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A Farewell to Eitam Henkin, From His Professor

David Assaf, the Chair of the Department of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University, remembers his student: ‘I was deeply fond of him and respected him’

Jonathan Zalman
October 27, 2015

Earlier this month, Eitam Henkin was tragically murdered in Israel, along with his wife, Na’ama. Last week, we published the words of Rabbanit Chana Henkin, the Eitam’s mother, who spoke in remembrance of her son after getting up from shiva. The following note, a tribute to Eitam Henkin, is written by David Assaf, the Chair of the Department of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University who was also Henkin’s teacher. Assaf’s words (translated by Daniel Tabak, a PhD candidate in medieval Jewish history at Yeshiva University) first appeared on The Seforim Blog.

* * *
Eitam Henkin (1984-2015), who was cruelly murdered with his wife Na’ama on the third day of Hol Ha-Mo‘ed Sukkot (1 October 2015), was my student.

Anyone who has read news about him in print media or on websites, which refer to him with the title “Rabbi,” may have gotten the impression that Eitam Henkin was just another rabbi, filling some rabbinic post or teaching Talmud in a kollel. While it is true that Eitam received ordination from the Chief Rabbinate, he did not at all view himself as a “rabbi,” and serving in a rabbinic post or supporting himself from one did not cross his mind. His studies for ordination (2007-2011) constituted a natural, intellectual outgrowth of his yeshiva studies; they formed part and parcel of a curiosity and erudition from which he was never satisfied. Eitam regarded himself first and foremost as an incipient academic scholar, who was training himself, through a deliberate but sure process of scholarly maturation, to become a social historian of the Jews of Eastern Europe. This was his greatest passion: it burned within him and moved him, and he devoted his career to it. Were it not for the evil hand that squeezed the gun’s trigger and took his young life, the world of Jewish studies undoubtedly would have had an outstanding, venerable scholar.

I spent that bitter and frenzied night outside the country. The terrible news reached me in the dead of night, hitting me hard like a sledgehammer. In my hotel room in Chernovich, Ukraine, so far from home, my thoughts wandered ceaselessly to those moments of sheer terror that Eitam and Na‘ama had to face, to the horror that unfolded before the eyes of the four children who saw their parents executed, and to the incomprehensible loss of someone with whom I had spoken just the other day and had developed plans, someone on whom I had pinned such high hopes. There was a man—look, he is no more . . .

The next day, I stood with my colleagues in Chernovich, near the house of Eliezer Steinbarg (1880-1932), a Yiddish author and poet mostly famous for his parables. In a shaky voice I read for them the fine parable about the bayonet and the needle—in the Hebrew translation of Hananiah Reichman—dedicating it to the memory of Eitam and his wife, who in those very moments were being laid to rest in Jerusalem.

The Bayonet and the Needle

A man (a Tom, a Dick, or some such epithet)
comes from the wars with a rifle and a bayonet,
and in a drawer he puts them prone,
where a thin little needle has lain alone.

“Now there’s a needle hugely made,”
the little needle ponders as it sees the blade.
“Out of iron or of tin, no doubt, it sews metal britches,
and quickly too, with Goliath stitches,
for a Gog Magog perhaps, or any big-time giant.”

But the bayonet is thoughtfully defiant.
“Hey, look! A bayonette! A little midget!
How come the town’s not all a-fidget
crowding round this tiny pup?
What a funny sight! I’ve to tease this bird!
Come, don’t be modest, pal! Is the rumor true? I heard
you’re a hot one. When you get mad the jig is up.
With one pierce, folks say, you do in seven flies!”

The needle cries, “Untruths and lies!
By the Torah’s coverlet I swear
that I pierce linen, linen only…It’s a sort of ware…”
“Ho ho,” the rifle fires off a round of laughter.
“Ho ho ho! Stabs linen! It’s linen he’s after!”

“You expect me, then, to stitch through
tin?” the needle asks. “Ah, I feel if I like you
were bigger…”

“Oh, my barrel’s bursting,” roars the rifle. “My trigger—
it’s tripping! Oh me! Can’t take this sort of gaff.”
“Pardon me,” the needle says. “I meant no harm therein.
What then do you do? You don’t stitch linen, don’t stitch tin?”

“People! We stab people!” says the bayonet.

But now the needle starts to laugh,
and it may still be laughing yet.
With ha and hee and ho ho ho.
“When I pierce linen, one stitch, and then another, lo—
I make a shirt, a sleeve, a dress, a hem.
But people you can pierce forever, what will you create from them?”

Eitam was a wunderkind. I first met him in 2007. At the time he was an avrekh meshi (by his own definition), a fine young yeshiva fellow, all of twenty-three years old. He was a student at Yeshivat Nir in Kiryat Arba, with a long list of publications in Torah journals already trailing him. He contacted me via e-mail, and after a few exchanges I invited him to meet. He came. We spoke at length, and I have cared about him ever since. From his articles and our many conversations I discerned right away that he had that certain je ne sais quoi. He had those qualities, the personality, and the capability—elusive, unquantifiable, and indefinable—of someone meant to be a historian, and a good historian at that.

I did not have to press especially hard to convince him that his place—his destiny—did not lie between the walls of the yeshiva, and that he should not squander his talents on the niceties of halakha. He needed to enroll in university and train himself professionally for what truly interested him, for what he truly loved: critical historical scholarship.

Eitam went on to register for studies at the Open University, and within three years (2009-2012), together with the completion of his studies at the yeshiva, he earned his bachelor’s degree with honors. Immediately afterwards he signed up for a master’s degree in Jewish history at Tel-Aviv University, and under my supervision completed an exemplary thesis in 2013 titled “From Hibbat Zion to Anti-Zionism: Changes in East-European Orthodoxy – Rabbi David Friedman of Karlin (1828-1915) as a Case Study.”

Eitam, hailing from a world of traditional yeshiva study that is poles apart from the academic world, slid into his university studies effortlessly. He rapidly internalized academic discourse, with its patterns of thinking and writing, and began to taste the distinct savors of that world. To take one example, in July 2014 he participated in an academic conference—his very first—for early doctoral students, both Israeli and Polish, that took place in Wrocław, Poland. There he delivered (another first) a lecture in English, and got deep satisfaction from meeting other similarly-aged scholars working on topics that overlapped with his own. I asked him quite often whether as an observant Jew he found it difficult to study at the especially open and “secular” Tel-Aviv campus. He answered in the negative, saying that he never felt any difficulty whatsoever.

I was deeply fond of him and respected him. I loved his easygoing and optimistic personality, his simple humility, the smile permanently spread across his face. I loved his positive approach to everything, and especially loved his sarcastic humor, his ability to laugh at himself, at his world, at the settlers (so far as I could sense he was very moderate and distant from political or messianic fervor), at the Orthodox world in which he lived, and at the ultra-Orthodox world that was his object of study. He was a man after my own heart, and I have the sense that the feeling was mutual. When I told him one time that I was prepared to be his adviser because I was a stickler for always having at least one doctoral student who was a religious settler, so as to avoid being criticized for being closed-minded and intolerant, he responded with a grin…

More than my affection for him, I respected him for his vast knowledge, ability to learn, persistence, thoroughness, diligence, efficiency, original and critical manner of thinking, excellent writing style, ability to learn from one and all, and generosity in sharing his knowledge with everyone. In my heart of hearts I felt satisfaction and pride at havingnabbed such a student.

Immediately after finishing his master’s degree, Eitam registered for doctoral studies. 2014 was dedicated to fleshing out a topic and writing a proposal. Eitam was particularly interested in the status of the rabbinate in Jewish Lithuania at the end of the nineteenth century, and he collected a tremendously broad trove of material, sorted on note cards and his computer, on innumerable rabbis who served in many small towns. He endeavored to describe the social status of this unique class in order to get at the social types that comprised it in the towns and cities. In the end, however, for various reasons that I will not spell out here, we decided in unison to abandon the topic and search for another. I suggested that he write a critical biography of the Hafetz Hayyim , Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen of Radin (1839-1933), the most venerated personality in the Haredi world of the twentieth century and, practically speaking, until today. (Just two weeks ago I wrote a blog post describing my own recent visit to Radin, wherein I quoted things from Eitam. Who could have imagined then what would happen a short time later?) Eitam was reticent at first. “What new things can possibly be said about the Hafetz Hayyim?” he asked skeptically, but as more time passed and he deepened his research he became convinced that it was in fact a suitable topic. As was his wont, he immersed himself in the topic and after a short time wrote a magnificent proposal. At the end of March 2015 his proposal was accepted to write a doctorate under my guidance, whose topic would be “Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen (Hafetz Hayyim): A Biography.”

A short time later I proposed Eitam as a nominee of Tel-Aviv University for a Nathan Rotenstreich scholarship, which is the most prestigious scholarship granted today to doctoral students in Israeli universities, and, needless to say, it is competitive. Of course, as I predicted, Eitam won it. He responded to the news with characteristic restraint, but his joy could not be contained. It was obvious when I gave him the news that he was the happiest man alive. In order to receive the Rotenstreich Scholarship, students must free themselves from all other pursuits and devote themselves solely to scholarship and completion of the doctorate within three years. Eitam promised to do so, and he undoubtedly would have made good on that promise. He would have received the first payment in November 2015. Now, tragically, we have all lost out on this tremendous opportunity.

One could go on and on singing Eitam’s praises, and presumably others will yet do so. I feel satisfied by including a letter of recommendation that I wrote about him to my colleagues on the Rotenstreich Scholarship Committee. Recommenders typically tend to exaggerate in praising their nominees, but let heaven and earth be my witness that in this case I meant every single word that I wrote.

May his memory be blessed.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.