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Sacvan Bercovitch, Acclaimed Scholar and Translator of Sholem Aleichem, Dies at 81

There can be no greater left-wing yichis than being named after Sacco and Vanzetti. The Canadian Jewish cultural historian Sacvan Bercovitch, who died on December 9 at age 81, was born to Russian Jewish parents who cherished a revolutionary ideal.

In his “Rites of Assent,”, Bercovitch explained that he was drawn to America’s Puritans because of the “Romantic-Marxist utopianism” of his parents: “The analogies to the rhetoric of my own past seem so striking it still surprises me that they did not occur to me at once, and stop me in my tracks.”

Long a fixture at Harvard, where he was typically droll about occupying the office in Widener Library previously graced by the ultra-WASP Yankee historian Samuel Eliot Morison, Bercovitch was working on an ambitious new project at the time of his death: the “Ashkenazi Renaissance; 1881-1941,” spanning “late-nineteenth-century pogroms in Russia, which launched a wave of Jewish migration from Eastern to Western Europe, Palestine, and the Americas; and the triumph of German fascism, culminating in the Holocaust.”

Between these years, Bercovitch noted, “Jews in the arts and sciences produced a body of cultural riches comparable to the highest achievements of any other group in history (Periclean Athens, Elizabethan England) and unsurpassed in modern times.” Adopting a panoramic view of many different domains, he planned to discuss Einstein, Freud, Husserl, and Wittgenstein as well as Chagall, Lipchitz, Heifetz and Mahler to locate a “certain coherence, through a common Jewishness, to the diverse worlds they represent.” Avid readers of Berkovitch hope his reflections on Kafka, I. L. Peretz and Sholom Aleichem, Babel, Agnon, and Singer will see the light of day, since his most recent project with solid Yiddishkeit was as editor of the Library of America volume of the writings of Nathanael West.

The Montreal-born scholar was raised in a Yiddish-speaking household in an impoverished district once crowded with Jewish immigrants, most of whom had ceded the ambient squalor to poor French-speaking Roman Catholics. His ailing mother, abandoned by his father the painter Alexandre Bercovitch (1891–1951), placed him in a series of unwelcoming foster homes from age nine until he finished high school.

Finding consolation as a devoted reader of Sholom Aleichem, Berkovitch would later translate him into English, along with Itzik Manger and Yaakov Zipper, among other Yiddish authors. Berkovitch also noted: “Kafka was my first (and lasting) literary love.” “The Rites of Assent” disarmingly discusses Kafka’s “Investigations of a Dog” in which a canine narrator is oblivious to the existence of humankind, as a “great parable of interpretation as mystification… also a great parable of the limitations of cultural critique.”

A diligent scholar, Berkovitch honed his work ethic after high school as a dairy farmer at Kibbutz Nachshon in central Israel, established by immigrant members of the youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. For around four years as he told the interviewer Giuseppe Nori in 1993: he shoveled manure and milked cows, revelling in a “socialist utopia” which was “radical, it was idealistic, it was also a kind of security that I always wanted, like a family, having a ready-made family.” His kibbutz experience remained a decisive, if indirect, influence on his interpretation of New England Puritans and American utopianism.

After the kibbutz years, Berkovitch hoped to study in America, but Kibbutz Nachshon was seen as a perilously left-wing entity by the U. S. Immigration service, so Berkovitch was forbidden entry into America. Finding work at a Steinberg’s supermarket in Montreal, he studied at night. Later finally admitted to the USA and hired as a junior faculty member at Columbia, he told Nori that there, Lionel Trilling was a “possible mentor…Jane Austen was his passport for entry into a world that Jews weren’t then allowed into. He socialized himself into that world. This is not in the least to minimize his extraordinary achievement. It’s to explain why I couldn’t become his disciple.”

Retaining his overt Jewish influences, Berkovitch used them to better understand the thinking of the Puritans, their “processes of mystification where people built up rhetoric and believed in it…What I saw in the Puritans was something like people going to set up a kibbutz, a city on a hill, a venture in utopia.” His colleague Werner Sollors told the Harvard Gazette in 2014 that Berkovitch “stylized himself modestly as a Canadian outsider, a figure from a Kafka story or a chess player who has to deal with constantly changing rules.”

In “American Jeremiad”, about America’s “prophetic history,” Berkovitch noted that in following the “religious quest” of the nation’s literary forebears, he felt “like Sancho Panza in a land of Don Quixotes.” A citation awarding Berkovitch the 2004 Hubbell Medal for American literature studies praised his “scholarly voice: mordant, acute, deeply learned, oddly sympathetic. It is as if the Recording Angel had decided to do some slumming as a scholar of American literature.” In accepting the award, Berkovitch thanked his mother, who “left me her left-wing legacy and an abiding sense of my Jewish identity but not much else.”

He spoke of starting out as a teacher in the era of student revolutions, finding “that learning could be a difficult dialectic, requiring the capacity to sustain dissonance, rather than to reach a synthesis. But I found, too, that it could be a sustaining dissonance…I stand here as an example of what I consider to be the most compelling and problematic aspect of the American myth: I have forged an immigrant success story through a concerted adversarial critique of America.” He concluded: “I still believe, with Sacco and Vanzetti, that all institutional powers corrupt, including those in academia, and that our highest ethical imperative is to speak truth to power. And I believe further, with the Hasid Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, that the surest way to truth is to ‘flee from fame.’”

Small wonder that inspired by Berkovitch’s cultural close readings of such authors as Cotton Mather and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rael Meyerowitz’s “Transferring to America: Jewish Interpretations of American Dreams” described his studious approach as “Talmudic” while Susanne Klingenstein’s “Enlarging America: The Cultural Work of Jewish Literary Scholars, 1930-1998” likens him to a “gaon.”

Or as the American literary scholar Jonathan Arac put it in another tribute,: “What good fortune that American scholars have the perspective offered by an immigrant, upwardly mobile super-smart aleck from Montreal’s Yiddish left.” However mobile, he and his family remembered past challenges. His death notice in the Boston Globe specified: “In lieu of flowers, remembrances may be made to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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