Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Remembering Professor Gerald Shapiro

Today is very bittersweet for me. I was fully of tears of joy earlier today, unable to sleep, being so happy that Gilad Shalit is back with his family after five years and four months in the arms of evil. But I just found out some news that has me almost in a different kind of tears, tears of sadness.

Once upon a time, back in 2006, before Gilad Shalit had even a hinkling that his life was in danger, I was sitting in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Spring semester classroom of Gerald Shapiro, an English professor, taking his Jewish-American Fiction course. It was my last class at UNL, and I was so eager to immerse myself in the life and times of Jews in America writing about their lives. The syllabus was amazing -- Maus I and II, works by Cynthia Ozick, Tova Mirvis, Saul Bellow, Jonathan Safran Foer, and others. I loved every minute of that class, especially because we got to watch movies along with reading some amazing texts that enlightened me on the American-Jewish experience. At that time, during that semester, I was closing up my learning for my Reform conversion, and just before the semester closed, I became a Jew under Reform auspices.

In response to my final paper -- and this is probably why I remember Professor Shapiro so much, why I feel like his impact on me was so great -- he wrote,
"Jewishness, Jewish culture, is a matter of putting pen to paper – you’ve got that down, too. You have what my mother would have called a Yiddishe kupf – a Jewish head. You see the subtleties, the nuances in things. You see the humor that’s enveloped in tragedy, and the tears hidden inside the laughter."
I even blogged about it back in January. This man touched my life, and I don't know that he knew that. And that makes me so sad. He believed in me, as a writer, as a Jew. He believed in me.

I graduated, I moved on, and then, in November 2006 I decided to email Professor Shapiro, who had had such an amazing impact on my Jewishness and my literary interests. We sent a few emails back and forth about suggestions for reading for me based on what I did and didn't like in class -- and he remembered me, "fondly," he said and suggested some things I might enjoy. "Gerry," he signed his emails. At the end of one, he said,
"It's very, very good to hear from you and I hope you'll keep me posted as to your comings and goings."
And I never emailed him again. I feel bad about that. I followed the suggestions he made for me and wound my way around the world of American-Jewish fiction on my own, but now I'm wondering what else he would have suggested for me.

But now, he's gone. Unexpectedly. At the age of 61.

He'd been diagnosed with Hodgkins in his 20s, and I never saw or heard him speak about it when I was in his class or through our emails. He mentioned a back surgery once, but that he was doing well, but that was years ago. I feel horrible for not keeping in touch, but it reminds me how fleeting relationships are, even those with mentors and people we respect to guide us.

If you a chance, pick up a copy of Bad Jews and Other Stories, and let me know what you think.