Leaving the Library

By: Benjamin Gottesman  |  May 10, 2023

Benjamin Gottesman, Editor-in-Chief

Well, that was quick. Three years go fast when a pandemic takes up two of them. Starting school in September of 2020 made for an interesting college experience and, to a certain extent, I feel that I am graduating before I ever had a chance to get settled. YU is an underratedly big place and it can be challenging to find your niche. Not having campus life for the first half of that experience does little to help that post-yeshiva transition. In those first few months, I struggled to get my bearings. However, there was one place in which I felt at home from day one. This, of course, are the friendly confines of the Mendel Gottesman Library.

Mendel Gottesman served as Yeshiva University’s treasurer for twenty-eight years, a tenure highlighted by the generous endowments he personally made to the school, and, perhaps more importantly, his founding of the school’s Endowment Foundation. His particular interest in the school’s growing library was immortalized in 1937, when his name was selected to grace its walls. He died just five years later at the age of 83. 

Decades later, his portrait, affixed to the right side wall of the fifth floor, ensures his visage is remembered, along with his legacy. Many people may not know that two versions of that portrait were commissioned. One was placed in the library, and the second kept by Mendel’s family. It hung proudly in my grandparents’ living room for a half-century and is now displayed in my uncle’s Neve Daniel home. My uncle is also named Mendel, named for our illustrious forebearer, my great-great-grandfather, who we simply refer to as Grandpa Mendel.

When I started YU, classes were on Zoom, masks were a given, and sedarim highlighted by plexiglass dividers felt more like a county prison visit than the transcendent chavrusa experiences I had grown accustomed to in the Days of Elul Zman Past. 

For an FTOC it was particularly daunting. I felt alone. One night I found myself in the library, back when it was possible to be the only person in a public place, asking myself how I was supposed to feel a part of any community, when community itself was impermissible. How could I feel a part of my new environment, smoothly integrating into the “best years of my life,” if life had been put on an indefinite leave of absence? It felt, to paraphrase Dolores Umbridge, that progress, for progress’s sake, had been discouraged. Growth, whether personal, religious, academic, or social, seemed like a luxury of a bygone age.

Then I found the library. More accurately, I found Grandpa Mendel. In a sea of unfamiliarity there was a face I knew; a countenance I had recognized since I was a toddler, running across my grandparents foyer with a toy Tyrannosaurus Rex in one hand, and a stale strawberry sucking candy in the other (a choking hazard if there ever was one), unaware who the serious looking man in the painting was, except that he was someone whose pronounced greatness was only matched by the intimate closeness he shared with my kin. 

Okay. I probably wouldn’t have phrased it that way at three years old, but I knew he was important. And I knew that he was real. And then, some twenty years later, I saw that portrait’s counterpart, hanging in an empty library, and I knew I was not alone.

I was raised to value knowledge. From a young age, I was taught that the key to success in this world was through the mastery of the written word. When I began to grow into my religious persona, this home ethic was revealed to be the ethos of a people; a multi-millenia tradition of study that sustained my ancestors and had been marked for me as an inheritance. All my life, learning had served as the stalwart. I now know that this is what it means to be a Jew- so long as our thirst for knowledge survives, we survive as well.

So there I stood, alone in a dark room, as apt a metaphor as there could be for a stagnant, aloof world, staring up at a man who passed well before I was even a hypothesis. “Nu, Benjy,” he said, “what do we do now?” 

The answer was obvious. We do what we always do. I climbed the stairs to 5a, grabbed a sefer, sat on the floor, and learned. I, like any Jew who ever turned his eyes to the mountaintops, searching for salvation, found comfort in the wisdom of old. There was hope nestled between the shelves, as hidden and profound as the message of perseverance pulsing between the sacred lines.

Three years have passed and it is now time for me to leave my grandfather’s library. My college experience did not look like what I expected and I am at peace with that. I can look back and know that I did exactly what I was supposed to do. I learned from Lewis, challenged Chrysostam, wept with Whitman, and sang the sonnets of Shakespeare. I sat at the feet of gedolim, both the ones on the pages of sifrei kodesh and the very real giants that move around our Beis Medrash with the quiet majesty that only comes from Talmud Torah. For three years I immersed myself in the tent of Shem (although maybe spent a disproportionate amount of time studying with Japeth); what more could I have asked for?

Here’s the thing. Although I may be leaving the library, I am by no means leaving Grandpa Mendel. In August, 1921, over twenty years before his death, Grandpa Mendel authored an ethical will- a final statement of moral instruction to guide his children after he left to the Beis Medrash on High. There, he reminds us of the: “sweetness and light and beauty of the Torah – which is pure and maketh the eyes bright, is sweeter than honey and more precious than gold.” He enjoins:

It is incumbent upon every Jew, be he rabbi or layman, rich or poor, in possession of good health or burdened by bodily infirmities to set apart fixed times for the study of Torah. I have tried to fulfill this duty… You will remember how when you were at home you would find me devoting a part of the early morning, before proceeding to business, in this study. By reason of the special advantages you have enjoyed, the careful schooling you have received, and the precept and example I have tried to hold before you, it is especially incumbent upon you to study Torah – and more than others who have not enjoyed your greater opportunities: Therefore, set apart a certain part of each day. However small it may be, let it be fixed, regular and continuous from day to day.

If the Torah goes with me, so does Grandpa Mendel. If love of learning remains the beating pulse of my everyday, have I really left the library?

Sharing my journey with all of you over the past year has been a privilege beyond description. I am grateful to my mentors, my friends, my classmates, and the innumerable people who have made my YU experience what it is. 

To those not leaving with me, cherish your days here. The opportunity to study Torah seriously is not one to be taken lightly. Grandpa Mendel remained a student all his life, I pray that I am privileged to wear that proud title for all my days, as well.

Well YU. It’s been real. Thanks for everything.

Mamba out.