Sunday, August 28, 2011


Portrait of a Teacher

Excerpts from Eric Ormsby, The 'Born Schulmeister', in Fine Incisions: Essays on Poetry and Place (The Porcupine's Quill, 2011), pp. 243-252 (on S.D. Goitein).

p. 245:
Once he told me that while making his rounds he used to carry a volume from a massive medieval biography of the Sufi saints in Arabic in his uniform pocket and would read this on his lunch break.
p. 247:
Goitein once said to me, 'I am a pugnacious man. I work out my pugnacity every day trying to figure out these medieval letters. I have to fight to understand them and in this way, I take out my aggressive instincts on paper and not on other people.'
p. 248:
I remember one class in which a student offered a novel translation of a difficult word. Goitein paused. With uplifted hand he said, 'Wait, let me taste that for a minute!' and he actually smacked his lips in a kind of lexical mastication.
p. 249:
What made him special as a teacher and why do I remember him so fondly, over thirty years since I first studied with him and over twenty years since his death?

Not for his idiosyncracies alone but for his genius in inspiring a love of passionate precision combined with an equal love of historical imagination. Before a text, whether it was a text on the love of God or a stanza of Bedouin poetry or a dunning letter from a medieval merchant, his whole being became engaged and magically expansive. And like a sorcerer he pulled surprise after surprise out of what to us seemed dry bones indeed. His knowledge was exceedingly exact. If he compared a word in an Arabic poem with a cognate term from the Book of Job, it was because there was a precise and demonstrable parallel to be drawn; he was never impressionistic and vague but spoke always on the basis of strict learning and scientific principle. At the same time he was seldom narrowly pedantic. He saw human history as a continuum in which present and past were connected. What we were reading, or attempting to read, had something to do with us too; not because it was 'relevant' in the narrow contemporary sense but because spiritually, intellectually and emotionally we were all still part of that continuous past.

Thus, in reading an author he would often refer to him as 'our friend'. Our friend Ibn Khaldun says this, our friend Maimonides says that. To him, through the force and beauty of the word, these men were still living presences and, in reading their works, we encountered them.
p. 251:
But what made Goitein a great teacher was not merely his own erudition, fabulous as it was, or the warmth of his personality or even his passionate convictions but his lifelong, incurable, and unquenchable curiosity. He was a perpetual student himself and in a state of concentrated delight at every new fact or hint of a fact....Nothing was too foreign, nothing was too insignificant, for notice; every person and every occasion and every object was valuable and instructive. When a passionate dog-lover married into his family, he promptly sat down and became a dazzling authority on dogs so as to be able to converse with his new in-law and make her feel at home; often he astonished us with his arcane knowledge of schnauzers and Bedlington terriers. In this too he embodied the teaching of the Sages. Does it not say in Avoth: 'Despise not any man and discard not any thing, for there is not a man who has not his hour and not a thing which has not its place?'
Hat tip: Ian Jackson.

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