Monday, March 26, 2012

Learning and Teaching

Two of my teachers from my time at the Hebrew Union College (HUC, the Reform rabbinic seminary) passed away recently.  They could not have been more different men, but both of them shaped my life and the lives of countless other students who passed through the Cincinnati campus of HUC.

Dr. David Weisberg was a professor of Bible and Semitic languages for over 45 years at the college.  I studied with him in a pair of elective courses that looked at the megillot (scroll books) of the Hebrew Bible.  Though earlier in his career, he had acquired a reputation as a tough--occasionally cruel--teacher, by the time I studied with him the years had mellowed him.  His patient and kind demeanor even with students who were ill-prepared was a distinguishing characteristic, and he treated everyone warmly, often greeting people with "my dear friend," or later, "my esteemed colleague," without any hint of irony or condescension.

Dr. Herbert Paper was already an emeritus professor by the time I arrived in Cincinnati.  He was a scholar of Yiddish, and had been one of the first in the U.S. to teach the language at the university level.  He was at the college for 22 years, but had begun his career at the University of Michigan.

I later learned that during his tenure in Ann Arbor, Dr. Paper studied Yiddish informally with a native speaker: my great-grandfather.  It's nice to know that my family contributed to Dr. Paper's scholarship in this manner.

I never actually took a class from Dr. Paper, but I still learned a great deal from him.  He had become quite a raconteur, roaming the library and sharing his stories with students.  His most oft-told tales regarded his military service in Calcutta, India (which he compared to an unprintable body part), and his story of being one of the only modern Jews to actually celebrate the holiday of Purim in Persia.  Many HUC alumni can likely recite these stories from rote.

At a dinner reunion of classmates at the recent conference of the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis), my friends and I toasted the memory of our two teachers.  From them we learned practical rabbinic matters, yes.  We learned the value of a good story.  But most of all, we learned how to be a mensch.

Y'hi zichram baruch.  May the memory of these teachers be a blessing.

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