Twenty years ago today, on August 9, 1998, I delivered this eulogy at the dedication ceremony, or unveiling, of Eugene Zucker, my next-door neighbor growing up and a formative influence on my life. I was, and remain, deeply honored that the Zucker family asked me to deliver these reflections on that profound occasion. It has never been published or appeared anywhere until now.
Growing up next door to the Zuckers, Eugene (or Professor Zucker, as I preferred to call him) was my lifeline to another world. The world I inhabited as a child and as a young man in the Chicago suburb of Skokie in the 1970s and 1980s was light years removed from the one I discovered in Professor Zucker’s study, listening to him talk about his days as a young radical in New York in the heady 1930s and 1940s.
It was in that study that I first learned about Marx and Engels, and about Lenin and Trotsky. It wasn’t through books or documentaries that I came to understand these figures and their ideas and their roles in shaping history. Rather, it was through hearing the first-person accounts of my next-door neighbor, a man who participated in struggles begun by these revolutionaries. Professor Zucker actually knew the leaders of the radical movement and witnessed the historic discussions in which the fate of the movement was decided. He listened as the insurgents of the era debated whether their faction of the Left had the correct interpretation of Lenin’s formulation of this, that, or the other question. As bizarre as it seems to us now — and as bizarre as it seemed to me hearing about it then — Professor Zucker came from a world in which ideas mattered a great deal. It literally felt to the radicals of his time like the future of mankind depended on how you made sense of the world and, given that worldview, how you planned to act on it.
For me as a boy to hear about all this, to listen to his stories, transported me to another cosmos. It connected me to another lifetime, one that seemed so much more interesting, so much more passionate than the one I lived in.
When I got to college and studied Marx, the Russian Revolution, and the McCarthy era, I felt I had a special, intimate kind of knowledge of these subjects. I had access to the experiences of someone who was there, someone who played a role in the obscure history of radicalism in this country. As any teacher — or for that matter any student — knows, nothing brings a subject alive the way a personal story that brings you into the picture can. Professor Zucker’s stories, and his relating of the complicated ideas that inspired the action, were my magic door into the world of history and ideas.
There were certain areas, however, that Professor Zucker preferred not to go into in our discussions. It was from his wife, Sara, that I learned of his skirmishes with McCarthyism, for example. It was she who related to me the horror story of the treatment he received as a result of that mad plague that swept our culture. I was never sure what it was that kept him from sharing those experiences with me — whether it was the scars he carried with him from that dark hour in our nation’s history, or perhaps his humility. He was constantly qualifying everything he said with disclaimers about how he might have been wrong, how his mind was terribly confused, his wits all but shattered — things I found comical, because to me he was a source of tremendous wisdom and worldliness. Maybe he didn’t want anyone’s sympathy, or at least mine.
Later I explored different issues with my professor. He introduced me to the life and ideas of Sigmund Freud and his followers in the psychoanalytic movement. For my graduation from college he gave me the gift of a book about Freud’s personal residence in Vienna, a book mainly of photographs, providing an intimate, inside portrait of how the great thinker lived and worked. This was perfectly in keeping with the intimate, bring-it-all-to-life way in which my neighbor had introduced me to everything he chose to share with me.
Finally, and in certain respects most profoundly of all, both Eugene and Sara provided me with a window into an area that had been both inside me and all around me since the moment of my birth, but which nonetheless remained a mystery to me: Judaica, the historical, cultural, and religious dimensions of the Jewish tradition. I have a Jewish father, but I was raised Catholic, as my mother is Irish. I learned nothing about my Jewish heritage in my home, and picked up only the most immediate, obvious things about Jewish life that one inevitably encounters growing up in the very Jewish community of Skokie. It was through those long conversations with Professor Zucker that I was introduced to the Talmudic tradition, to a sense of what life was like on the shtetl (his parents having come from one). He sent me in the direction of Irving Howe’s classic book World of Our Fathers, which I devoured with fascination (my grandmother, too, came from a shtetl). I even wrote a paper in college about that book. Once again, the fact that Eugene knew Irving Howe personally gave me a powerful connection to that book. It was my neighbor, my professor, who led me to Martin Buber. I never became a religious Jew; I’m not a religious person. But because of this very special relationship with my neighbors — and I speak of both of them — I was able to discover more about my heritage, about myself.
Eugene never liked the title I gave him: Professor. Perhaps because of his self-effacing tendencies; perhaps in part because of the association it evoked of the PhD he came so close to completing but never did. I made a habit of taking teachers, professors, and friends of mine and introducing them to Eugene. I would explain to them, in his presence, that this was my first great mentor, the source of the intellectual and political direction my life had taken. And he would disavow these claims mightily. He couldn’t imagine for the life of him how a little old hermit hidden away in his study, who had little contact with the outside world, could possibly have exerted such an influence on me.
No matter: my next-door neighbor was my professor in the truest sense of the word. Intentionally or not, he taught me more than I could ever have learned through books or purely scholarly inquiry. He took my hand and brought me into a universe other than the one I knew. One that has stayed with me to this day. And that will continue to inspire me and define who I am for the rest of my life.