burnt out.
Photo Caption: Yad Samuel Belkin
Photo Credit: The Commentator