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The Sol Decades

Introduction: A Man for All Subjects

I have known Sol Gittleman ever since he arrived at Tufts in 1964, a kid of thirty. Though he taught in the Department of German, he was a frequent visitor to the Department of English, where we often chatted and exchanged jokes. I told better jokes than he did, but that’s because all of my jokes are lifted from Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, and Sol is bold enough to range further. Now, in my retirement, I hear from him almost daily by email and telephone—jokes, of course, but also news and bibliographic suggestions of things that I must read.

Sol’s courses are legendary, and not just because his lectures are highly entertaining. A course with Sol is, well, it is a course with Sol—and it always covers more than its title would suggest. Students who enroll in History 122, America and the National Pastime, find themselves talking, writing, and seriously thinking not only about particular ball players and games but about urbanization, immigration, segregation, the rise of labor, entrepreneurial capitalism, crime, and corruption.

His interests are remarkably broad. He not only taught in the German department but was a professor of Judaic studies and of biblical literature before being appointed the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor. (And let us not forget that he served as Tufts’ provost from 1981 to 2002.) Sol’s encyclopedic knowledge is merely hinted at in his five books, which range from German Expressionism to Yiddish literature to the 1950s’ New York Yankees.

Everybody at Tufts knows Sol. And Sol appears to know everyone at Tufts, even if sometimes he sort of fakes it.

Once, he came into my office while I was speaking with a student, who had a thick textbook on her lap. “Hi, Jane,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, “you know each other?”

“No,” he said, “we have never met, but take a look at her book,” and there, on the edges of the pages, written with a felt pen, in large letters, was “Jane.” Sol is not one to lose an opportunity.

And for Sol, every course is an opportunity for a book, and every book is an opportunity for a terrific course. His course on German Expressionism drew some 250 students, filling Cohen Auditorium—not, surely, because German Expressionism was a hot topic, but because of who was teaching it. If you build a ball field, they will come. Especially if Professor Gittleman is pitching.

Sol Gittleman, fifty years at Tufts! In case you hadn’t heard, he passed another milestone on June 5. I am sure you will join me in wishing him not just a happy Tufts anniversary but a happy eightieth birthday as well.

My Fifty-Year Journey

One week and two cocktail parties after our arrival in South Hadley, Massachusetts, Robyn and I knew this was not the right place for us: too quiet, too few colleagues, no town, hardly any stores in the village center. The University of Michigan, where I had just finished my doctorate, had been a hotbed for the new campus spirit that was beginning to examine civil rights, American military involvement around the world, and students’ involvement in their academic lives. A young activist named Tom Hayden had formed the Students for a Democratic Society—the SDS—in Ann Arbor in 1962. But there was nothing stirring in South Hadley Center. On the Mount Holyoke campus, the junior class was responsible for the Wednesday ritual of coffee for the faculty: skirts required, no slacks. When a letter arrived from Tufts asking if I could come in 1964 to Medford, just outside of Boston, as an assistant professor of German, we jumped at it, and soon were moving into an eighty-dollar-a-month six-room apartment on Curtis Street.

It didn’t take long to realize that I had found exactly the right place for me. Within two years, a wonderful man, Dean Charles Stearns, made me chair of the combined Department of German and Russian, promoted me, gave me tenure, and got out of the way. I was thirty-two years old and in charge of a department that desperately needed enrollment bodies. Michigan and Mount Holyoke had given me a chance to practice my craft as a teacher of language and literature in the major. But I always had an itch to teach German culture and civilization in English to nonmajors—particularly, the coming to power of Adolf Hitler and the great artistic explosion of German Expressionism that preceded him.

The library, which had no film collection, was puzzled when I requested that Tufts purchase some German silent movies—The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the Dracula film Nosferatu, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis—and three early talkies: Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda documentary Triumph of the Will, Marlene Dietrich’s star turn in The Blue Angel, and the child-murder film noir titled M. In the 1960s these films had only recently become commercially available in 16 mm; they were cheap, and it seemed the right time for Tufts to start a film collection. Besides, they were my favorites, and I only ordered movies I liked.

German Expressionism in its European Context, German 89, was something new on campus: a general education offering with no prerequisites in a language department, open to anyone with a pulse. When students started coming in large numbers, I added Major German Writers, German 88, to the offerings, and engineering students, pre-meds, and majors in every other discipline had the opportunity to read Kafka, Mann, Freud, and Hesse in English. This is what I always wanted: to break down the walls of departments and majors, to reach out with great literature and important history to anyone who was interested. Tufts students who had never seen a silent movie were stunned by the shocking black-and-white images of Riefenstahl’s Nazi triumphalism.

The mid-1960s was the right time for me to teach courses in revolution. By September of 1964, U.S. colleges were beginning to awaken. There had been race riots that summer in Rochester, Philadelphia, and New York City; in Mississippi, three voter registration workers were murdered by a local mob organized by county law enforcement officials. President Johnson had that summer signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act (see “A Win for Civil Rights”): the country was ready to explode.

Tufts, however, was slow to rouse. At a typical faculty meeting, one would be hard pressed to find a face that wasn’t white and didn’t require a regular shave (there had been little response on campus to an angry book, The Feminine Mystique, written the previous year by one Betty Friedan, who called herself a feminist, whatever that meant). The history department had just hired its first non-Protestant faculty member—George Marcopoulos, who was Greek Orthodox—the year before we arrived. The freshmen wore beanies, fraternities engaged in hazing, the sexes separated at ten p.m., the dean of women had removed all Coke machines from women’s residences because she said it was bad for their teeth, and the dean of men suspended a student in September 1964 for urinating behind a bush on campus. In the outer world, President Lyndon Johnson, in spite of increased American military involvement in Vietnam, overwhelmed the conservative Republican candidate Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. He seemed unbeatable.

Four years later, dissent over the war in Southeast Asia forced Johnson to announce that he would not run for reelection. With more students seeking draft deferments, campuses erupted in riots, building occupations, and protests against college administrators. Tufts didn’t escape. Our students protested against all-white construction unions building dorms, the war in Vietnam, and rules restricting their freedom. Sometimes the search for freedom got out of hand, as it did in March 1970 when police raided the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity on campus and arrested twelve students for manufacturing LSD. In May of that year four students at Ohio’s Kent State were shot to death by National Guardsmen. The Tufts commencement was cancelled.

Yet from all of this chaos came change and innovation at Tufts. In the few months before our arrival, I had been asked if I could teach a comparative literature course in some new concept called the Experimental College, created in 1964 by the outgoing president, Nils Wessell, to try out novel ideas in education. Three of us designed a team-taught course, European Literature of the Absurd, and the Ex College was on its way (see “The Joy of Ex”). During the days of rage on American campuses, the Ex College provided a safety valve to let off student steam, allowing Tufts to come through with fewer scars.

In the early 1970s, my teaching got personal. As my parents grew older, I wanted to know more about their lives, how they came to America just after World War I, what things were like in the old country. I needed to connect more with my past. My mother came from Poland (she thought—it might have been the Austro-Hungarian Empire). She couldn’t read or write English until her later years. My father was born in Ukraine. Both spoke only Yiddish when they met as teenagers on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

I begged my father to teach me Yiddish, and whenever we got together, either in New Jersey or in Medford, he would read to me from the Yiddish newspaper and talk about the stories of Sholom Aleichem. I had been reading American writers who happened to be Jews—Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Tilly Olsen, Philip Roth—and all of this Yiddish and American literature seemed to come together in my mind. I took my first sabbatical and second Fulbright leave in 1970. Our family spent the year in Tübingen, where I taught an American Studies course on the Jewish-American novel. When we returned to Tufts, in 1971, I was ready to teach An Introduction to Yiddish Culture for the first time—ready to connect to my family, and to connect my students to theirs. I haven’t stopped since.

I was lucky to find a university where I could teach whatever I wanted. There was a flexibility and an ease, a lack of territoriality that let individual faculty members go where they wanted to, and let entire departments spread their wings. We could teach mini-courses. I always loved Humphrey Bogart’s Warner Brothers World War II epics and put together with cheap rentals a series called Humphrey Bogart Goes to War, where hundreds of Tufts students saw Casablanca for the first time. The rentals had to be cheap, because we were a somewhat impoverished institution, without resources or fundraising.

Tufts needed a visionary leader—and we found one, by accident. When Jean Mayer took over in 1976, it was only because the two candidates ahead of him had turned down the job. By 1991, when Mayer left, Tufts had been transformed. John DiBiaggio maintained the momentum, and in 2001 handed the university to Larry Bacow, who flourished as president for ten years, before turning the institution over to Tony Monaco: four presidents had overseen a metamorphosis.

After an unexpected twenty-one years as provost under three Tufts presidents, I had the opportunity to have one last fling at another passion that might find expression in my teaching: baseball. Beginning in 2002, first in the English department for first-year students and then in History as a senior seminar, I taught a course titled America and the National Pastime and fulfilled my final dream.

Fifty years ago and now? It’s different, and yet the same. I received tenure in 1966 when a single dean figuratively put his hands on my head and said poof! you have tenure. There was no peer review, no publication requirement, no comparison against faculty elsewhere. Today we have tenure committees and outside evaluators. I’m an oddity, in that I wrote my five books—one on German literature, two on Yiddish culture, one about Tufts from my administrative experience, and one about my ultimate love, baseball—after receiving tenure.

At Tufts today, research has grown far more important, and we have more graduate students. Compared with the old days, senior faculty teach much less.

Deep down we’ve never lost our purpose or our mission: to teach and, if possible, to make wiser those whom we teach. It was true fifty years ago, and it is true now. The college on the Hill prevails.

Yet we have changed. We are a multi-ethnic community that bears little physical resemblance to the Tufts student body or faculty of 1964. Walk around campus and listen to the languages spoken; look at the faces: Tufts has joined the global community, and for that we are a better place to live, learn—and go to the movies. Right now there is a committee searching for Tufts’ first authentic film scholar, who will be in a chair named for me. That’s a delightful journey from the days of Caligari.

Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, has been a professor of German, Judaic studies, and biblical literature and is a former provost of the university.

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