‘He could teach as a companion’

Max Ticktin Photo by Lloyd Wolf
Max Ticktin
Photo by Lloyd Wolf

Max Ticktin, a rabbi, a retired professor of Hebrew language and literature at George Washington University and a Jewish activist who once was assistant director of what is now Hillel International, died July 3. He was 94.

A Washington resident since 1972, he came of age in pre-World War II America, but became a mentor, guide and friend to the generation that became radicalized by the Vietnam War and sought to shake up what it saw as a complacent Jewish community.

“A week before he died, he was leading discussion on whether to start using a new siddur that he had fallen in love with,” said Norman Shore, a member of Fabrangen, the egalitarian Washington chavurah founded by that Vietnam-era generation. Ticktin and his wife, Esther, who survives him, joined Fabrangen after they moved to Washington in 1972.

Ticktin was the grownup in a congregation of baby boomers and an ordained rabbi. But he was as egalitarian as everyone else, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a founder of the group, said last year in a WJW profile of Ticktin, when George Washington University announced the creation of the Max Ticktin Professorship of Israel Studies.


“He never acted like the rabbi of Fabrangen,” Waskow said. “He contributed but did not dominate. He could teach as a companion rather than as a rabbi.”

Max David Ticktin was born in Philadelphia in June 30, 1922, a year after his parents, Sarah Pincus Ticktin and Israel Ticktin, and grandparents immigrated to the United States from northeast Poland.  It was “what would be today an Orthodox home” Ticktin said in an interview last year.

His maternal grandfather was a rabbi, but an atypical one. “He would not take a salary from the people he served. He was not a professional Jew. I grew up under his influence. He taught for free, and that’s the model I’ve tried to follow ever since,” Ticktin said.

Ticktin studied at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and was ordained in 1946. He and Esther were married by then and traveled to Jerusalem to study at the Hebrew University, where greats such as Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem taught. It was 1947, and Jewish Jerusalem was under siege by Arab forces in the period leading to Israel’s declaration of independence and struggle for its existence. Max and Esther joined the Haganah, the precursor to the Israel Defense Forces.

Ticktin’s friends like to play up this chapter in his story: how he and Esther were caught up in the sweep of Israel’s birth drama. Characteristically, Ticktin minimized the episode. “I was getting [military] training that was extremely superficial,” he said in the interview. “I was speaking Hebrew for the first time.”

The couple returned to the United States, and Ticktin became rabbi of the Hillel student centers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and later at the University of Chicago Hillel. There he founded the Upstairs Minyan, an early chavurah.

In Washington, he became Hillel’s assistant director. He also became a founder in 1973 of Breira (Choice), whose leadership was drawn heavily from Hillel. The group confounded the Jewish establishment with its call for mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinians and for a Palestinian state to be created alongside Israel, a policy that came to be called the two-state solution.

Under pressure from mainstream Jewish organizations, which employed many of Breira’s activists, the group lost members. It folded in 1977. “I was one of the people who paid the last bills,” Ticktin said.

Ticktin’s intellectual pursuits included a Yiddish group, which he led for more than 30 years. One of his plans after retiring from working with young adults was to shift to older adults, including meeting with a small group to read Israeli fiction and discuss it in Hebrew.

Shore marveled at Ticktin’s persistent curiosity and unflagging memory.

“Whenever Max would meet someone, he would immediately discover dozens of personal connections” that he and the person had in common, Shore said. Ticktin was the “world’s master of Jewish geography. He would use that and [his great] memory, and that was often a springboard to being able to relate to people.”

Shore said Ticktin will likely be remembered for “his dedication to teaching, to confronting issues and the personal connection that different people had with him. I think we’re still absorbing [his loss]. I won’t have a sense of his loss until I’m at services on Shabbat and he’s not sitting in his seat.”

He leaves his wife of 70 years, Esther Ticktin; his sister, Toby Back; his daughters, Deborah McCants and Ruth Ticktin; his son-in-law, Eric Rome; his grandchildren, Ben Nash, Solomon McCants, Micaela McCants, Sarah Nash, Sheba McCants, Grace McCants, Sofia Corporan, Thaddeus McCants, Ezra McCants, Jael McCants and Jesse Rome; his great-grandchildren, Samara Nash, Noah Nash and Sadie Wells. He was predeceased by his daughter, Hannah Ticktin, and son-in-law Abe McCants.

Staff writer Justin Katz contributed to this article.

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