The End of an Era: Mattityahu Tsevat and Eric Werner.
Prosopography is one of my favorite words. Wikipedia defines it as, "an investigation of the common characteristics of a historical group, whose individual biographies may be largely untraceable, by means of a collective study of their lives, in multiple career-line analysis." This is perhaps its broadest meaning. A narrower one is, "Who in the past knew whom."
It can often take an unusual turn. For example, Gershom Scholem and Abraham Joshua Heschel did not care for one another personally. Yet each in his own way was very close to Henry Corbin, one of the outstanding scholars in the past century of mysticism in Islam.
This past Saturday, Matitiahu Tsevat, professor emeritus of Bible in Cincinnati, passed away. I came to know him slightly when I worked at the Klau Library in Cincinnati for six months in 1973, but became better acquainted with him after I came to New York. The last time we saw one another was in June of 1993, at the Shabbat morning at services held at the College, where he was honored with an aliyah in honor of a "special birthday," (i.e., his 80th). At the festive kiddush that followed, he and I talked of Dr. Werner. And before we parted, he made me promise that I would visit him when I was next in Cincinnati. Sadly, the next occasion was perhaps five years later and my colleagues told me of his failing health and that he was not receiving visitors. Now, with his passing at 96, I feel that an era has truly ended.
One of the closest personal friendships I have enjoyed at the College-Institute was with the eminent musicologist, Eric R. Werner (1901-1988), and it was Dr. Werner who told me of his personal relationship with Professor Tsevat, and after Dr. Werner's death, Dr. Tsevat filled in gaps.
Dr. Werner and Dr. Tsevat met in Breslau in the 1920s. Dr. Tsevat was a student at the Gymnasium where Dr. Werner's father was a professor of classics. (Dr. Tsevat's name originally was Pinczower before he hebraized it.) Werner's father and Tsevat's fathers were fraternity brothers at university and often spent time in the company of one another. Werner was at that time a junior faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau.
The young Pinczower was recognized early for his academic brilliance, and although there was a difference of a dozen years between Eric Werner and Mathias Pinczower, the two became close friends. Indeed, Eric told me that Matt tutored him in Hebrew (admitting that it was never one of his strong suits), and he in return tutored Matt in music theory. At that festive kiddish in 1993, Dr. Tsevat smiled broadly, as he recalled the many hours they studied together the polyphonies and counterpoint in Palestrina.)
Each had told me how Dr. Werner had approached Dr. Nelson Glueck, president of Hebrew Union College, and made the strong case for admitting the young Matt Tsevat to the Graduate Program (from which he earned his PhD. in 1953), as well as bring him on the faculty. Dr. Tsevat told me he never had such a "melitz yosher" as he did in Dr. Werner.
Their close personal friendship was further cemented when Dr. Tsevat asked Dr. Werner to serve as sandak at the berit milah of his son, Daniel. In the spring of 1987 Dr. Werner and I were having lunch together at Swenson's (now Dojo, across the street from the College, on West Fourth Street). Dr. Werner told that he had served as sandak at Daniel Tsevat's berit, to which I said, "Nebech" (not to be confused with the Yiddish word, often spelled the same way in English. In Yiddish it can also be a phatic expression of sadness.
His hair-trigger temper instantly exploded. "Why, what do you mean 'Nebech'?" I told him how Daniel Tsevat, 33 years old, had died suddenly in April, 1985 of an allergic reaction to sulfite in wine he had drunk, and he was mentioned by name in an article in the New York Times during the summer of 1985 about the FDA's investigating sulfite in foods. Without a further word, Dr. Werner sprang to his feet and ran out of the restaurant. I was close at his heels, except the manager grabbed me, afraid we were skipping out on the meal.
I came to the fourth floor in time to hear his voice raging over Helen Farber's as he pushed his way past her into Paul Steinberg's office. (He was perhaps the only person ever to do so successfully!) With tears in his eyes, Dr. Werner repeatedly pounded on Dr. Steinberg's desk, saying, "Why did no one tell me of Daniel's death?" Dr. Steinberg, who knew Dr. Werner well, silently went to a file and brought out a photocopy of the NY Times Article. Then he and I walked with Dr. Werner to the lounge area of that floor. Dr. Werner sat there silently as he read the article, and from the length of time it took, it was clear that he had read it several times. With tears in his eyes, he faced us and said, "I was not there for my dearest friend at his time of loss... What shall I do ... and after such a long time?" He arose, resumed his gruff character, and said that he was going home to contemplate how best to contact the Tsevat family.
About a year later, Dr. Tsevat was in New York and visited the College. By this time, Dr. Werner's health was failing and he no longer came down to the College. I asked Dr. Tsevat if he knew that Dr. Werner was not well, and he replied that he suspected for they had not been in touch for several months. I offered him my office and the telephone so that he might call his old friend. Afterward, Dr. Tsevat thanked me warmly, adding that he was taking a taxi immediately to Washington Heights to visit Eric and Elisabeth Werner.
How many persons today are so fortunate as to have personal friendships that last more than sixty years? Dr. Werner and Dr. Tsevat were two such fortunate individuals. Intellectually and personally they also represent for me the finest and most endearing qualities and values of that final generation of German Jewry born before World War I. Now they are gone. The final door on that era has truly closed.
How fortunate I was to have known them.