Posted in Obituaries

Moshe Perlmann, 1905-2001

Moshe Perlmann, 1905-2001 Posted on October 24, 2001

By Joel Perlmann


Moshe Perlmann, who was the oldest living Fellow of the Academy, passed away on September 7, 2001. He left his son Joel, a research professor at Bard College; his daughter-in-law Rivka; and two grandchildren, Noam and Maya.

He was born in Odessa in 1905. The family spent a few years in Budapest and returned to Odessa at the outbreak of World War I. Moshe studied at the University of Odessa but–fortunately for him and for us–he was arrested for Jewish socialist activity and expelled from the country in 1924. Forty-nine years passed before he was able to return and visit with his remaining siblings and an aunt. His first-hand taste of Soviet communism helped form his outlook on life and the world.

He lived in Palestine from 1924 to 1937 and studied Arabic and Islamics at the Hebrew University. There too he found an unpopular social issue with which to identify. He belonged to a group that tried to open membership in the Histadrut labor movement to Arab workers, and Ben Gurion himself had the handful of dissidents stricken from Mapai rolls. For whatever reason, he left Palestine and did his PhD. at the University of London. The degree read “Islamic History,” although the dissertation and Moshe’s interests lay in the areas of language and literature, and Tritton, the man with whom he studied, was by no means a historian. After a little hesitation, Moshe once explained to the present writer that had he chosen, he could have had the degree read “Arabic,” but conscience had prevented him from doing so. No one, after all, can master the Arabic language, and who therefore was he to make such a claim?

He came to the United States in 1940, where he married Ida Brenner, whom he had known from his years in Palestine. His fondness for his “Idie,” as he called her, and her fondness for him, were palpable. From 1941-1955, he taught at Herzelia in New York and during some of those years also had part-time appointments at the New School and Dropsie College. From 1955 until 1961, he held the position of Lecturer in Israeli studies at Harvard. In 1961 he was appointed Professor of Arabic at the University of California, Los Angeles and he retired in 1973.

Of the languages he spoke, Hebrew was his favorite, and his Hebrew was pure and elegant. One of his close relatives tells that during a visit in the final weeks he asked Moshe whether he needed pain medication. The questioner slipped and employed a masculine adjective with a feminine noun. Moshe, in his barely audible reply, ignored the question itself and corrected the gender of the adjective. He certainly was not oblivious to pain; Hebrew gender agreement nevertheless took priority. Although uncompromising in principles, he was gentle and indeed passive in his person. He was not, as will have been gathered, the most practical human being. He was entirely free of pretense, pretentiousness, hypocrisy, cant, and any synonym of those words that one can think of. It was as if he had once studied a self-help book on the ten ways to further oneself in the modern world–and thenceforth scrupulously avoided every piece of advice in book. He was a secular person. Yet he would read the Pentateuch through the year. And the only occasion in which the present writer can recall his explicitly criticizing someone by name–ordinarily he would at most show disapproval by frowning, turning his head to the side, and making a dismissive downward gesture with his hand–was when a Jewish member of the UCLA community with an Israeli background organized a conference of some sort on Yom Kippur.

He obviously was a man of rare character.

He was profoundly cynical about humankind–but how could anyone who witnessed the events of the twentieth century be so insensitive as not to be cynical? He was inveterately suspicious of any and all ideologies. And he stood in dread of fanaticism in any guise, whether secular or religious. Just four days after his death, the United States was sickened to see that what religious fanaticism has long been doing in far-off lands could also be done on American soil.

The heart of his scholarly interests was Islamic-Jewish-Christian polemics, and he gave the scholarly world critical editions and translations of three significant Arabic texts. The first of them is an attack on the Jewish religion by a twelfth century Jewish convert to Islam, Samau’al al-Maghribi–whom Moshe sometimes affectionately called his “meshummad.” The second is a dispassionate account of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, by the thirteenth century Jewish polymath, Ibn Kammuna. In his introduction to the text and again in his introduction to the translation, which was published in a separate volume, Moshe quotes an anecdote from a medieval Arabic historian. The historian relates that a few years after Ibn Kammuna finished the book, he barely escaped with the skin of his teeth from a Muslim mob that wanted to tear him to pieces for having insulted the Islamic faith by treating Islam in a dispassionate tone; it is noteworthy that the grand qadi of Baghdad connived at Ibn Kammuna’s escape. The third text is a work by Ahmad al-Damanhuri, an eighteenth century Islamic cleric, who proved conclusively from Islamic legal sources that all the Christian churches of Cairo had to be destroyed. The thread that Moshe saw connecting the three texts is plain. He openly expresses admiration for Ibn Kammuna and contempt for the other two, yet he draws no further lesson. The texts are allowed to speak for themselves, and readers are left to draw whatever moral they can.

His scholarly interests extended to other areas as well. He translated volume four of Tabari’s history and published a good number of articles and reviews in the areas of Arabic, Islamics, and Jewish Studies. His wariness about big ideas in human affairs carried over into his scholarship, and he invariably focused on facts and small points, while eschewing overriding theories. He would particularly seek out what he loved to call the “piquant.” A number of his articles deal with Russian-Jewish periodic literature, and he had a particular interest in the writer and publicist Lev Levanda. Writing on Russian Jewish publicists was not the surest path for advancing one’s career as a Professor of Arabic in twentieth century American academia. Considerations of the sort were naturally no disincentive for him.

In a time of much meretricious gold plating, Moshe Perlmann was pure platinum, and it was a privilege to know him.

Tehi nishmato serura bi-seror ha-hayyim.