6.25.2009

Rabbi Jay Miller ז"ל

It is with tremendous sadness and not a small amount of regret that I mourn the passing of Rabbi Jay Miller. There are many of us from the golden age of Brovenders who will always bear his exacting brand of Torah study. He was a man unique in his talents and his flaws, but I always felt the two were inextricably tied, and as often is the case, without the other, the one would not exist either.

In the '70's when learning Gemara was all but closed to Ba'alei Teshuva, Rabbi Miller developed a method of learning that could achieve in a year what most day schools could not achieve in twenty, or fifty for that matter. The daily first year Mishnah class had a quality of perpetual high drama. Studying Mishnah and Gemara could only be characterized as a gladiator sport where he was always the last man standing. There would be no such thing as a slow day in Miller's shiur.

Excited, irritated, mystically enveloped in a veil of tobacco smoke, he took Mishnahs we thought we understood, and then after rendering them inscrutable, he helped us relearn them correctly. He admonished us, shrieking, "Don't think, just do what I do!" Many of us, I'd like to believe the best of us, loved him for it.

The fierce discipline, passion and commitment belied a softer side that would emerge only when he deemed necessary. I remember when we were helping pack up his books prior to his moving from Yerushalayim to New York. At one point, he opened a can of olives to share with us. He then saturated the olives in olive oil because Chazal said that olives cause one to forget, while olive oil helps one to remember. (Horayot 13b) He explained that these are the simple ways we keep the Talmud present in our lives and actions.

I remember thinking that it doesn't matter whether olives and olive oil contain these properties in fact, but for him it was a simple act of affection and fealty to bring what our Sages had said into the world, reminding us that remembering Torah is important and forgetting any apart of it may even be a sin. Such was his devotion, to and his compulsion for learning.

If everything we contribute emanates from the skills we are given, then Rabbi Miller singularly, selflessly and passionately was the one who taught me, and countless others, everything.

12 comments:

  1. I was a friend and neighbor of Reb Jay. HE obviously was a great Talmud teacher, but he was a multi dimensional man . He loved Chassiduth and kabblah.Especially he had a weak spot for rav Nachman, but he was even interested in otehr groups too. He was interested in Scientific Judaism Chochmas Israel and above all he was dedicated to the teaching of Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak, no not Rashi rather the doctor from Vienna Sigmund Freud.
    Jay loved the good things in life , he loved cantorial music, a fine smoke and other such things.He loved mystery novels and liked good food.Yet all the while retaining his strong spiritual grounding.
    I will miss him as af friend and companion , and as someone who could discuss Judiasm in all its aspects as a complete civilization.

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  2. Freda Bluestone BirnbaumJune 25, 2009 at 5:05 PM

    We knew he'd been ill but this was a real shock, and unfortunately nobody who might have let us know did in time for us to get to the funeral. He was our second-Seder and Rosh Hashana guest for many years and a well-known neighborhood personality. We knew he had educational talents but reading the material here has made us even more impressed.

    Dr. Yaakov and Freda Birnbaum

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  3. yaakov tannenbaumJune 26, 2009 at 10:11 AM

    I once called him "Reb Yaakov" and was sternly rebuked for it; so he will be Jay.

    Who will forget the stacks of sforim in his apartment, perrpetually shrouded in smoke, always threatening to topple, but they somehow remained standing for another day. Do you think they have now toppled?

    Who can forget the fierce debates, incredibly wide ranging, seemingly never ending, but sooner or later, Jay, with that smile and energy, would bellow out his ultimate weapon: This is Emes L'amito. And so, to Moshe Emes Vtorosu Emes, we had Ve Jay Emes. How he would would have loved the irony of passing away during Parshas Korach!

    The polyglot Jay, quoted the Gemoro by heart, usualy getting it right, segued into Sholem -- "Rabbeinu" Gershom -- wandered into Freud -- another Rabbeinu -- sang Robeson, analyzed Rav Nachman, and rememebered something you said some time ago. It was often only the arrival of the next course that brought a temporary truce.

    His absolute dedication to learning and emes was amazing. Ask him a question and you have started a quest, an extended search, one that would end with an avalanche of sources and insights. I will never forget when he was asked by a dear friend the meaning of a phrase in Oleinu. Months later he was deeply immersed in the subject of Persian influences in the Talmud, Kabbalah, Midrashim, etc.. I dont recall him ever treating any question as trivial or banal.

    He was a student of everything and everyone. He scrutinized everything that came his way, was interested in every person, every idea, every phenomenon. He was a "talmid" chochom in the literal sense of the word.

    The world is a duller place without him, and much sadder. Yehi zichro boruch.

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  4. Dear Friends,
    In the interest of clarity and full disclosure, I am Avi Weinstein, but not the "original" Avi Weinstein. I came to the Yeshiva after the first name change from "Hartman" to "Shapell", after Avi Weinstein the first returned to the States.

    Those who knew and loved Rabbi Miller, also were aware that he was an acquired taste much like an Islay malt, smoky, complex and meant to savor, but impossible to dismiss.

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  5. There is a MIncha service today in Jay's apartment lezichro at 7:20 PM at 50 Overlook Terrace in WH.

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  6. I have not seen him for many years. No longer will we argue about the value of R. Shlomo of Vienna's approach to psychology.

    Sometimes we do small acts to help (or hinder) others that have an impact beyond the time they take. Jay once took the time to arrange my introduction to a certain person. The ensuing relationship had an enormous impact on my financial and political survival. Without his initiative and care it is thus likely that I would not be marking 36 years in hinnukh. Whatever benefit I and my talmidim have derived from my professional career would not have happened. Yehi zikhro barukh!

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  7. Rabbi Jay Miller was a brilliant, demanding, and inquisitive man who scraped away the debris that collected around limudei kodesh at the Jewish day school where we spent two years together in the early 1980s. He winked at the false pieties that underwrote much of my formal Jewish education and modeled a love of Torah she'b'al peh that remains decades later.

    I also gather that he led a life of professional frustration and personal alienation. In a letter written to me in 1998 or 1999 (perhaps our only contact in the last twenty years) he spoke with a certain resigned bewilderment and distaste about the modern world. I hope he has found a better one.

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  8. I was only a student of Rabbi Miller for a few, too short, months. I will miss him.
    Tehila Leah

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  9. Tisha b'Av – July 30th 2009

    I found my memo book with telephone numbers which I take to the States. On the front page I found inscribed Rabbi Miller's number. God, what a feeling! I cannot call him anymore.
    I must admit, I have been walking in a daze for some time at the thought that Rabbi Miller is no longer in the land of the living. Like so many of his friends and students, I take comfort for the privilege to have studied with this unique and sweet person. At a later time it might be a mitzvah for colleagues and talmidim to record their favorite anecdotes and memories about Rabbi Miller. Like Beethoven in music, we lost a giant in Torah.

    David Kerschen
    Sde Ilan, Israel

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  10. I was a colleague and friend of Rabbi Jay Miller at the Ramaz School, where we both taught and met. His approach to life, Judaism, and the integration of the secular and the holy was an inspiration to me and my family. I always regretted that I had been in only intermittent touch with him these past years, and his genius and spirit will always live on for those of us who knew him.

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  11. Sue Gutstein Rubin(susanrubin@sbcglobal.net)February 28, 2010 at 6:08 PM

    I am so sad, today I leaarned f the passing of my cousin, Jay Miiler. I have so many memories of him, and it makes me smile to know how much he was loved. Our paths had taken us in differnt directions, but I always felt a connection that seemed to be lost last year. Now I know why. May his name be blessed foreer and ever.

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    Replies
    1. I was very sad to read about the passing of Rabbi Jay Miller. He was my teacher for 5 months in my first year of Torah study. This was at Hartman's in Romema in 1972. I remember him very well. He always gave me 100% attention when I spoke to him. I ran into him in the 1980's near my home on 6th avenue in Manhattan. He was considering getting married with someone.
      In the 1970's when I was 17 everything seemed possible. Everything was a miracle. He was a blessing to me and many others. May he be remembered well.

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