Yahrzeit for Professor Benjamin Harshav, Jewish Literary Sage

04/20/2016 09:56 am ET Updated Apr 21, 2017

The Hebrew Bible begins with the phrase, "Bereshit," which means "in the beginning."

Benjamin Harshav, who passed away at 86 on April 23, 2015, roughly one year ago and 399 years after Shakespeare's death, knew more than a little about Jewish languages, poetry and the Word.

Harshav, whose last name was originally Hrushovski, Hebraized his name in the late 1980s, though it is important to note that, in either version, the dominant syllable or phoneme derived from Reish, the Hebrew "R," linked to Rosh, which means head or first.

That was fitting because Professor Harshav was a pioneer, who founded literary journals in Israel, published acclaimed poetry from the time he was a teen and created the Department of Poetics and Comparative Literature at Tel Aviv University.

An eminent scholar, he wrote The Meaning of Yiddish, in which he joyfully analyzed that most onomatopoeic and trochaic of all languages. Professor Harshav, who was born in Vilna, Lithuania, and for whom Yiddish was his native tongue, dissected the so-called mame-loshn, which, as he pointed out, fused many elements from different languages, such as Ukrainian meter, Hebrew suffixes and English transliteration.

More recently, in late 2014, just a few months before Professor Harshav passed away, Yale University Press published his Three Thousand Years of Hebrew Versification, a major contribution to the role that Hebrew has played in, among other things, introducing the concepts of meter and rhyme to world poetry.

Professor Harshav taught me about Jewish literature and semiotics in the fall of 1986 at Yale, when I was a senior and where he taught for nearly thirty years toward the end of what was already a remarkable career.

When I studied with Professor Harshav, I had no idea about his past as a scholar or poet. I knew only that he was a sage, a mensch. A modestly built fellow, he had a sweetness about him, an extraordinary quality for a man whose views on language were fierce and who had fought in Israel's wars, starting with the War of Independence in 1948.

Typical of his modesty, he spoke of the 1948 war with a kind of carefree innocence. "There was no basic training," he chuckled and said with a beatific smile. "I ran up and down hills."

Of course, Professor Harshav did so much more than that. Working with his wife, Barbara, a translator and his frequent collaborator, he wrote a tome, more than 1,000 pages, Marc Chagall and His Times, on the great painter, one of Professor Harshav's abiding interests undoubtedly going back to his childhood in the shtetl.

When I was Professor Harshav's student in the fall of 1986, he, along with Harold Bloom, the world-renowned literary scholar, who had also fought in many of Israel's wars, inspired me in my desire to live in Israel and serve in the military.

I did indeed live in Israel for about five months when I completed an ulpan, a Hebrew immersion program, on a kibbutz, Mishmar Haemek, in late 1989 and early 1990. At that time, I phoned Professor Harshav, who was back in Israel.

I can still recall looking him up in a Hebrew-language phone book, yellow pages that rested next to a public phone in the back of the kibbutz dining hall. By then, he had changed his last name from Hrushovski to Harshav.

I remember meeting him and his wife briefly at their home in Tel Aviv, which was stacked with books, and, if memory serves, not far from the Diaspora Museum. He was a very busy man and working on a project. He opened his refrigerator, poured me a glass of orange juice and said, "So nice to see you in Israel."

He asked me why I wanted to follow up on my Hebrew study by volunteering in an army program in Israel. I told him that it was because of my two left hands, a feeling of disempowerment, one of the Jewish semiotics or value systems that Professor Harshav covered in his course at Yale. It was a Diaspora semiotic that Israelis had countered with their dedication to physicality, to working with their hands, tilling the land, resurrecting Biblical farms out of malaria-ridden swamps, defending themselves with a modern army.

I suppose that I wanted to prove to myself that I could embrace the value system of the modern Jews, that I too could work with both of my hands.

I did not do so well in that army program, Marva, though my failure to handle the Pin-Shabbat and install it properly in an M-16 may have reflected a deeper, ontological problem than any lack of dexterity.

I did not know at the time about the history of severe depression, psychosis and suicide in my family. Nor did I suspect that years later that predisposition, along with other factors, would lead me to consider taking my own life.

Back when I studied with Professor Harshav, I asked him about my paternal great-grandmother's surname, Tarantula. I wondered if I had any Latin blood in me, or if that surname had been imposed on my great-grandmother, just as European governments forced poor shtetl Jews into taking other unpleasant last names like Slutsky and Ratner.

Professor Harshav turned in my direction as we walked across the Old Campus at Yale in 1986. He looked at me with that beatific smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. "You look pretty Slavic to me," he said.

He then added that my great-grandmother's surname could have indicated a connection to the Russian town of Tula.

While there have been times in my life that I felt cursed by the sting of a tarantula, I definitely was blessed to meet and study with Professor Harshav, a real mensch, who wanted to make sure that I was okay when I called him in the summer of 1987 from England, where I was studying Shakespeare on a fellowship after college.

As a master of Jewish languages, he clearly knew that the name, Harshav, not only is linked etymologically to Reish, the Hebrew "R," and to Bereshit, the opening phrase of the Hebrew Bible; he also knew that it is linked to Jerusalem, YeRUSHalayim, in Hebrew.

Born in Vilna, dubbed by the literati as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, Professor Harshav also knew that Yerushalayim, by its very construction in Hebrew, means that there are two Jerusalems.

To take nothing away from Vilna, I can imagine that Professor Harshav, like a character out of one of Marc Chagall's paintings, is now floating and fluttering in the sky, in the Jerusalem of the heavens. He may not be running up and down hills, but he is gliding through the ether in the world of language, the world of revolution, the world of dreams.