Professors Avriel Bar Levav, Rachel Rojanski, and Andrea Schatz have sent the following memorial of Prof. Shlomo Berger:
Shlomo Berger, Professor of Yiddish at the University of Amsterdam and a path-breaking historian of the Jewish book, passed away in Amsterdam on Wednesday, August 19, a few days before turning 62.
Born in Tel-Aviv, an only child to Yiddish speaking Holocaust survivors, he grew up in the Yad Eliyahu working class neighborhood. After his military service (training newly recruited soldiers), he completed his undergraduate studies at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and his graduate studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he graduated in 1987 with a Ph.D. in Ancient Roman history. His first book, published in 1992, was Revolution and Society in Greek Sicily and Southern Italy. In it, in a way that would become characteristic of his scholarship as a whole, he combined precise textual and philological analysis with theoretical and critical approaches, as he examined social relations and civil strife between Greeks, natives and foreigners in fifth-century city-states.
In 1988 he moved to the University of Amsterdam, and extended his scholarly attention to the fields of early modern Yiddish, and the history of the Yiddish book. In 1995 he was appointed professor at the University of Amsterdam, where he served until his sudden and untimely death. His next publication signposted his move to Jewish studies. In Classical Oratory and the Sephardim of Amsterdam: Rabbi Aguilar’s ‘Tratado de la retórica’ (1996), Berger used his classical education to analyze Moshe Rephael de Aguilar’s treatise on Greek and Latin rhetoric and to translate it from Spanish. Here, both the scholar and his hero can be seen to be sharing a great open-mindedness and deep interest in learning derived from various cultures – Greek, Roman and Arabic.
At the University of Amsterdam, Shlomo taught classes in Yiddish studies, Hebrew language and literature, and Jewish history and culture. He also served as the editor of Zutot: Perspectives on Jewish Culture since its founding in 2001. In 2006 he established and led the Amsterdam Yiddish Symposium series that resulted in nine edited volumes on different aspects in Yiddish Studies based on the lectures delivered there.
With his edition of a Yiddish travelogue, Travels among Jews and Gentiles: Abraham Levie's Travelogue, Amsterdam 1764 (2002), Berger used his mastery of early modern Yiddish literature to contribute a great deal to our understanding of subtle changes in Jewish attitudes to Christians and Christian space in the eighteenth century. His introduction to this personal narrative of a Jewish businessman, who travelled via Prague, Vienna and Venice to Rome, combines historical with literary and anthropological perspectives and shows his great interest in transition and voyage as they shape individual and communal perceptions and practices.
In his most recent book Producing Redemption in Amsterdam: Early Modern Yiddish Books in Paratextual Perspective (2013), Berger used paratexts of early modern Yiddish works published in Amsterdam to open up entirely new avenues for the study of the Yiddish book and European book production, examining among other things the roles of authors, printers, editors and correctors as cultural mediators. After that, he began to work energetically on another highly original project entitled Readers and Modes of Reading in Yiddish 1500-1850, which – as a kind of sequel to his study of book production – looked to become another seminal work in the history of the Yiddish book.
Shlomo Berger’s scholarly oeuvre, which covered four books and some fifty articles, has opened up many new paths in Yiddish Studies and the study of the early modern Jewish world, and provides both a strong foundation and great inspiration for future research and reflection.
Though Amsterdam held special importance for him, his influence as a scholar and teacher was not defined by a single place. As an exceptionally erudite and generous colleague, he contributed to the development of Yiddish Studies and Jewish Studies internationally through publications, seminars, workshops, and exhibitions, as well as through many long and unforgettable conversations with colleagues and friends between Jerusalem, Dublin, and New York. Above all, however, Shlomo was a mentsh – a wonderful person with a great sense of humor, very lively, friendly, open, always willing to cooperate with others, and a warm and wise friend.
His sudden and untimely death leaves a void in the hearts of his many friends in Europe, the United States and, of course, Israel. At his specific request, he is buried near his beloved home-town. Tel Aviv. His death is a great loss to Jewish Studies and to all those who loved and admired him.
Yehi zikhro barukh.
Avriel Bar Levav, The Open University of Israel
Rachel Rojanski, Brown University, Providence RI
Andrea Schatz, King’s College, London