Sholom Singer taught me Medieval History at DePaul University in 1974 and 1975. He was probably in his mid-sixties, with the light blue cotton shirts Chicago guys used to wear buttoned up to the collar with no tie, and black trousers. He was a fantastic teacher: erudite, tough and “old school”.
Once he interrupted me when I said I had an idea I wanted “to propound”. ” ‘Propose’, George, you want to ‘propose’. Never use words like ‘propound’. I charge a fee for them.” However, I made the mistake again with another word I don’t remember. “George, stop! Use the simplest word. I don’t need the extra money. My congregation takes good care of me,” he deadpanned.
Dr. Singer was a part-time rabbi, a kind of substitute teacher, as he put it. He was from the same community on Chicago’s West Side that produced Saul Bellow, Isaac Rosenfeld and Benny Goodman. After the immigrant families landed there from the chaotic cities and towns of Central and Eastern Europe, they went straight to work. When he became passionate in class, which wasn’t often, it was only to distinguish Jews, Christians and “the Arabs”. He was neither sanguine nor choleric about Israel, but pessimistic, remote and even cryptic at times, as if he knew more about the 1973 War than we did. Once he seemed very depressed, but later he bucked up. It was a night class which may have been the reason.
He gave me two great insights: one historical and one personal. The first was in a class about medieval religious persecution. Jews were often pushed from villages to cities, and then on to other villages, or to swamps to form their own. Some left on ships for foreign countries—those were the fortunate ones. The sick, weak, solitary or compromised were often executed. Sometimes entire villages were destroyed with everyone in them. Then he focused on successful Jewish communities, on the survivors who stayed put and in many cases prospered. At this point he turned and panned across the classroom, his eyes widened.
“Now I’m going to tell you a theory of a 19th century historian—a man named Tewksbury—that explains some of this survival process, and also explains the general historical fact that over the centuries the Jews became a very successful ethnic group, particularly in proportion to the larger populations with whom they lived.
“First of all, Tewksbury said that primogeniture was customary among gentiles, most significantly of the moneyed classes, the guilds, managers and staff of large estates, the property holders, and especially among the most successful of these—the aristocracy and nobility. The first son was ‘crowned’, literally or figuratively, as the head of the next generation. He got it all. The second son would be the head protector, the merchant’s right hand enforcer, or the head of the militia group, right up to the head of the knights. In other words, the warrior. The third son, again up and down the social strata, entered the church—the monks and priests. So the mobility of the male children was set in three directions: wealth and its often dangerous responsibilities, including the treacherous environment of court life. Second, war and the preparation for it, which was often as fatal as the actual battles, which were fought by harsher methods and resulted in more carnage than ours today. Finally, the priesthood, where marriage was forbidden. The life of the Christian male offspring of the upper classes was frequently early death, since soldiers were led by the knights and palace intrigues led to regimes being murdered or exiled. In the case of religion, no legitimate heirs were allowed. They couldn’t have kids. These rules were absolute. So, perhaps half the men would survive, then they would have heirs, and the next generation would repeat the process. Tewksbury called this ‘the degeneration of the top’ a gradual and relentless pruning of the best and brightest, so to speak.
“On the other hand, the Jews at this time had lives that were different in three significant ways. First, Jews were prohibited from the military, except as advisors, procurement agents or bankers. But generally they were out of the military, certainly as soldiers or knights. Also, a Jew rising in the aristocracy was so rare that it proved the rule, literally. So the best and the brightest tended to survive wars. On the other end of the spectrum, the poor, the old, the weak, the sick—of both sexes—were often the first to die in the persecutions and did so in large numbers. Forced marches, labor, or mass executions would always include most or all of them. Only the strong survived. So this pruning took place at the bottom of the Jewish population. No more future generations of the Darwinian “less fit”, if one believes that theory, which was known in Tewksbury’s time.
“Finally, the role of the matchmaker (and Dr. Singer lightened things up by referring to the musical Hello Dolly) was practiced in every town, village and neighborhood, and it was accepted, like marriages in India. But the Jewish matchmaker was an organizing social force. Every community had them—large or small, rich or poor. They married off class to class, up and down the layers of society. This house to that house, this hut to that hut. And rabbis were required to marry, and all their sons were encouraged either to become a rabbi or distinguish themselves in a profession that wasn’t outlawed.”
Dr. Singer concluded that there was a combination of factors in the middle ages favorable to both a mobile as well as stable Jewish culture, and a perpetuation of elites. So that was Tewksbury. Everyone in the class breathed a heavy sigh of relief. He also said it was certainly not a popular academic theory, but it was worth considering. He ended the class by saying that this phenomenon may have had a positive influence on the rise of the conversions to Judaism in remote villages of Central and Eastern Christiandom. In all, it was a great class.
Not a week goes by I don’t think of Dr. Singer. My memory of him is a great comfort, especially in today’s dark, superficial and xenophobic atmosphere, where Muslims are considered sub-human. He helps me to understand that our present-day outcasts in the West—Africans, Turks, Muslims, Palestinians, Native Americans—will likely be the pruned, paired off and exponentially multiplying inheritors of tomorrow. Let the Jews be their example, and God bless them.
The second great insight Dr. Singer shared was surprisingly personal and, at the time, seemed bizarre to me. However, he was my academic adviser so I shouldn’t have been shocked. I was still a bit naïve, owing to an isolated, rural boarding school.
At the end of a fruitful but contentious session with me, he concluded by going off the subject.
“You know, George, you can do two things with your life: you should convert to Judaism and become a rabbi. You’d make a good rabbi. But it would be difficult. But think about it. If you don’t want to do that, then you should become a minister. You were born to it.”
Stunned, I mumbled something like “Thanks, I really appreciate it”, but felt so strange that I got a little dizzy for a second. No one had ever even talked with me that way. He eyeballed me and then waved the meeting to an end and said good-bye.