Books, history, and magic

Books, history, and magic

Yitz Landes becomes an assistant professor of Talmud and rabbinics at JTS

Dr. Yitz Landes, standing, lectures to students in the rare book room at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Dr. Yitz Landes, standing, lectures to students in the rare book room at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Yitz Landes, who grew up in Teaneck, was a senior in high school — he went to the Ramaz School, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side — when his teacher, Rabbi David Flatto, took his honors Talmud class across Central Park and north on Broadway to the rare book room at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The seminary’s librarian, Dr. David Kraemer, gave a presentation.

“That was one of the things that made me decide that I wanted to pursue Jewish studies as a career,” Dr. Landes said.

That memory is relevant because now Dr. Landes is the newly named assistant professor of rabbinic literature and cultures at the Jewish Theological Seminary, so he gets to stand where Dr. Kraemer (who is still JTS’s chief librarian, as well as a professor of Talmud and rabbinics) stood. Now he can show his own students the marvels of scholarship and beauty that the library holds, and he can watch their imaginations and intellects catch fire, just as his did.

Dr. Landes traces his interest in Jewish studies to his childhood. “I grew up in not exactly an academic household, but an academically minded one,” he said. His mother, Faye Landes, who still lives in Teaneck, is an analyst on Wall Street, “but she is a voracious reader, and a general supporter of Jewish education,” he said. Her passion for Jewish education is clear to anyone who pays attention to the speakers at her shul, Rinat Yisrael; Ms. Landes has been responsible for a range of high-level educational programs that have benefitted the entire community. Dr. Landes’s father, David Landes, who died in 2019, was a private investor; he was also an insatiably curious man who pursued his intellectual interests; “he spent several years learning in yeshiva and also had a Ph.D. in anthropology from Princeton,” his son said. “He lived in India before I was born, doing anthropological research, and then later he did research at Yeshiva University. That was an ethnography of the yeshiva, mainly focusing on modern Orthodox Jews from an anthropological perspective.

A page from the Rothschild machzor, an Italian manuscript finished in Italy in 1490. (Courtesy of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America)

“He gave me books on anthropological history and on Jewish studies,” Yitz Landes said.

So given his parents, it’s not surprising that he became an academic, focusing on Jewish studies, but with the ability to see his subject from both the inside and the outside at the same time.

He also attributes his interest in Jewish studies to the summer he spent on the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. That’s a highly competitive program. It is free and open only to North American students who must apply in their junior year and it’s only for the summer between junior and senior years. The program accepts students — 26 every summer — from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds and talents; what they share is intellectual openness, curiosity, and intensity. (It’s not for rising seniors who are not committed to that intellectual intensity, no matter how smart they might be when they choose to apply themselves. It’s for people who cannot help but apply themselves.)

(There’s also a matching program for young Israelis, the Amitei Bronfman. Daphna Ezrachi was one of them. Now, she and Yitz are married, and the parents of two young children.)

“That experience, coming from an Orthodox background and being exposed to pluralism, and learning about Judaism from Reform and Conservative rabbis, and then coming back to Ramaz and studying with David Flatto, who was finishing his own Ph.D. at Harvard at the time,” was formative, Dr. Landes continued. It also provided him with another role model in the form of a teacher who is both a committed Jew and a committed academic and can navigate being both a committed adherent of a text and a dispassionate outside scholar mining it for information.

After he graduated from Ramaz, Dr. Landes “went to yeshiva in Israel, like my classmates, but I wanted a place that was both Israeli and academic,” he said. “So I went to Otniel, where I was one of a few Americans.

“It’s a unique place. And several of my teachers had academic degrees in Jewish studies.” It’s a hesder yeshiva, a place where religious Zionists both learn as they would in any other yeshiva and train as part of the Israel Defense Forces. “I went into the army with them,” he said. “I was a tank commander in the IDF for 18 months.”

The images here and on pages 6 and 31 are from the Rothschild Mahzor, an illuminated manuscript finished in Italy in 1490. They’re similar to the objects that Dr. Landes shows his students; this one, part of JTS’s collection, now is on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(Courtesy of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America)

After that, “I spent some time studying in the Gush,” the Israeli settlements south of Jerusalem, “and then I went to Hebrew University to do my bachelor’s in Talmud and religion. I wanted to get a lot of the classic textual skills that Hebrew U is famous for.” That’s why his degree was in Talmud. The religion part was “because it was a way to study more about Christianity, and to have other contexts for the study of Talmud and rabbinic texts.” Next, he stayed at Hebrew University to earn a master’s degree in Talmud, and “I also participated in the program for the study of late antiquity. It’s a cross-departmental program for students working on masters in Talmud, history, art history, and other fields. It enables someone like me, whose work is mainly text-focused, to look at art and archaelogy and expand my horizons.”

That work led to a master’s thesis that eventually turned into a book, written and published first in Hebrew, whose title translates to “Studies in the Development of Birkat ha-Avodah.” The work is a look at the development of one of the prayers in the Amidah.

“Hebrew University is amazing, but then I decided it was time to go somewhere else,” Dr. Landes said. That place was Princeton University, with its impressive roster of academic superstars specializing in Jewish studies. “It also has amazing history and classics and Near Eastern studies departments,” he added. “So I had the chance to study historical context, and to learn from people who are not in Jewish studies. I could make my work be in dialogue with other kinds of work. It was an unbelievable opportunity for me to do new things and answer very big questions in the study of ancient and medieval history.”

Ancient and medieval history covers a very long time, doesn’t it? “When I talk to my peers at Princeton whose field is modern history, they are astonished at the millennium I study,” Dr. Landes conceded. (At the rate history seems to be moving now, it’s not hard imagining a future scholar devoting a career to studying two weeks in 2023.) Still, “One of the unique things I try to do is bridge ancient and medieval history,” he added.

It wasn’t easy moving from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to Princeton. “It was a long haul, readjusting myself,” Dr. Landes said. “American culture is very different from Israeli culture, and American academic culture is different from Israeli academic culture.” Being born an American probably helped, but transitions from one world to another aren’t easy, even if they shouldn’t be unfamiliar.

This coin was minted during the Bar Koziba/Kokhba Revolt. (Courtesy of Princeton University)

“At Hebrew University, I was tasked with preparing large sections of primary source materials in the original. It’s like a classics department where everyone has been reading Homer since second grade.

“In Princeton, you read primary sources in the original, but there is a big emphasis on having command of the discipline by understanding the supplementary material. You learn how to read an academic monograph in one sitting, and how to synthesize it; how to integrate your own research into it by being in dialogue with it.”

And certainly if mastering one of these methodologies is useful, being able to call on both of them would be even more so.

There are researchers and teachers at Princeton who specialize in the history of books, Dr. Landes added. “So I really began to ask how I might be able to use some of those research methods when studying Jewish texts and Jewish history, and how it might inform my social history.”

He’s pursuing one huge academic question. “I want to shed light on how rabbinic Judaism became the main form of Judaism,” he said. “It’s something that seems inevitable to most of us because that’s how history unfolded, but certainly it wasn’t inevitable at the beginning.”

He might “try a history of the Mishnah, its transmission and study and recession, and use that to shed further light on the development of rabbinic Judaism,” he said.

That’s just one possible avenue. Now that he’s at JTS, with the riches of its library — it’s said to hold the largest collection of Judaica in the western hemisphere — not only at his disposal but easily accessible, many wide roads and tantalizing little lanes beckon.

“My research has taken me to rare book rooms all over the world,” Dr. Landes said. He looks not only at the texts themselves — the handwritten or printed material — but also at the marginalia, at the notes people left for themselves or each other, at the mistakes the scribes or printers made, and even at the stains or marks on the manuscripts or books. Here, too, he looks at both the inside and the outside, at the book and its cover — at books not only as carriers of knowledge but also as physical objects, bought and sold, held and read not by abstract minds but by actual human beings. People whose hands weren’t always clean, who scribbled in margins, who might have dripped wine or coffee or some coffee equivalent as they read.

“I like teaching with material texts,” Dr. Landes said. “It allows us to reflect on the use of material artifacts in our lives. We are living in such a hypertextual moment, and with so many images. In my classes, we can look at the attention people gave to creating a written artifact. It allows people to reflect a lot about their own moment and their experience of the world, which is very profound.”

Dr. Landes has a long list of credits, too long to describe in detail here. He’s been a Wexner Graduate Fellow and a David Hartman Center Fellow. He taught as JTS as an adjunct while he finished work on his doctorate at Princeton. “Wexner was instrumental to me,” he said. “Part of my job will be teaching and training rabbis, and I will be informed by having all these amazing friends who are now pulpit rabbis. I hear what they face, and I will think about how to create scholarship that will help these students as they take on those jobs.”

He also has gone from being a participant in Encounter trips to leading them, and now he is on the organization’s board. (Encounter is a nonpartisan group that helps Jewish leaders understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and use that knowledge to work toward solutions.)

As a traditional egalitarian Jew, Dr. Landes is at home at JTS. Both he and his wife come from families who have provided generations of leaders in the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform worlds; they are just taking their places in that line. They live in Washington Heights, where they belong to the Fort Tryon Jewish Center, a nearly century-old unaffiliated shul that has been home to Jews from all over the world, including Holocaust refugees and survivors.

This is another page from the late 15th-century Italian Rothschild machzor that JTS owns and is on loan to the Met. (Courtesy of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America)

Dr. Landes knows that in his new position, which begins officially in June, he’ll teach four classes this coming school year. One will be for Talmud majors, undergraduates in the seminary’s joint program with Columbia and Barnard. “It’ll be early rabbinic literature, for students who already have a background. They’re a delight to teach,” he said.

He’ll teach a graduate level course in the early development of Jewish liturgy, from before the siddur was developed until it was solidified in the Middle Ages. In the spring, both undergraduates and rabbinical students will be able to learn about Jews and Judaism in the modern world from him.

And the last class will be in the rare book room, about the study of Hebrew manuscripts. “We spend at least one session in the rare book room in every class I teach,” Dr. Landes said. “It’s an unparalleled resource. There is literally nothing like it in the world. It is the largest collection of Hebrew manuscripts in the world.

“The students love it. I love it. It is exciting. It allows them to touch the past and work with the materials in a way that’s new.

“There are letters autographed by Maimonides!” Students might have seen copies of the letters, but there’s something about being in a room with the original of the letter, with the Rambam’s signature on it, that is magic. It’s the physical and the historical and the metaphorical and the intellectual all come together in one old, fragile, valuable — probably more accurately invaluable — piece of paper.

That was the magic that struck Dr. Landes, back when he was just plain Yitz, and that’s the magic to which he plans to expose his students. The future’s entirely open to them too.

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