This profile appears as part of “16 Over 61,” a collaboration between the Forward and the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan’s Wechsler Center for Modern Aging.
Dennis Klein, 72, is a history professor and director of the Jewish Studies Program and Master of Arts in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Kean University.
In addition to his scholarship, Klein has in recent years committed himself to community organizing in Teaneck, N.J., where he lives, implementing a restorative justice program in a local high school, leading a task force on the future of small businesses after COVID and creating a task force that will, in the words of Simon Klarfeld, who nominated Klein for “16 Over 61,” develop “a joint narrative on the origins” of “structural hierarchies in the otherwise disparate circumstances of U.S. slavery and the Holocaust.” In 2020, he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to underwrite a seminar on “The Search for Humanity After Atrocity,” which he will lead this summer.
Klein, a member of the inaugural cohort of “16 Over 61” honorees, places family and community connection at the center of his life.
Describe your ideal birthday celebration.
It’s about relationships with family, friends and colleagues. The spark of casual interaction has proven vital, and I don’t need a birthday celebration to remind me of that (although it doesn’t hurt).
You wake up on a beautiful Sunday morning with an unplanned day ahead of you, and no responsibilities. How do you choose to spend it?
If I’m thinking about the week ahead I’ll bury my head under the pillow. If I am intoxicated with incandescent sunlight I’ll look forward to a fine breakfast, ideally outdoors, with my wife, lingering over coffee — she likes tea — allowing the mind and heart to make or imagine sense of our world, checking in with my kids and their families, and considering options for lunch.
What makes you smile, no matter what?
Soft power, the kind that seems to some snowflake-y but in fact possesses considerable potency — that of human kindness, mutual recognition among strangers, forgiveness that accommodates accountability, and memories whose selectivity constructs a purposeful life. These precious attributes are the origins of what makes me smile.
What’s your earliest Jewish memory?
It has to do with Hanukkah, I suppose. I was also probably half aware, or more likely less than half aware, that my friends at Moreland, my elementary school, were children of Holocaust survivors who settled together in nearby neighborhoods. It’s a memory — like most memories — fueled by knowledge that came later.
What’s one thing you absolutely cannot live without?
My health. But add to that my well-being, and my orientation, inspired by family and mentors, toward helping those who ask for it.
Has your Judaism informed how you approach the process of aging? If so, how?
There’s not a lot about the afterlife in Judaism, but maybe just enough to help me negotiate the twilight. More important is the bright idea behind a minyan, my awareness that whatever my spiritual aspirations, collective embracement amplifies them exponentially.
What does the idea of honoring and celebrating aging mean to you?
That’s a tough one. It’s hard to celebrate aging when the body and mind remind me of limitations that weren’t there before. But somehow my words and acts in what I prefer to call “later life” appear to be making a local difference that I don’t recall they did before. This might be what we mean by “wisdom” and the accretion of experience, I guess, but all I know is that maturation, if not maturity, brings about a convergence, the sum of discrete parts, that appears to introduce a new register of existence.