November 14, 1906 – November 18, 2006
Ze’ev ben Hanoch v’ Ita
One could describe the life of Wolf Leslau in real time—it would take a century to do it, a century and four days, in fact, and one would not have done justice to the task. This was a man who was a giant of the Twentieth Century—a man whose life spanned so many events, and who filled the time of his life with a lifetime of living.
The grinding poverty into which he and his four older siblings were born would be inconceivable to us. The family never had enough food, but his mother would share her meager rations with him, and this, of course, was how he contracted Tuberculosis. Orphaned by the time he was ten, he was raised by his eldest brother, Yaakov, then sixteen, who undertook to raise the family, and provide a quality education for his four younger siblings. Of course, this meant the world of the yeshiva, a place whose stern religious discipline and rigorous academic curriculum provided a far better education than could be had in the generic schools reserved for Polish youth. Not content with the yeshiva curriculum, he expanded the depth and breadth of his knowledge by hiding secular books inside his religious textbooks. He became drawn to HaShomer HaTzair, the leftist, secular young Zionist movement, and consistent with its ideology, combined a strong intellectual thrust with physical prowess, something that would dispel once and for all the notion of the bookish ghetto Jew. This would be the new Jew of the twentieth century—someone fully at home with the richness of Jewish thought and learning, and a powerful athlete as well. At sixteen, he had become a leader in the movement, leading youth groups on hikes, helping others to grow as he had grown. By the time he was eighteen, he had decided to emigrate to Palestine and make his life there, but following his application to the British Embassy in Warsaw, a physical examination discovered that he had scarring on his lungs from his earlier bout with TB, and so that dream quickly vanished.
In the meantime, he had become eligible for the draft, but determined not to serve in the army of a nation that despised and mistreated its Jews, he made his way to Vienna and the intellectual life of a scholar, in the process forfeiting his Polish citizenship and becoming a stateless person. Well, there was more to Vienna as well, for at the university at a New Year’s Eve party, he met a young coed, Charlotte Halpern—she was sixteen and he was nineteen—and they quickly fell madly, passionately in love. In later years, they always celebrated this as their anniversary, a date more significant to them than their actual wedding date. Marriage was not an option at this point, because this would have meant that Charlotte would have lost her Austrian citizenship and become stateless as well, so in good bohemian fashion, in a style to be imitated by others half a century later who had no idea that they were simply replicating the patterns of an earlier age, they lived together in socialist purity. Of course, this did not sit well with Charlotte’s parents, who insisted at the very least on a Jewish ceremony, so this took place in the most private fashion. To be sure, it stunned Uncle Wolf in later years that Sylvia had over one hundred people at her wedding and was able to feed them all, because, as he so often remarked, he and Charlotte had but three: the two of them and the officiant. The wedding repast was a meal that they carried up to their apartment. Indeed, during those student years, the one good meal they had each week was on Friday nights, when they had dinner with our grandparents,--the traditional Shabbat meal. The remainder of their diet was sparse indeed—bread and tea for the most part, sustained often by cashing in bottles to get the few meager coins that formed a significant portion of their income. But they were happy—deliriously happy—they had each other.
In 1930, they emigrated to Paris, continuing their happy life as starving students. I shall venture the thought here that the reality of being a starving student was less romantic than it sounds. He studied at the Sorbonne and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, they saved their pennies and went to the opera when they could, absorbing learning and culture in a fashion that would characterize their lives for ever after. A civil marriage also took place. As he progressed, he began teaching at the Sorbonne, Charlotte earned a living, and in time, they realized that they were no longer impoverished—they could afford to have a child, and so Charlotte became pregnant. I should mention that these were the days when one didn’t have children until one could afford them. About a month before their child was due, the war began, and they had to leave Paris, along with thousands of other civilians fleeing the combat zone. The trip to Poitiers was a three hour journey that required three days because of the congestion on the roads, and when they reached Poitiers, it became apparent that the birth of their child was imminent. Eliane was born in a convent, and ten days later Wolf was seized by the police and interned in a camp for foreigners and stateless persons. Charlotte and Eliane, meanwhile, were living on an estate belonging to Wolf’s professor and mentor, Marcel Cohen.
Because he was a well-educated person, he was made the camp censor, one of several. Because of his brilliance, he was able to allow some things to go through, often by simply crossing out trivia—a definite article here, an indefinite article there, other words of little consequence. In his letters to Charlotte, he intentionally misspelled words. She quickly picked up on the subterfuge, because his spelling was always perfect, and used these as clues to pick up the real content of the coded message. Somehow he was clever enough to pull it off, because the other camp censors were found out and executed.
In time he was released from the camp through the intervention of a U.S. State Department official who was responsible for the release of many intellectuals, and began his odyssey to the United States. His actual departure from the camp was more in the nature of an escape, because he had the feeling that something was in the wind, and two weeks after he left, the camp was taken over by the Germans, who immediately deported the Jews to the death camps. One had to make roll call at the U.S. consulate every week, but this was impossible for Wolf, owing to his internment, so a man named Weiss posed as Wolf Leslau, answering for him as the weekly roll was called. Eventually the visa came through and the family embarked from Marseilles on a Portuguese vessel, the last ship to carry refugees. A stop in North Africa resulted in a case of dysentery, a marvelous way to begin a month-long voyage to America. In addition, although they didn’t realize it at the time, Charlotte was by then pregnant with Sylvia. In June, 1942, they arrived in Brooklyn, where the family—consisting of my grandparents, my mother, myself, Wolf, Charlotte, and Eliane lived in an already small one bedroom apartment. We were reminiscing last night how very small that apartment was, but we were safe in America, and that counted for something.
Wolf began teaching at the New School for Social Research, the Asia Institute for Oriental Studies, night school to learn English—enhanced by listening to the radio, and learning to drive a car—getting his license from—of all places, Sears and Roebuck. In fact, when a driver leaned out the window and yelled at him: “Where did you get your license, at Sears and Roebuck?” Wolf was able to lean his head out the window and shout truthfully “Yes!” Never a particularly skillful driver, he was nonetheless persistent, and managed to get his driver’s license renewed time and again. When he turned 95, he was concerned that he wouldn’t pass the test because he couldn’t back up, so he told the examiner that none of the driving he did required him to put the car in reverse, and he charmed her so much that she renewed his license for another two years. Not bad for a man who got his driver’s license at Sears and Roebuck. Finally, at age 97, he realized that he shouldn’t be driving any longer, so he voluntarily surrendered his license.
In 1946, he made his first trip to Ethiopia, the first of many such trips, where he received an audience with the Emperor, and studied the various languages of Ethiopia as they had never been studied before. The work he did resulted in his being honored at the White House, at a State Dinner at which the Emperor presented him a gold medal as the foreigner who had made the greatest contribution to Ethiopia. In fact, 1965 came to be known in the family as The Year of the Wolf, as accolade after accolade was heaped upon his shoulders.
His academic work continued apace, with a move to Cambridge and a four-year stint at Brandeis University, and finally, the big move to UCLA, where he became the first chairman of the Department of Near Eastern and African Languages. It was here that he finally came into his own. He made many friends outside of the small group of European scholars in exile that had formed his social context up until this point, brought top-notch graduate students and scholars to the department, and achieved worldwide renown for the caliber of his scholarly work. First a member, then president of the American Oriental Society, and then membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, whose members represent the world’s leaders in their respective disciplines.
Outside the classroom, he and Charlotte were noted for their dinner parties, and when the guests had left, not standing on ceremony, he helped clean up. Knowing that new faculty needed help adjusting to the world of a great university, he and Charlotte went to great lengths to help them feel at home, and even assisted them in finding a suitable, reasonably priced place to live.
Following his retirement from the university at age 67, he continued to write and do research in the field of Ethiopian languages, continuing up to the publication of his last book on his 98th birthday. Thereafter, he realized that he was getting older, and could no longer put in the type of effort that had characterized his work for so long. Reluctantly but maturely, he bid farewell to a lifetime of advancing the frontiers of learning, and began to enjoy his old age. He was truly a man of the century. At age 80 he learned to use a computer. He refused to live in the past.
It wasn’t always easy. He loved his home on Fairburn Avenue—a place that he and Charlotte had fixed up time and again until it was just the way they wanted it—and then worked on it some more, but was eventually convinced, much against his will, I might add, that it was time to leave and move to Morningside. It was a good move, and it wasn’t long before he formed some wonderful friendships, this time not at all based on who he had been as the professor, but on who he had become—a wonderful, warm and caring human being. These were genuine friendships, starting with the group known as the Four Man Club. They met daily, took their meals together, and spent their time genuinely caring about each other. Astonishingly, he was the only academic in the group. He formed close friendships with the staff there as well: administrative people, cleaning people, maintenance people—they were all people to him. He respected them and how hard they worked. He took an interest in their personal lives, and continually encouraged them to get more education. Indeed, he went out of his way to consider the financial needs of others, and provided generous and anonymous gifts to them. At Morningside he found himself in an entirely different context than the one he had been accustomed to, but he adjusted quite well. When Sylvia asked him how many Jews were there, he said “About as many as there are democrats.” Of course, he managed to be friends even with those whose political opinions were considerably to the right of his own.
There he settled into a comfortable maturity. Recalling his own experiences in the war, on September 11, he told Sylvia not to be afraid—that things like this always happen in the world, and that somehow the world manages to survive. May his words prove to be prophetic. I think an indication of how he was received at Morningside and at Park Vista can be found in the number of staff who came by to visit during his final illness. Indeed, the other day, Amy, the secretary on duty, told us that she wouldn’t be working the next day, but would come by just to visit him. That was the sort of effect that he had on people. At Park Vista he took what could have been a bad time and turned it into something positive. As he became more dependent upon others, he discovered that people genuinely liked him and enjoyed doing things for him. He mellowed out considerably and learned to enjoy life in a way he hadn’t before.
He had his quirks. Having learned to be frugal in his early years, he came to hate anything that was excessive, whether it was the large portions served in restaurants, or stockpiling things just in case they might be needed. He would ask Sylvia to go to Staples and buy one pencil—not a box. Of course, Sylvia bought the box, and whenever he asked for a pencil, brought him one. Ditto for the IKEA cookies that he liked so much, or the unlined 3-holed paper on which he did his work. Sylvia learned to buy in bulk and to bring him whatever he wanted in the quantities in which he wanted them.
In his youth, as a consequence of his bout with Tuberculosis, he had had to take his temperature throughout the day, and so a thermometer became a regular feature of his life—perhaps the only thing that he owned to excess—he had thermometers all over the place. And he complained about his aches and pains and imagined illnesses. The TB experience defined much of his life in many ways. It was when he didn’t complain and suffered in silence that they knew he was really ill.
Although he hated excess, he loved luxury. Starting with the student days when they would save their pennies for standing room at the opera, to the time they came to America, they never bought anything unless it was the best—never to excess, but always the best. They would rather have fewer “things” but the best of what there was.
He was noted for his punctuality, and for making the best use of all his time. If they were going out, and it was apparent that Charlotte would require another two or three minutes to be ready, he would go to his desk and put in that much work. He could be counted on to arrive on the dot for every appointment. On his 100th birthday, he looked around and asked: “Are the others late?”
For all his brilliance, he was simple and direct, and particularly admired simplicity in language. Whatever needed to be said should be said simply and in the most direct fashion possible, and sentimental language he referred to derisively as “poetry.” I hope I can avoid that here.
His work was his passion—he truly loved what he did, and it sustained him until he was very nearly a centenarian. Once I said to him: “Uncle Wolf, you have two goals in life. First you must do your level best to bankrupt the UCLA pension fund” –to which he laughed and said: “I’m doing my best at that,” and secondly “to ensure that at least once a month a graduate student goes to bed cursing your name because you published first,” to which he responded, “It keeps me young.” When I visited him a few months ago, he said, “I’m slowing down. I’m ninety-nine and half, you know.” To which I responded with feigned surprise: “Really—you don’t look a day over ninety-five,” at which he laughed uproariously, as if it were the funniest thing he had ever heard.
In addition to his academic work, he loved working outdoors in Rhode Island, at the vacation home he had built with his own hands. He loved good clothing and a good party, cardigan sweaters, and especially Charlotte’s cooking. He enjoyed shopping for her and buying her small gifts, and he adored small children. My eldest son, Micah, now 23, first met Uncle Wolf when he was 3 years old, and the meeting affected him so profoundly that he brought Uncle Wolf into the conversation on a regular basis for years after that. When Jonathan came into his room the other day, Uncle Wolf reached out his hand, took Jonathan’s in his own, and caressed it fondly. The two of them had established a relationship years ago, and the affection continued through the years.
His greatest love, of course, was reserved for his family: For Charlotte, with whom he had a relationship that extended for over seven decades, his two daughters, Eliane and Sylvia, and his granddaughters, Lynn and Christine, Lisa and Monique. And he was privileged to revel in the love of his great-grandchildren, Haley and Madison, Lindsey and Alec, and though distance intervened, he was the great grandfather of Jeremiah and Amalia. He had a genuine affection for Janelle and was pleased that she and Elly were happy together. John came into the scene rather late in the game, but he loved him dearly—and not merely because John could always untangle the mess he made of his computer, but because he appreciated John for who he is—as a wonderful man who made Sylvia happy. And Don, he liked you for other things besides your ability to fix his favorite red lamp. Repeatedly. And Mark—You were more to him than the man who did his taxes—much more. In his later years, he came to appreciate Joyce’s friendship and companionship.
I make it a point to stay out of the eulogies I deliver, but in this case the relationship is too close for that. He was the reason I didn’t attend the California branch of HUC—I wanted him to be my uncle, not my professor, and so I moved from California to Cincinnati. The fact is that when I think of the father figure in my life, it is Uncle Wolf who comes to mind, who for all his crustiness was so very dear to me. I don’t think anyone else on this planet could have gotten away with calling him: “Unky Dunky” as I did.
How does a man live to be one hundred years old—one hundred years and four days, in fact? It’s not a statistic, you know. I could talk about his passion for the outdoors, regular and long hikes, but there are really 2 sides to the coin: the first is sheer guts and tenacity. He was a survivor in every sense of the word. And secondly, and most important: he was forward looking. He didn’t believe in living in the past. Wolf Leslau didn’t merely live for one hundred years and four days—he lived every bit of them.
And so we come to the end of the story. A giant has passed from the scene, and we have all been enriched by his presence. He was a man of the finest sense of integrity, who demanded the best of others and of himself, who loved life and the adventures it brought.
Rabbi Eric A. Silver, D.D.