Elegy to a Scholar

“A scholar is like a book written in a dead language. It is not every one that can read it.” — William Hazlitt

By Todd Pitock

Time ravages some people. It burnishes others. When my friend, Joseph Sherman, died people asked how old he was.

“Sixty-five,” I said.

“Really?” they’d reply, one after another. “He must have been older than that.”

It’s a natural question when someone dies, and I think it’s a way people have of taking measure of how much grief they’re supposed to feel, doling out less to those who had their fair share of years. But it was a question that came up frequently when Joseph was alive, too. Once, in Zimbabwe, where I was writing a profile he’d commissioned for Jewish Affairs, a South African quarterly journal he edited, a woman we both knew even got upset with me over it.

“Are you really telling me that he and I are the same age?”

“If you’re forty-six,” I said.

“Do he and I look the same age to you?” she demanded. From the angle of my mid-twenties, people of a certain life stage looked similar enough, but I had enough sense, call it wisdom beyond my years, to slay truth for the cause of peace.

“No, you look younger,” I said.

Chronological age was the wrong measure for Joseph anyway. It just wasn’t a good gauge of his vitality. He was, I suspect, born old, and he kept it up over a lifetime. As long as I knew him, and apparently long before that, he had back and hearing problems. I never asked him why. I never thought to because they were, to me, just part of who he was. He walked slowly and his hearing aid was visible. You couldn’t talk to him on the phone because the device he needed never seemed to work. He also cultivated a certain look — bowties, scarves, cravats and vests, plus a full beard that brought to mind an era when photographers still shot in sepia.

Most of all, perhaps the impression of age was due to his field of interest: Yiddish.

Joseph’s best-known work is his translation of I.B. Singer’s Shadows on the Hudson, the Yiddish luminary’s fourth (and last) posthumous novel. He credited Singer, whom he’d met in Miami in 1983 after writing his doctoral dissertation on Singer’s novels, with having given Yiddish literature a voice “to speak to readers born after the language itself was murdered.”

For his part, Joseph had contributed his share to the rescue effort through translations, critical essays and reviews, and scholarship that disinterred buried stories, events and reputations. His translations reattached audiences to dislocated Yiddish literary communities in South Africa at the end of the 19th century and the first five decades of the 20th; in immigrant America; and in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

His first published book, From a Land Far Off, a selection of South African Yiddish writers, shone light on the periphery of the Jewish world where Lithuanian-Yiddish had come in contact with Afrikaans. Like much of his work, the anthology’s introduction made sense of nuanced differences, such as the relationships between Jews and Afrikaners, and between Jews and blacks, and the biographical sketches of the authors added essential context.

As editor of Jewish Affairs, he transformed what had been a bland organ of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the community’s governing body, to a legitimate journal with a network of international contributors. After Shadows he translated the Russian-Yiddish writer David Bergelson’s Descent in 1999. Other short story translations by Bergelson, Singer, I.M. Weissenberg, Ayzike-Meir Dik and Lamed Shapiro appeared in magazines including Pakn Tregger and the New Yorker.

As a writer, Joseph’s pellucid elegance showcased a talent for drawing together threads of detail and elucidating nuances and the ways that numerous things, even contradictory ones, can be true at once. He had a knack for finding intriguing topics, such as his book about the myth of the Jewish pope (The Jewish Pope, Myth, Diaspora and Yiddish Literature; Oxford: Boulevard, 2004); the “kaffir-eateries,” the mostly immigrant Jewish-run kitchens that served blacks, and the complicated position of Jews in racialist South Africa; and Singer’s mixed relationships with his Yiddish peers and how his penchant for calculated self-promotion and image management helped, as much as his superabundant talent, to rise above equally talented fellow writers.

After he emigrated from South Africa to England, where he was happily ensconced as a lecturer at Oxford University, he’d become prolific, writing, translating, and editing or co-editing five books and completing most of three more, including From Pogrom to Purge: Soviet-Yiddish Writing, 1917–1947 (Five Leaves; London); a collection of essays on the Yiddish poet Peretz Markish (Maney Publishing); and a new translation of Bergelson’s first novel, After All is Said and Done (Yale University Press).

With all the output, acknowledgements flowed in.

“Apropos of academic swings and roundabouts,” he emailed announcing news that he’d received the Judaica Reference Award for Writers in Yiddish: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 333, “the forwarded message below reached me a short while ago, to my utter amazement. Will tell you why when we meet.”

Sadly, that last meeting wasn’t to be.

***

We first met in Johannesburg in 1990 not long after I arrived there with my South African wife after two years in Israel, where I had worked as an assistant and did some archival work at Tel Aviv University. Unsure of how to break into the writing game, I flirted with the idea of academia, and stopped by the University of the Witwatersrand to have a look around. The chairman of the English department was a Waspish fellow, coiffed and buttoned-down, his shelves heavy with Ezra Pound. Having indirectly identified myself as a Jew, I was promptly directed to the department’s most identifiable Jew.

Joseph, then associate professor of English, had just taken over Jewish Affairs, determined to transform a bland community quarterly into a substantive journal, and he subsequently asked me to contribute a review essay of a tawdry romantic novel that would have been laughably bad had its author not decided to obscenely employ the Holocaust as a literary device in her story. I roasted it on both sides, and Joseph ate it up. He invited me on the editorial board, then began publishing short stories, essays and interviews. He couldn’t pay me, but every time we spoke I learned something valuable that I could apply to work I was getting elsewhere, and many interviews, including emergent ANC figures, gave me valuable access. He was certain that I would succeed at writing, and he did not encourage the academic pursuit.

“What do you need it for?” he’d say. He hated intrigue and politics in the university.

Eventually we began meeting at a Greek café on periodic Fridays, dilating for hours over lunch and rounds of coffee.

In conversation he was a virtuoso. He hadn’t only acquired vast knowledge but had mastered it: Dickens, Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, Elizabethan theater, the plays of Tennessee Williams, Chekhov’s short stories, the novels of Gogol and Bulgakov. It was as if he’d committed the works to memory, quick with a verbatim quote the way some people can find a joke for any occasion. He had a distinctive voice, deep and rich, and he loved to tell stories, whether they were about great literary figures or people he knew. He absolutely adored delicious nuggets of gossip, though the targets had to be deserving and the criticism had to be fair. When I remarked on someone’s vanity, he said, “Well, no one is without vanities.” He also could not abide smugness. The point of a good skewering, after all, was to pull someone down off their high horse, not to look down on them from on top of one.

Joseph loved cigarettes — a favorite story was Lamed Shapiro’s short story Smoke — and sometimes by mid-day his mustache had been darkened by nasal exhalations. When I would volunteer an opinion, or turn my head to avoid an oncoming nimbus, he’d sally a quote to the effect that Americans were crazy, off to the gym and killing ourselves with exercise, overweight anyway, and somehow believing death was optional.

He got great joy from a finely wrought, exquisite detail. He had an eye for them as a reader and an ear for them in conversation, and he brought to the table an awful lot of material himself. Yet humor that was too robust, crude or obvious, was lost on him. He considered Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint a great novel but didn’t think it was funny at all.

“I don’t think they like me here,” he said once at the café.

“Why?”

“Yes,” he said. He had a way of drawing out certain words for emphasis and giving them new meaning. “Well, I don’t tip.”

“You don’t tip?”

“No! What in heaven’s name for?”

He wanted to talk about a piece I’d written on I.B. Singer’s little-known sister, the writer Deborah Kreitman. “Barely publishable,” he intoned. “A C-minus.” He wondered if I’d lost interest halfway through and suggested other approaches. He was a teacher first, nurturing despite his directness, and a critic second.

“I suppose you’re right,” he said later. “I’m terribly cheap.”

The check came, and he bought lunch, and when I reached into my pocket for a tip, he said, “No, no. You’re right.” Then, and thereafter, he left a tip.

He pronounced my novel “excellent,” a judgment that, considering the source, made my spirits soar despite publishers’ rejections, which often centered on whether the characters were sympathetic enough. Joseph rejected the criticism.

“I think one of the strengths of a really good modern book is that it should be ambivalence towards the characters — why must we take sides?” he wrote. “Goodies and baddies are for old-time Ronald Reagan B-grade movies. Read some of Chekhov’s short stories again in case you think that all 19th century people had good/bad Manichean attitudes towards fiction….[The] worries,” he added, “seem to be based, however unconsciously, on an American conventional demand that there be some optimistic ‘message’ in everything. Bunk. Least of all about Jews and Jewish identity [and] existence into the future. The whole matter is so ambivalent that it would be a lie to write other.”

It was vintage Joseph: not merely personally encouraging, but drawing on wider themes, that resonated well beyond the immediate topic, like the echo of a tolled bell.

“I’ve now read your story,” he wrote in another message. “I myself have problems with it. The opening, which is genuinely ironic and witty, quickly fades away into a grim and sombre description of dysfunctional families which makes depressing reading…Also, it reads too personally for my taste — ‘too much information’, if you take my meaning — almost like a confession that you’re trying to get out of your own system, and come to terms with, not something written with the kind of objectivity the first purpose of which is to engage a disinterested reader.”

This last I include because it was not only instructive to me as a writer but because it also hinted at details about Joseph, who rarely if ever spoke about himself. His biography could sometimes be inferred in the shadows of the illuminating insights he made in reference to other things. (This is further expressed in his having achieved renown in translation, the shadow side of creative expression, and indeed, there is even some irony in the title of the particular Singer novel, Shadows, that established his reputation as a translator. I’ll also note here that Joseph regarded parentheses as a stylistic flaw.)

What facts I know came from other people, including his beloved wife of twenty-five years, Karen-Anne, also an English teacher and a woman who shared many of his qualities.

Born in 1944 in Johannesburg, Joseph’s family conditions were such that he could not just appreciate but relate to Dickens. Poverty made for a hard childhood with limited opportunities other than what came to him because of his precocious abilities. He was admitted to a private school but there were no pure scholarships as such. After graduating from Wits, he spent ten years teaching in a Johannesburg school working for low wages. It was a kind of indenture. In his thirties, he went back to his high school alma mater, King David Victory Park, to teach, and eventually rose to assistant principal.

He’d refer to Victory Park, an affluent and almost exclusively Jewish suburb, as “the ghetto,” and he saw there rich, spoiled children in a community of people who seemed to perceive value only in what could be measured by money. “Philistines,” he’d sneer. “Positively Philistines.” I sensed lingering resentment toward people who hadn’t had to defer their ambitions and yet failed to appreciate the advantages money conferred.

Still, Victory Park was just one more item on Joseph’s list of ambivalent topics. Despite his misgivings, it had also given him entrée to a warmer, gentler family life, and some of those Victory Park families were great friends — as long as I knew him he had a wide circle of admirers and close friends — who had offered him the affection he never received at home. Moreover, it was where, after an academic career that until then was spent on the English canon, he was guided and encouraged to direct his energies to Yiddish. His uncle, J.M. Sherman, had been a leading figure in the South African Yiddish literary world. At 43, he brought out the South African Yiddish anthology. By then he was at Wits, where he stayed as a full professor until 2002.

He was a surprise choice to translate Shadows. How was this South African scholar who knew Lithuanian-based South African Yiddish to render the street slang of Polish immigrant survivor-Jews in post-Holocaust New York? The process of producing the 548-page opus, which had appeared as a seriel in Forverts from January 1957 to January 1958 and which Singer had chosen not to have published in English, was not a smooth one. The editors at Farrar, Strauss & Giroux had strong views but no Yiddish or meaningful background in Jewish history or the context of Singer’s story, and the exchanges, which Joseph sent me, were at times snippy, even hurtful, with frequent notes from Joseph frequently having to explain why changes and edits they were inserting were wrong. When the novel appeared, the New York Times reviewer noted “the skillful editing” of FSG’s editors, who had, indeed, given themselves the same credit in the book itself.

If the praise was misplaced, it reinforced Joseph’s sense of himself in the shadows. Singer had treated most of his translators, who with the exception of Joseph were all women, very shabbily.

Even so, Shadows won high praise, and more opportunities followed. Given that he was facing mandatory retirement and that he was increasingly bleak about South Africa’s crime problem, when a fellowship became available at Oxford University, Joseph leapt at it. He and Karen found a lovely townhouse on the outskirts of the university town, which he described (along with Paris) as “Paradise” with a capital ‘P’. When I visited him in 2003, we sat on his deck just above a small garden planted with flowers.

***

When he wrote of ambivalence, it was an emotional and intellectual state he knew well and was even paradoxically comfortable with — though his often spluttering rants chronicling, say, the social politics of the extant Yiddish literary world, or his distaste for Nadine Gordimer’s writing, might have suggested otherwise.

In an exchange of emails about an upcoming Seder, he wrote, “The under-the-surface tensions will always be there — is there, in every family, not only Jewish ones, and why everyonewants these annual experiences in tension to be repeated over and over again is quite another question.”

He repeated the message another year, but with a somewhat altered message: “Perhaps one of the things that put so many families off being Jewish may be the tension of family meals, not to mention families in general. Whatever makes Jewish festivals and being Jewish sweet for children — and thus the future — must be the highest good.”

In the course of searching for a position after Wits, he’d asked what I knew about the University of Indiana.

“I don’t know how many Jews there are,” I said. As much as he complained, I sensed he needed something to chafe against.

“I’ve had enough of Jews,” he replied. “It would be a refreshing change.” To twist a line from Yogi Berra, he was 50% joking and 90% serious.

Yet, he was deeply Jewish, steeped in Jewish learning, and though his highly amusing complaints would, from another source, have been connect-the-dots anti-Semitism, at no time could anyone have said he was anything but a deeply committed Jew. There are critics who are ignorant and self-hating, and there are critics who, in the tradition of the best Prophets, rail on at what they know and love best.

On Israel, he was still more deeply ambivalent — though here his concern was not mainly over Israel-Palestine issues. On that, he only slightly less appalled by the right, which insisted that Israel could do no wrong, than by the left, which was a bastion of Jewish self-hatred and people who employed the language of democracy and human rights to unjustly demonize Israel. Joseph’s complaints, which were passionately articulated, had more to do with Israel’s position on Yiddish, starting with the founders who had denigrated the language through discriminatory policies and whose literary establishment belittled Yiddish writers while failing to see that many of those writers were more worthy of respect than the Hebrew writers who had been exalted.

“However much it was argued at the time that nation-building justified the insistence of Ben-Gurion and his disciples on the supremacy of Hebrew and the elimination of the ‘jargon of the galut,’” he wrote in Midstream (July/August 2004), “it remains a shocking legacy of its early years that Israel’s government persecuted Yiddish in a way it never did to any other language that new immigrants brought with them.”

In spite of these feelings, which remained active and volcanic for as long as I knew him, when he visited his longtime friends in Haifa, he couldn’t resist its charms, and raved over its beauty and vibrancy.

***

The last time I saw Joseph was a Spring night in New York’s Washington Square. We both had conferences, and we met for dinner. I spotted him down the road with an umbrella and a cane, and when I called him from behind he didn’t hear me. In the restaurant he was radiant.

“I like the beard!” he said. “It looks good. A Jewish man should wear a beard.”

We talked about my work. He was happy to hear I’d been put up in a fancy hotel and believed it was my due. He asked how much money I was earning and estimated that it was about what I would have made had I continued in academia. The days of drinking coffee in Johannesburg were long gone. We had not just moved on to New York but up to cocktails. I’d never seen him drink anything but a glass of wine before, but he enjoyed a sweet-looking cocktail while I worked on a bourbon. When the waitress asked if we’d have another round, I reflexively said no, but he said, “Why not? We never see each other. It’s a celebration.”

I told him about the time I had pancreatitis. It was terribly painful, and when I arrived in the hospital they admitted me while repeatedly questioning how much alcohol I usually drank. I had never heard of the condition, and it was common among alcoholics. Mine was caused by a gallstone that blocked a duct.

Ironically, the condition is what befell Joseph on a December night in December while he was in Heidelberg, Germany, as a guest lecturer. One day he was walking in the medieval stone alleys and the next he was in an intensive care unit fighting for his life.

As in my case, his was unrelated to alcohol. He rarely drank, though the cause was less important than the consequence. Eighty percent of his pancreas was necrotic. In fifteen weeks he’d lost more than sixty pounds. A tube that had been put into his windpipe made his voice thin and reedy, and he was too weak to read, though Karen would sit and read emails that kept coming.

There were signs of hope, He was learning to walk again when an infection overwhelmed him, and he died on a cold, wet day in March with Karen by his side.

Joseph once wrote of his friend David Fram, “To know him was to learn and to love.” I cannot think of a line more fitting for Joseph himself.

***

That people thought Joseph was older had other dimensions. For one thing, he was someone who kept getting better, whom you appreciated more as you got older yourself. But I think there was another dimension, too. He was engaged in his times but in another sense he was, like a tzaddik, outside of it.

Being humble, and profane, he would respond to the notion by waving the back at his hand at me, as if he was brushing crumbs off a tablecloth, and pronounce, “Yes, yes, very good, and bullshit of course, absolute rubbish.” If I insisted, he would say, “Bullshit, bullshit,” in a more audible voice. He would nod with a raised brow listening to my explanation, that a tzaddik’s righteousness came from deep learning but also from his ability to elevate the people he knew.

He would commend me on being shrewd, the word he often used to flatter me. “All right, if that is the device you want to use to tell the story,” he’d say. I imagine he might also have cautioned me against reporting imagined conversations, and the boundaries of poetic license when writing nonfiction.

Joseph left much too soon. At sixty-five he was just getting warmed up, with years of productive work still ahead of him. It is a personal loss for all who knew and loved him, but perhaps an even greater one for the Jewish and Yiddish world.

At the end of our evening in Washington Square, I wondered aloud, as I always did with him, where the time had gone, and wished there was more. In his presence you felt expanded, and were very sorry to look at your watch and realize it was time to say goodbye.

That was how I felt when I received the bad news in March, once again, only this time hollowed out, diminished, disbelieving that this time, there would be no more.

  • **
  • Todd Pitock is a writer in Philadelphia. This story originally appeared in the journal Midstream and won the American Society of Journalists & Authors Award for profile writing.