Simply put, Bernie knows his medieval history. He has a PhD in history, as do his wife Deborah, and one son, while his other son has a PhD in business. Bernie’s family, as my mother would say, has more degrees than a thermometer.
His particular focus has been medieval history. My own knowledge of medieval history is reminiscent of the Woody Allen line, after having taken a speed-reading course in which they read War and Peace. “It’s about Russia”, he would say.
You might notice the frequent use of present tense verbs in his sentences, which seem to blend the past and present seamlessly. Not unlike many passages from Torah, as the Hebrew readers among us may know, and as we learn over time through the commentary of Rashi and others.
As the show tune goes, it can seem daunting to summarize the “life of a man”, particularly with but a half hour of his time. And especially when that man has spent (make that spends) the better part of his own life studying societies and individuals that lived many hundreds of years ago. But here goes.
I was born in the Bronx. Probably one of the most interesting things – to me – we lived next door to my grandmother who spoke almost all the time in Yiddish. So Yiddish, and the structure of the language, is imprinted on my mind. And when later on, I started studying German, I looked at this strange language and it all fell into place. Over the years I’ve learned that the more languages you know the better your brain works.
How many languages do you know?
I know one, English. But I have about six or seven others that I work with. I have many friends who are academics, and one European friend once said to me, “Bernie, you know, the more English I know, the more English I know I don’t know.” So I know English pretty well, but there’s a lot to be learned about the others.
I’d imagine you know a bit about your own family history.
My father’s family originally comes from a small town on the Rhine, called Bacharach am Rhine, which was made famous in Jewish culture by the works of Heinrich Heine, who wrote the Rabbi of Bacharach.
Note: “The Rabbi of Bacharach” is an unfinished novel by German writer Heinrich Heine (1799-1856). It describes the life of Rabbi Abraham and his wife Sara at the end of the Middle Ages in the small town of Bacharach on the Rhine and in the Jewish quarter of Frankfurt on the Main.
But our family was kicked out of there in the 17th or 18th century, and that part of the family went to Warsaw.
My mother’s family came from Lithuania, via Vilna. My great grandfather was named Rom, and before the First World War, according to the stories that are told, he owned a village. He was the head man of a Jewish village.
How would you describe your area of study now?
I teach medieval history. My undergraduate degree was in history and classical languages from Queens College in New York, and my graduate degree was in medieval history and archeology, from the University of California Berkeley. Then I taught at Queens College for a year, but I’ve been at the University of Minnesota since 1967, though I’ve just started to go part time.
Any particular focus within medieval history?
I’ve written a lot of books and articles.
I’ve done a lot of work in France, western France, in the 10th and 11th and 12th centuries. For the last maybe 15 years I’ve been working on Charlemagne, and the Carolingian Empire. And I’ve also written a lot of articles on the end of the Roman Empire. I typically work in about a 500, 600 year period.
(Among his other works in progress, Bernie and son David have finished about 400 pages of a new book that is likely to end up at about 600 pages, on the topic of medieval warfare – in all likelihood, I’ll wait for the movie).
You know we have a group at Mount Zion that has been studying Torah for about 20 years, using the commentary of medieval scholar Rashi. I’d imagine you know quite a bit about him and his time.
I did a lot of work in the 11th century, late 10th and 11th century, so the Jewish figures in that era are very interesting for a number of reasons, in relation to the first crusade and that sort of thing.
The big thing that I’ve noticed, over the years, is that there is a Jewish way of studying these texts, and then there is a way in which other people come at the subject. People who are interested in the culture and the society of the time, but not as interested in Rashi’s commentaries or his Responsa. And the impression one gets from study of the Jewish Rashi, is that he becomes an island in a world that is not really explored otherwise.
Which is all the more amazing given his life at the time, as a vintner. He has to worry about the wine market, the weather, the crops, he has to worry about everything, like every other vintner. While on the other hand, he created a huge corpus of material, on Torah, and his Responsa. He’s one of those people that society went to and said, “we have a problem, how do we solve it?” And the problems that he deals with cast a great deal of light on the society in which he lived.
Over the years, I’ve been asked, what is it about Rashi that leads us to study him to this day, particularly when there were so many commentators both before and after. I’ve heard various theories, but I’ve never had a good answer. But if anyone can tell me it would be you. So why Rashi?
We don’t know. Basically, we don’t know. There was a very strong Rhineland, Jewish community, starting in the 10th century. The highlight of that community is a fellow named Rabbi Gershom of Mainz. Who flourishes about the year 1000, but he hasn’t left that much material, by comparison with Rashi. Gershom we think of as Rashi’s father’s generation.
There is an old joke that goes if Jesus and Paul were both up for tenure, who would get tenure? It’s obvious that it would be Paul, because he published more.
What about growing up. What was life like as a boy?
I did a lot of sports over the years, and as a result my body is in very bad shape. The only thing I can do now is golf. So when I have spare time, I play golf.
I played football for the first two years of high school, but I got banged up doing that. I was one of the few Jews that played in a Catholic youth organization. I grew up in a low class Irish Catholic neighborhood. But there were huge numbers of kids, so we did sports. We didn’t have anything organized except by the church, so if you wanted to be in organized sports you had to do that.
But I was often the only Jewish kid. I remember once when I was about 14, and we were taking a shower after playing some sport. And I was about the only guy who was circumcised. And one guy said to me ‘so what happened to you?’, and I said ‘I wore it off’.
(Polite laughter, OK, raucous laughter)
I’ll give you a chance to look at this before it goes to print.
You can edit it as much as you want.
Well while we are on the subject, what was your Jewish upbringing like?
I did not become a Bar Mitzvah. We knew a lot about Judaism, but didn’t belong to a synagogue. By and large, our family was pretty strongly Zionist. My father sold insurance, and was a fundraiser for the Albert Einstein Medical School of Yeshiva University. He got to meet a lot of people, and he very much liked the people who were supporting Israel, rather than religion.
So what was your trigger point for history, was it gradual or sudden?
My mother liked history. And her father liked history. Her father also knew a lot of languages. I can give you an example of my background. My grandfather, my mother’s father was not involved with a synagogue, but he would take a train from New York to Philadelphia, so that he could hear a particular cantor sing. So he was not really interested in the religion, but he was interested in the ritual, and he particularly liked cantorial music, and there was so much of that in and around New York City in those days.
Do you remember a favorite teacher growing up, one that might have impacted your career choice?
No. Not in grammar school or in high school, but in college, I was probably most influenced by my Latin teachers. And one of those happened to be Jewish. This is why I mentioned knowing Yiddish. Language has always fascinated me. Language as a way of understanding other people.
You’ve mentioned that your work has given you the chance to study in Europe, and to meet interesting people. But what does that study actually involve? Do you go to the books, or interview people, or just study the land itself?
It depends what questions you want to answer. Most of the time, you go to the archives. And when you go to the archives you go to the documents that have survived from the 11th century, or whatever period you are looking at. So you do that. And you read the documents. But nobody can do that for you. You may have to read the documents in Latin, and you have to speak to the archivist in French.
Have you ever discovered a document that no one else had ever seen?
There is one. I didn’t find this document, but I made sense of it, and I wrote an article about it. It’s a document that was issued by Charlemagne, we think, that talks about how Jews are supposed to testify in court, in about 800 or so.
As you now head into your five year retirement plan, is there something you would like to work on?
I have a list of books and articles that I’d like to write that I could never write in another lifetime. There are just a lot of questions out there that I’d like to answer.
But just because I stop teaching doesn’t mean I’m going to stop writing. That’s one of the nice things about being a historian instead of being a physician. All my friends in science that have retired, they have no idea what they can do.
In a way, it would seem that after 1000 years, there would be a diminishing amount of knowledge to be learned about the Middle Ages.
Oh no, it’s endless.
The computer age has opened it up several orders of magnitude. It makes it immensely easier to access information at all levels, published information, unpublished information, manuscripts. It’s unbelievable.
Actually, that does make sense. When we think, again, of what Rashi was able to produce with just his own library, and his mind, it’s amazing that at times I feel that I can almost approximate what he had in front of him with a single computer.
Exactly. For example, look at what we know about the Dead Sea Scrolls now, as compared to when they were found, because of the way in which you can now model, putting together pieces that you couldn’t do before.
Everything is made a lot easier. But you still have to be smart, to know how to use it. You can’t just press a button. If you pressed a button and got all of Rashi’s stuff, what questions would you ask?
That’s true. Though we can press a button, and we do get all his stuff. Yet every week our study group begins a new verse by asking ourselves what might be “bothering Rashi” about the verse. And though it’s never occurred to me before, we use the present tense as well.