I knew of Max Ticktin long before I ever met him, through a mutual friend who was his colleague on the faculty of the George Washington University. I finally met Max several years ago, when I began taking courses at GW in modern Hebrew literature. At the time, Max was in his mid-80s. We bonded over Hebrew literature and poetry and became very close friends.
As thousands of Max’s students discovered before me: to know Max was to love him. He took a strong personal interest in each one of his students and had the sensitivity and the patience to understand and meet each one’s needs. He was so devoted to teaching that he would arrange additional classes, outside of the regular academic schedule, in order to accommodate every single undergraduate who wanted to study with him.
And a typical class session with Max was an encounter not only with the assigned material — typically a Hebrew short story or a series of Hebrew poems — but also a dizzying tour through a variety of topics: the Tanach, the Talmud, the Mishnah, the history of modern Israel, American literature, American Jewish history, Israeli culture, current events, Yiddish, observations on Israeli and American political developments, stories about Israeli poets and writers … not to mention the interweaving of snippets from his own incredible life story. All of this in an hour.
You see, Max had a front row seat to the evolution of the American Jewish community and the birth of the State of Israel. He was born in Philadelphia in 1922 to an immigrant family from northeast Poland. He grew up speaking Yiddish and English; Hebrew came later. His maternal grandfather was a rabbi and a role model, and Max was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1946.
In 1947, Max and his wife Esther traveled to what was then still Mandatory Palestine to search for family members who had survived the Holocaust. They studied at The Hebrew University at a time when luminaries such as Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem were on the faculty. Max himself studied with Umberto Cassuto, one of the great biblical scholars. But their studies were cut short by the siege of Jerusalem and the fight for Israel’s independence, so Esther and Max volunteered for the Haganah, the precursor to the Israel Defense Forces.
Upon their return to the States, Max became the Hillel director at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, beginning a storied and influential career that included being Hillel director at the University of Chicago and assistant director of national Hillel. Max eventually joined the Judaic Studies’ faculty at GW, where he taught for 30 years and impacted generations of students with his knowledge, his caring, and his joyful, gregarious neshama. Max and Esther were founding members of Fabrangen, where he davened not as a rabbi but as an equal member of the havurah, up to and including the day just over a week ago when he took ill.
After Max retired from GW in the spring of 2015, he and I continued to study together one on one. He also continued to teach at the DCJCC, where he led a chug kriah (Hebrew reading group) for years and also taught Yiddish literature. Max was a gifted and natural teacher, as well as the patriarch of a large, energetic, and loving family. He knew practically everyone in the Jewish world and remembered every encounter, every conversation. But his humility was such that he was reluctant to talk about himself and had to be urged — nay, practically coerced — to share his stories, each one of which was an absolute gem.
It may sound odd to say that a 94-year-old man has left us far too soon. But that is exactly how all of us feel who were privileged to know and to love Max. There is an expression in Hebrew — ein kamohu — which literally means “there is no one else like him.” It is used to refer to someone who is unique, one of a kind. That was Max Ticktin.
In the world to come, I hope to sit with Max under a fig tree in the Garden of Eden, where we will once again pore over a Hebrew text and decipher the words and their meaning, interspersed with references to the Mishnah and Yiddish and stories from his amazing life.
May his life and his memory be forever a blessing.
Susie Gelman is a member of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which
publishes Washington Jewish Week.