One weekend, two profound losses

The world lost two great scholars in the span of two days in early July, Elie Wiesel and George Washington University professor Max Ticktin. Max wasn’t as well-known as Wiesel, but he had a profound impact on the thousands of students who studied under him. I had the honor to study under both of these great men. Barely had I begun to mourn the loss of Wiesel when news of Max’s passing reached my inbox. So, as the immediate grief begins to dull, I am left to contemplate a final study session guided by these two teachers asking the class to interpret what God could be telling us about the link between these most unique human beings.

By appearance alone, both professors looked as if they came from another time. Walking into Wiesel’s class on my first day in 2000, I couldn’t stop staring at him. He was like no one else I had ever seen, with his lined face and his wispy hair like a renaissance philosopher, crossed with the Chasidic storytellers of yesteryear that he so often spoke of in class.

Max would have been recognizable as a “rav,” a rabbi or teacher, in any era. His white hair and beard, his glasses, even his pipe which filled his office with a delightful smell. When you came across him at Fabrengen, the D.C. minyan that he helped found, praying with his tallit pulled over his head, it was like looking upon a great sage from ancient times.

But Wiesel and Max didn’t just look like history, they also made history — over and over again — even when silence and acquiescence would have been the easier path.

Like so many others, reading Night was my bar mitzvah into a lifetime of contemplation of the Jewish people’s — and humankind’s — darkest depths. I was lucky enough to take a class with Wiesel during the only semester in his academic career at Boston University when he lectured on his own books. He allowed me to audit the class even though I was a student at George Washington University. I traveled to Boston weekly just for the experience of being his student. In class, the emotions at times were almost too much to bear, but I couldn’t look away for fear of missing a single word.

The day our class discussed Night, Wiesel asked what we felt was the central story in the book. Ultimately, he said, it was the story of a father and son. He said what haunted him every day was thinking what Night would have been like if it has been written from his father’s perspective.

Over my four years at GWU, I took every course Max taught, including Yiddish poetry, modern Hebrew literature, the philosophical implications of the Holocaust and Kafka. Each passage came alive under his tutelage. His love of language was evident and was always accompanied by a wry smile when he knew you had grasped the meaning or implication of the day’s reading, or when his own understanding was challenged or enlightened by a new thought.

Learning about Max’s life was often a puzzle, because he resisted telling his own stories. But the more pieces you learned, the deeper the appreciation became for the opportunity to be in his orbit. Here was someone who served with his beloved Esther in the Haganah (the precursor to the Israel Defense Forces) before the State of Israel existed, who directed the Hillel at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at the University of Chicago during the 1960’s where he led the fight for civil rights and women’s health, and who studied with the great modern Jewish philosophers — Buber, Heschel, Kaplan and so many others.

What will stay with me the most from each of these great men is the incomparable love and openness both of them had for people of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs. No one would have begrudged Wiesel for eschewing close relationships or carrying with him suspicions of non-Jews. Instead, it was obvious that he loved teaching because he loved his students and took pleasure in making connections that made you feel you had a special relationship with him. That such a man did this in a way that didn’t make you feel unworthy to be in his presence is a lesson in humility I will always cherish.

As for Max, our relationship was always more than just the classroom. On the countless afternoons spent talking in his office or, in later years, by phone, his focus was always on the events in my life — my parents, my girlfriend (now my wife), my brother — he wanted to know it all and he remembered it all. Despite his extensive history in the progressive and activist movements, he never betrayed any hint of judgment toward me because I’m a Republican. When I phoned him from Boston and told him I would be moving back to Washington, D.C. to join the Bush Administration, Max’s only concern was how the move would impact my wife and proceeded to rattle off a list of three prominent Republican attorneys in Washington with whom he would make introductions for me.

At my last visit with him this year, when Max was already frail, he asked my son and daughter about what they learned in their new school and what they will be doing during the summer. As we left, and I said a final goodbye, he shook his head and smiled “such beautiful faces … wonderful.”

Like so many others, I treasured both Wiesel and Max. Their absence will leave a deep hole in my consciousness that will likely never be filled. I’m sorry to say that I don’t have a profound revelation about why God called them home on the same weekend. I can only suspect that perhaps, at last, the Great Teacher wanted the opportunity to learn from the very best of humanity. n

Salo Zelermyer lives in Kensington with his wife and four children. He is a partner at the Policy Resolution Group at Bracewell LLP.

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