• Herbert Paper, renowned linguist, Yiddishist, and university professor, dies at 87

    February 2nd, 2012 | Section: Local News

    Professor Herbert Paper

    Professor Herbert Paper (January 11, 1925 – January 23, 2012) was among the first people to teach university level Yiddish courses in the United States and had to create course materials for his students at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he specialized in Near Eastern languages. During his 24-year tenure there, he also played an instrumental role in founding their Jewish Studies program.

    In 1977, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati, Ohio, hired Paper as dean of Graduate Studies. He taught there for 22 years, helping to build HUC-JIR’s reputation in linguistics, introducing languages that had not been taught there before, including Yiddish, Sanskrit and modern Farsi. He served as editor of the Hebrew Union College Annual and as an early president of the Association of Judaic Studies, which he was instrumental in founding. He was a major influence on many students who went on to hold influential posts in the rabbinate, scholarly and secular world.

    Paper was the eldest child of Rose Greenberg and Sol Paper, both of whom emigrated as young people from Ostrava-Lubelsk, located on the Polish-Russian border, to the United States, where they re-met on the streets of New York City and married. A first generation American born in Baltimore, Paper was a native English and Yiddish speaker. A lifelong Zionist, Paper’s commitment to Israel began as a child attending Camp Gordonia (later renamed Habonim Dror Camp Moshava), then located in Annapolis, Md. Pape first studied Hebrew as a child at the Baltimore Yeshiva. His lifelong love for languages increased as he studied Latin and Greek at Baltimore’s City College High School. The family moved to Denver, Colo., in 1939, where he graduated from North High School. At the age of 15, he began college at Yeshiva University in New York and later transferred to the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he received his B.A. in Classics in 1943. On the day of his college graduation, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, trained in horsemanship and then sent for intensive Chinese language training at the University of California, Berkley. He served as a member of the mounted U.S. Cavalry and then the Finance Corps in Calcutta, India, at the end of World War II. He then received his Ph.D. from the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago in 1952.

    In 1948, he married his childhood sweetheart, Bess Brandwein. In 1952, he went to Iran on a post-doctoral Fulbright Scholarship to translate texts written in the ancient Babylonian language of Elamite into English and Hebrew. While there, he learned modern Farsi, the study of which would become one of the cornerstones of his life’s work. He also discovered Judeo-Persian text, which is Farsi written in the Hebrew alphabet. Paper explained that the unusual phenomenon developed because “for hundreds of years, Jews in Iran could only read and write in Hebrew characters.” Persian Studies became a major focus of his career, which also included work on the history of the Persian language and ancient languages of Iran, as well as on Yiddish literature.

    Of his many publications, he cited his work on a Judeo-Persian manuscript of the Pentateuch from 1319, which now resides in the British Museum in London, as the most memorable. His 125-page edition of the document was published in Israel, where he and his family lived from 1968 to 1969 and from 1976 to 1977 while he was teaching at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His daughter married an Israeli citizen, Yisrael Teretz, and moved to Kibbutz Mevo Chama, where Paper and his wife spent every summer for over 20 years.

    Over the course of his career, Paper made significant contributions to the resurgence of interest in once-declining languages, especially Yiddish. He marveled at the phenomenon that “the language once passed down verbally is now being studied at universities by people who did not learn it at home, and even by non-Jews, who are interested in it for its inherent literary and historic value.” He was proud to have been integral in the rebirth of “an aspect of Judaic studies that used to be neglected.”

    Paper and his wife Bess were early leaders in the movement to free Soviet Jewry. Paper traveled to Moscow in 1960 to meet with dissidents and played a crucial role in helping Professor Michal Zand and his family immigrate to Israel.

    Paper lectured in both Yiddish and English, presenting papers and generating public interest in Jewish languages. His topics included “The History of Yiddish Literature,” “The Languages of the Jews Throughout History” and “Sholem Aleichem as a Social Critic.” He retired in 1999.  He remained an active force in the Jewish community and did the daily New York Times crossword puzzle in pen until he died of complications from a heart attack.

    He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Bess Brandwein Paper; his daughter Susan (Yisrael) Teretz, a teacher in Israel; his son James (Victoria Krouslis), a stockbroker in New York City; his sister Esther (Norman) Paper Gelman, of Potomac, Md.; and his grandchildren, Danny (Noa Pearl), Uri (Inbal Melamed), Tamar, and Asaf Teretz of Israel and Hanna Paper of Texas as well as two great-grandchildren.

    The family requests that donations in his memory be made to Hadassah, Hebrew Union College or Cedar Village Hospice in Cincinnati.

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