Dr. Phil Miller Speaks at Dedication of the Office of the Gottesman Library in memory of Jacob I. Dienstag, at Yeshiva University - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Dr. Phil Miller Speaks at Dedication of the Office of the Gottesman Library in memory of Jacob I. Dienstag, at Yeshiva University

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

I begin with my sincerest and warmest thanks to Mrs. Dienstag for having extended this invitation, and with congratulations to the Yeshiva University Libraries on this joyous occasion, and to my dear friends and colleagues, Leah Adler and Pearl Berger. And I also bring greetings from Dr. David J. Gilner, director of libraries at HUC-JIR, and Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the College-Institute. When Dr. Ellenson was a rabbinical student, he told me, recalled Professor Dienstag’s presence at our library.

Please forgive me that I am reading from prepared notes, but I know that time is of the essence and I need to control my inclination to get off-topic and perhaps ramble. You see me wearing a beret. Perhaps I wear it in tribute to Jacob Dienstag, but also that I have worn one for at least 35 years, and that my father and his father before him also wore berets as their hats of choice.

I actually recall the first time I encountered Jacob Dienstag. Yes, encounter, for the first time one met him was hardly a mere “meeting.” It was in the late winter of 1974, and I had recently come to New York to serve as assistant librarian to the legendary Rabbi I. Edward Kiev. Dr. Dienstag had come in that morning, greeted Mrs Tabor and Mrs. Markush at the front desk and then went on to chat with Rabbi Kiev. Shortly thereafter he approached me and offered me his hand in welcome. He introduced himself and immediately got down to business, namely, what was my Hebrew name. Thinking back over the decades, I can recall only once over the years when Dr. Dienstag called me Philip rather than Shraga Fayvel.

He then asked me where I had studied. I mentioned Georgetown, Columbia, and the University of Michigan. No – That is not what he meant. He pressed on, where did I get my Jewish education, and at which yeshiva had I learned? Well, he tried to hide a frown when I said I had no formal Jewish learning, except what I had picked up at synagogue sheurim, and the great influence of my family’s rabbi, William G. Braude. When I said Rabbi Braude’s name, Jacob Diestag’s face lit up like a Hanukiayah (you thought I’d say Christmas tree?). “Maimonides’ attitude toward the Midrash,” he said. I was not sure what he meant, so Dr. Dienstag went and got the Festschrift issued in 1971 in honor of Rabbi Kiev and showed me Rabbi Braude’s contribution – Maimonides attitude toward the Midrash. This was only the first of many times when Jacob Dienstag dug deeply into his memory and pulled out a correct bibliographical citation, especially when it came to Maimonides.

By the way, it was also Dr. Dienstag who pointed out to me that David Ellenson and William Braude were the only two Reform rabbis to be published in Tradition, the official publication of the Rabbinical Council of America!

While Dr. Dienstag was pleased to learn that Rabbi Braude was an influence in my life, what I had not mentioned to him, and indeed I realized it only much later, was that Rabbi Braude never used a person’s English name when the Hebrew name was available. Rabbi Braude and Jacob Dienstag were absolutely the only persons to routinely call me Shraga Fayvel.

One of the greatest intellectuals to teach at  HUC, New York was Fritz Bamberger (1902-1984). In 1935, Schocken published Dr. Bamberger’s monograph on Maimonides. Naturally, Dienstag and Bamberger knew one another, and I remember one time, about 1978, when Fritz Bamberger received Bernard Scharfstein, Dr. Dienstag, and me at his residence to show us his famed collection of rare books, including what was the largest collection in private hands of early editions of Spinoza. When one thinks of Spinoza bibliography, one immediately thinks of Fritz Bamberg, just as one thinks of Jacob Dienstag when it comes to Maimonides.

Allow me to share with you a story I doubt Jacob knew. While we were at the Bamberger residence, he constantly called Fritz by the Hebrew name, Shelomoh.. Afterwards I asked Fritz about this. His face reddened slightly in embarrassment and he told me this story. Several years earlier, Dr. Dienstag was preparing an article in Hebrew on Maimonidean scholarship and wanted to refer to Dr. Bamberger by his Hebrew name, claiming it was physically impossible for him to refer repeatedly to him as “Pritz” Bamberger. Dr. Bamberger told me that he of course had a Hebrew name, but that he had never used it. Being of a secular and thoroughly acculturated German-Jewish stock, he never even had a bar-mitzvah. He kept putting Dr. Dienstag off, but Dienstag had made such a pest of himself over this issue that Fritz finally gave in and said, “Shelomoh.” Thereafter, much to Dr. Bamberger’s chagrin, Dr. Dienstag always called him Shelomoh in direct address. And Dr. Bamberger, being the proper German gentleman that he was, accepted it in gracious silence.

When I came to the College-Institute in New York in January of 1974, the library was on the top floor of the building on West 68th Street, flanked on one side by Dr. Dienstag’s good friend and Revisionist comrade in arms, Samuel Atlas (1899-1977), also a great scholar of Moses Maimonides, and on the other side by the office of Harry Orlinsky (1908-1992), the noted Bible scholar.

When Herbert Zafren, the then-director of libraries, visited New York in the spring of 1974, he asked me if I knew Dr. Orlinsky and he also asked how he and I got on. Of course I knew Dr. “O” and we got on famously. “Good,” Dr. Zafren said, “Because if you did not, I’d have to fire you.” He went on to explain that when he was growing up in Baltimore and attending Baltimore Hebrew College, Dr. “O” was one of his teachers, and, moreover, as neighbors, they walked home together ever day. Herb then said to me, and I can still hear his voice to this day, “Dr. Orlinsky is for me the quintessential Jew.”

Dear friends, I did not have to think hard and long about this, I have to say that Jacob Dienstag is for me a quintessential Jew. Our personal relationship was nowhere as extensive as that of Dr. Orlinsky and Dr. Zafren, but in sum total I must say that Jack had so many qualities I deeply admire. He had a deep and abiding love of the Jewish tradition. He loved the Hebrew and Yiddish languages equally (although he did part company with those lovers of Yiddish who spurned their Jewish tradition). He loved Jewish books and Jewish scholarship. And who can match or hope to outdo Jacob Dienstag’s love for the Jewish Homeland?

In conclusion, let me say that I feel so extremely blessed to have known Jacob Dienstag, and indeed, those of his his generation, for these were individuals of such remarkable breadth and depth that my generation and those following utterly pale by comparison. Na’ar hayati ve-gam zakanti… I was a kid in my twenties when I came to library work and am now in my mid-sixties. Where do we find the likes of a Jacob Dienstag today? And how much the poorer the coming generations are, for they never had the opportunity of knowing him or seeing him in action, At least his name will continue to live on at the Gottesman Library, where for so many years he made his indelible mark. He certainly inspired me, and I pray he will continue to inspire others.


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