Max Ticktin was leading a tour of Israel with a group of American college students when their bus approached Kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot, founded by Jews who had battled the Nazis, including the last survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943. It was 1959, and Ticktin was the Hillel director at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. While the group toured the kibbutz, the Israeli guide remained behind in the bus.
“I oppose stopping here,” he told Ticktin. “I don’t want to emphasize the bravery of the ghetto fighters. We should emphasize the heroism of the new Jews.”
Such was the Israeli view of Diaspora Jews circa 1959. In the 10-year-old State of Israel, the new Jews — the Israelis — claimed the mantle of history as the Diaspora withered away. And Ticktin, who told this story recently to illustrate how much Israel-Diaspora relations have changed, says that what they have changed into “is not clear.”
Last year, Ticktin, now 93, retired as professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at George Washington University, ending a career of teaching young people that began not long after his 1946 ordination as a Conservative rabbi. During those seven decades, he witnessed the birth pangs of Israel, campaigned for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, and shared with countless others his love of Torah, modern Hebrew literature and Yiddish literature.
The university recently announced the creation of the Max Ticktin Professorship of Israel Studies. This recognition of Ticktin’s legacy as a beloved and influential teacher evolved from his relationship with Susie Gelman, who began studying Hebrew literature with him as a non-degree student and has become a close friend.
“Currently, there is no dedicated Israel Studies program at the university,” says Gelman who, with her husband, Michael, endowed the Ticktin chair through The Morningstar Foundation. “The goal is to make GW a destination for Israel Studies over time, and it is entirely fitting to do so in Max’s name.” (Susie and Michael Gelman are members of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, publisher of Washington Jewish Week.)
“He connects with people without pretense,” says Daniel Schwartz, director of Judaic studies at GW. “I don’t think he was ‘Professor Ticktin’ to very many people. It was always ‘Max.’”
“He’s very self-effacing, although he doesn’t have reason to be self-effacing,” adds Susie Gelman, who still studies with Ticktin. “Not only is he incredibly knowledgeable, he has an amazing personal story. In many ways, his life embodies the history of the Jewish people over much of the last century.”
An unusual rabbi
“I grew up with two languages — Yiddish and English. Later, I added modern Israeli Hebrew,” Ticktin says.
We’re sitting in a side room off of the lobby of the District retirement home where Ticktin lives with his wife, Esther. He retains the beard he’s worn through his adulthood, and his black horn-rimmed glasses look timeless rather than trendy. The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington is recording the interview for its oral history archives. Ticktin is unfazed.
Local rabbi Gilah Langner, whom Ticktin ordained, calls him “indefatigable. He can stand for an hour and give a completely organized, cogent presentation.”
Max Ticktin was born in Philadelphia in 1922, a year after his parents and grandparents immigrated to the United States from northeast Poland. It was “what would be today an Orthodox home” Ticktin says.
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 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 like 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 minimizes the episode. “I was getting [military] training that was extremely superficial,” he says. “I was speaking Hebrew for the first time.”
Then Esther, who was pregnant with the first of their three children, fell ill. After only a few weeks in Jerusalem, they returned to the United States.
“Then, I was picked up by the Hillel people,” he says. “I ended up in Madison.”
At the University of Wisconsin, Ticktin began teaching young adults and establishing lifelong relationships.
The Hillel campus organization, a part of B’nai B’rith at that time, was in its heyday. It was before American universities began establishing Jewish Studies departments in great numbers. As a Hillel rabbi, “you could teach Jewish Studies courses and you could also study what you wanted,” Norbert M. Samuelson, chairman of Jewish Studies at Arizona State University and a Hillel rabbi in the 1960s and ‘70s, writes in Reasoned Faith.
Rabbi Phyllis Berman was a college student from Brooklyn when she transferred to Madison in 1961. “Max taught classes. He introduced me to Heschel and Buber. He led services,” says Berman, a storyteller and liturgist in the Jewish Renewal movement.
Ticktin arranged for her to get kosher meat “and a broiler so I could cook for myself. I couldn’t have done that on my own,” she says. “It was clear that Max was a very unusual rabbi, unusual in his combination of Jewish knowledge, relevant politics and his care for the students.”
In 1964, Ticktin left Madison for the University of Chicago Hillel. In Chicago, he founded the Upstairs Minyan, an early chavurah, or participatory congregation. In 1980, he explained his support for the chavurah model to the Milwaukee Journal:
“We have become overly dependent on clergy and have forgotten the worth of the layperson,” he said.
‘We botched it up’
The Yom Kippur War of October 1973 was a blow not just to Israel but to American Jewry as well. In the wake of the security disaster and amid spectacular acts of terrorism by the PLO, the American Jewish establishment hardened its support of the Jewish State.
In this uneasy environment, a group of Jewish community professionals and intellectuals issued a 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. The group also called for the removal of the new settlements being built in the West Bank.
The group called itself Breira (Choice), and its leadership was drawn heavily from Hillel. One of its leaders was Max Ticktin, Hillel National’s Washington-based assistant director.
“Max was deeply committed to an Israel and a Zionism that did not dominate another people,” says Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a former leader of Breira and the husband of Rabbi Phyllis Berman.
Like other left-leaning groups that have come and gone, Breira was a lightning rod for hostility. Its members were accused of treason and of threatening Israel’s security. At Breira’s only national conference, in 1977, members of the Jewish Defense League broke in and chanted “Death to Breira” and “Jewish blood is on your hands.”
In 1976, members of Breira met in Washington with two members of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The group included Ticktin.
“There was an uproar in the Jewish establishment,” says Waskow, who was also at the meeting. “It was a moment when Hillel got queasy under attack.”
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 says.
“We botched it up,” he says now, “because we had little sense of where the power lay. It lay with the people who made the biggest donations and were behind the big Jewish organizations. And they could do what they did do, which was bring us to our knees. We were young. We were chutzpadik.
“It was a different time,” he continues. “It was the first encounter of an articulate Jewish population with a crisis which we’ll call the ‘60s or Vietnam. Breira made a lot of sense for the time.”
That impulse to challenge authority and question self-evident truths found its way into the chavurah. In Washington, the Fabrangen chavurah had been founded in 1971. Waskow and Berman were members there, and Max and Esther Ticktin joined after they moved to Washington in 1972.
At Fabrangen, Ticktin followed his grandfather’s custom and avoided the pulpit.
“He never acted like the rabbi of Fabrangen,” says Waskow, founder and director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, and an author of books, including Seasons of Our Joy, who was ordained by Ticktin. “He contributed but did not dominate. He could teach as a companion rather than as a rabbi.”
After a career of teaching young adults, Ticktin says he’s ready for a change. “I’ve spent so much of my life with 17-to-22 year-olds, I’m interested in adult Jewish education.”
So he’ll meet with a small group to read Israeli fiction and discuss it in Hebrew. And he’ll continue with a Yiddish group that he has led for more than 30 years. A third group, conducted in English, will consider historical and literary topics.
Years ago, Waskow noticed that Ticktin had an unusual custom during Shabbat services. “When the Torah was walked around the room, Max would touch the Torah and kiss the Torah. Then he would do the same thing to the person carrying the Torah. I asked him why he kissed the person carrying the Torah, and he said, ‘The person who carries the Torah is the Torah.’ For me, Max is the perfect example of the person who carries the Torah.”
He’s done that without resorting to the title of rabbi. At the end of the interview, he is asked how he would like to be addressed. “Professor Ticktin,” he offers.
Then he thinks it over again. “Call me Max.”