Recently I was visiting a choshuve home, and I picked up a book that looked interesting, as it indeed was. It was "The Rav Hakolel and his Generation" by Rabbi Yonah Landau, an English translation of his "ספר דער רב הכולל און זיין תקופה." This book is the fruit of his research on Rabbi Jacob Joseph, much of which had appeared in the publication Der Yid, with a series of articles beginning in 1989. Rabbi Landau seems to have single-handedly revived interest in Rabbi Joseph, New York's first and only, lamented Chief Rabbi, and out of this renewed interest has even grown a sort of cult following around Rabbi Joseph, with many pious individuals making pilgrimages to his grave on his yahrzeit and other times. It only took 100 years for him to re-enter the hearts of New York Jews.
In any case, I didn't read the book, I had no time. But I did flip through it and found it to be very interesting. Normally one begins a review with the positive and then moves on to the negative, but first let me mention some negative and only then move on to the positive. The book was very, very sloppily edited, spelling mistakes, etc. This is, possibly, the fault of the translator, who probably didn't know much about the people mentioned in the book. Here are some examples of this. Naturally J. D. Eisenstein is a name which recurs in this book many times. It is not such a big deal that he is called "Eizenstein." Fine. But one time it refers to his autobiography as "Sefer Zichronos." Another time it gets it right, "Otzar Zikhronosai." My guess is that in the original Landau wrote (in Yiddish) "his seyfer zichroynos," i.e., "his autobiography," while in the other place he named the autobiography. The translator didn't realize that he meant "his autobiography" and therefore wrote "Sefer Zichronos." Why does this matter? Suppose a reader wants to investigate further and tries to find "Yehuda David Eizenstein's Sefer Zichronos." Not going to find it with that title. This is only an example, and similar things occur. Next, almost every American rabbi who routinely went by his English name is given by his Hebrew name. It's hard to say if this was intended to frumify them or not, but one reads about Rabbi Chaim Pereira Mendes and Rabbi Duber Drachman, both men who surely were called this when they were called to the Torah, but that's it. And then Rabbi Sabato Morais is arbitrarily called "'Dr.' Shabsai Morris." The final negative is that it lacks footnotes and a bibliography. Perhaps the original has them.
The many positives are that it is chock full of interesting sources and references, and at the very least is useful as a guide to much further investigation about Rabbi Jacob Joseph. Rabbi Landau is a great researcher and uncovered many, many obscure things. And this is my impression from merely leafing through it. Of course the book is also a religious polemic, and of course the opinion of the Satmar Rav, who apparently on occasion referred to RJJ as a sort of failed precursor to himself, which is not wholly accurate to say the least, figures prominently. How the Litvish maggid of Vilna turned into a holy saint for Chasidim is surely an interesting phenomenon. See here for example for pictures of NY State Assemblyman David Weprin, a political candidate who was apparently dragged to Rabbi Jacob Joseph's grave as part of his campaigning, complete with him writing a kvitel to RJJ. See:
In any case, the book looks great, and I want to really read it. But here's something which has to be dealt with in full because it is really low-hanging fruit. One of the book's good qualities is its many photographic reproductions of various articles, title pages and the like. Landau really dug deep to find many rare things. Unfortunately, as I said, there is very little bibliographic info. Still, these are good leads for people who want to know more about RJJ and his period. So I was leafing through the book and something practically jumped out of the page and flashed at me. Here is what I mean:
I mean, come on. Don't make it so easy for me. Are you kidding me? Yes, this "correspondence from the Rav Hakolel to a Ruv after his arrival in NY" happens to have the name of the "Ruv" blurred out. Oh, come on. And then the footnote begins with 3, meaning the first two were removed. Was this not going to be noticed? I'll get to it in a minute, but here is a detail:
So who was this Rav whom Rabbi Jacob Joseph addressed, the very week after he arrived in New York, as "zekan beit Vilna," "the elder of Vilna," as "His honor, my beloved friend, the rabbi and ga'on in Torah and [secular] wisdom . . . " (and to his son)? I guessed who it was, it was that easy, although I guess it could have been someone else. It was S. J. Fuenn, the leading maskil in Vilna. As it happens, Fuenn was very popular in his time and had a reputation for moderation and (even) piety. This letter was published originally in 1963 in, naturally, Yeshiva University's journal Talpiot 8:3-4 (Nissan 5563), as "Two Letters From New York's Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph Charif (From a Bundle of Letters of R. Samuel Joseph Fuenn)". When you see the original in Talpiot you see that not only was the name blurred but a lot more was removed from this picture. The funny thing is, there was no reason to remove the first two footnotes, as you will see, which I had assumed discussed and identified the blurred out rabbi who Rabbi Jacob Joseph says is beloved, but cannot be named in the book because it ruins the message.
As you can see, the entire title, everything above the Aleph was removed. You can also see that three additional words, "harofei doctor fin," that is, in Talpiot Fuenn's son, a medical doctor, is named, but in the Rav Hakolel book the name is taken out and it only says "to his son, the scholar." As you can further see, the second footnote does not explain who Fuenn was at all, it merely explain the acronym, as the first footnote did. If he hadn't removed it, by golly, it would have been less suspicious! The entire story about Fuenn is contained in an asterisk before the footnotes, so it could have kept in those first two footnotes.
For what it's worth, Chaim Reuven Rabinowitz, who published this letter, also is puzzled at the seemingly close relationship between RJJ and Vilna's leading maskil, although he points out that Fuenn was very different from maskilim like Lilienblum and J. L. Gordon. Furthermore, it contains a hilarious oral tradition (I guess) about Fuenn. They used to say about Fuenn that he davens mincha many times a day. Why? Because someone like him could not refuse to join a minyan, saying "I already prayed." If he said that then he'd be suspected of lying and not praying at all. Thus, he had no choice but to pray a few times every afternoon. Actually, the source of this story seems to be Klausner's Volume 4 of his History of Modern Hebrew Literature, where it says "5 times a day," unless Rabbinowitz had heard it independently. The truth is, it's not so hard to explain Fuenn's relationship with RJJ. He was also on very good terms with the Netziv. It just is what it is, but it doesn't work with the polemic of the book. Similarly, a journal like Hamaggid is called "Reform," even though this wasn't known to the rabbis, including some of the caliber of R. Yehoshua Heschel Levine, author of Aliyos Eliyahu on the Vilna Gaon, who advertised his book in the pages of Hamggid, one of countless other examples which can be given to prove that it was not "Reform." If Hamaggid was Reform, then so was J. D. Eisenstein, a well regarded source in this book. You want to see Reform? See my post on the Malbim from the other day (link).
Edit: see below: In Jeffrey Gurock's article "How "Frum" Was Rabbi Jacob Joseph's Court?" Jewish History Vol. 8:1-2 (1994) he discusses this sort of moderate rabbinic haskalah which, he says, was not foreign to some of the dayanim on RJJ's Beth Din. One example he gives is Rabbi Israel Kaplan, the father of Mordecai Kaplan, whom he says was given a letter of recommendation by Fuenn to Rabbi Alexander Kohut for coming to America. Gurock lists the Kaplan Diaries Vol. I Jan. 30 and Feb. 1, 1917 pp. 256 - 58. Fortunately, the Kaplan Diaries are now online. Fortunately on pp. 256 - 58 Kaplan discusses his father, upon his death, and also his feelings about the "Shiba." Unfortunately, nothing at all appears about Kohut or Fuenn on these pages. But there is this about his relationship with Rabbi Jacob Joseph:
Maybe the mistake is mine, but I read and reread and then reread those pages and it isn't there.
Edit: the mistake was indeed mine. In the comments it was pointed out that the part about Fuenn is in the published version of the journals, and this caused me to give a second look at the page. It was on the page - in a marginal note at the top added by Kaplan, which I did not read carefully at all. Here it is:
You can read or download the entire letter as it was originally published in Talpiot right here. By the way, lest anyone think that I have something against the revival of interest in Rabbi Jacob Joseph - not at all. I think it's great and it is largely if not entirely due to Rabbi Yonah Landau.