Dec 10, 2020
We at In geveb are deeply saddened by the untimely passing of David Shneer z”l — brilliant scholar, generous mentor, pathbreaking queer activist, and skilled teacher enthusiastic about sharing his love for yiddishkayt.
In honor of David’s shloshim, we are sharing here the tributes and reflections of several who knew him well together with David’s own words from In geveb’s archives. These words join forthcoming tributes from the many Yiddish studies projects David founded, led, and participated in, including the memorial event held virtually on Sunday, December 13th hosted by Yiddishkayt and the Yiddish Book Center, and reflections from his colleagues and students at CU Boulder.
His scholarship was brilliant and far-reaching. His influential work on queer Jewish identity and Soviet Yiddish is cited across In geveb, and his clear and generous writing and commitment to widening scholarly conversations welcomed new generations of students to Yiddish and Jewish Studies. The Berlin-based writer Donna Swarthout writes: “David Shneer’s work is at the center of a course I developed called Jewish in Germany: Migration, Integration and Identity. His article, ‘The third way: German-Russian-European Jewish identity in a global Jewish world’ is essential reading for my students and anyone wishing to understand Jewish life in Germany today. His illumination of a more diverse and open Jewish community with many identities is an extremely important contribution to our understanding of European Jewry.”
David was dedicated to collaboration in all facets of his work. His work on the East German Yiddish singer Lin Jaldati drew him to collaborate with Jaldati’s daughter, Jalda Rebling, who writes, “So often you send your articles about her and her work and I added my comments and ideas. Sometimes we totally disagreed, but this is part of the process. [He] taught me so much about my mom.” David’s former University of Colorado colleague Liora Halperin recalls the “ways he taught me, by example, to navigate disagreements and divisions while not compromising integrity or vision.”
David’s colleague Elias Sacks, Director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, writes:
“The list of David’s scholarly and programmatic accomplishments goes on and on, from the books that he wrote to the Archive Transformed artistic residency that he established to the work that he pursued promoting inclusivity and diversity at CU, the Association for Jewish Studies, and beyond. What I find myself coming back to again and again, though, is less David’s CV, and more the messages that I’ve received about the impact he had as a friend, colleague, and mentor. Faculty at Boulder have expressed their gratitude for how he supported their scholarship, their tenure cases, and the work of their departments. Jewish Studies faculty from across the world have described how much they learned from David’s research, and how much they treasured his presence at academic gatherings. Students have recounted how David inspired not only their intellectual pursuits, but also their commitment to engaged citizenship and activism. Members of the public have shared stories about studying with David in synagogues, lecture halls, and other settings—and about how his energy, passion, and unabashed joy left an indelible impression.
“This outpouring is a testament to who David was. In an academic world that often prizes solitary study, David lived a life committed to relationship-building. His scholarship, teaching, and activism were animated not only by his love of learning, but also by his belief that the most important forms of learning involve connections with others. For David, intellectual activity was, fundamentally, a communal endeavor, and the communities he helped create have been transformative.”
His artistic collaborator Jewlia Eisenberg writes:
“Woke up this morning with a question for David about [the Russian poet] Sophia Parnok. Wept until my head hurt when I realized I could not text him, could never again sing with him. It’s a fucking vale of misery and it’s not gonna change.
“Let everyone else praise his brilliant scholarship, his pathbreaking books, his value as a colleague and mentor, his kindness and generosity on every level. I praise his full throated singing! I praise his dry, warm, and occasionally barbed sense of humor! I praise that he called people (me) on their (my) bullshit and asked hard necessary questions! I praise his willingness to lounge drinking tea listening to version after version of the United Front Song—then his ability to quickly transform into the hottest date possible with whom to attend the symphony! I praise his explosion of the archive and his belief (backed up by his meticulous research) that art can make change! I praise his jubilant queerness, his aesthetic queerness, his family-man queerness, and his joy in learning queerly. I praise that he was at the top of his game and pushed himself to be expressive, to be creative, to be exposed! I praise that he fervently believed in anti-fascist music, WAKE UP, PEOPLE, ITS NOT FUCKING OVER! I miss you David I miss you David I miss you David I miss you David I miss you David. Nothing compares to you.
“Di reder dreyen zikh, di yorn geyen zikh,
un eylent bin ikh vi a shteyn.”
We invite you to read David’s own words we’ve been lucky enough to publish. You can find him speaking movingly together with Jewlia Eisenberg about their joint musical and scholarly project on the singer Lin Jaldati.
It’s no surprise that David contributed more than once to In geveb as a sensitive and thoughtful interviewer himself, amplifying others’ work on the Bais Yaakov project and a dance project based on Yiddish sound archives.
Those lucky enough to know David as a mentor remember a remarkable and generous teacher.
Sonia Gollance, a scholar of Yiddish and German Jewish literature, dance, and theater, writes: “David Shneer z“l was one of the first people to teach me about Yiddish literature, to encourage me to envision Yiddish literature as a field encompassing more ‘marginal’ voices, and to talk with me about my possible academic path. What a terrible loss.”
David’s former doctoral student Nick Underwood writes:
“In 2015, I decided it was a good idea to nominate David for an American Historical Association’s Nancy Lyman Roelker Mentorship Award. That was the effect he had on me and how much I respected and appreciated everything he did. I wanted to pay him back by getting him noticed in this way.
David empowered people. And I was one of those people. Like many in graduate school, I suffered from imposter syndrome. He guided me through it though. In my first year, we sat down and made our first five-year plan (he was a Soviet historian after all. And, if you are wondering, no, we never did it in four). Every summer after, we met to go over it. We would outline what classes I would take, what grants I would apply for, and what conferences I would attend. He would then compel me to think about how to turn that conference presentation into a publication. He pushed me to think about how everything I did built from one year to another (he was a builder intellectually and programmatically) and how all of my activities ought to be tied together somehow. This helped me gain confidence, and he started to make me feel as if I belonged and that just maybe, I wasn’t an imposter. He showed me how one could chart their own path, even if it was not clear how that path would reveal itself.
“After I finished my PhD, David continued to give guidance, both professionally and personally. We went to him so often, and he was always so clear and thoughtful in his guidance that we now approach decisions by asking: What would David do?
“For David, and for me now, everything was and is part of a whole, and that gave me the confidence to construct my professional and personal life in this way. I never told him this, but he made me feel like I belonged in this field. At first, I didn’t. Who was I to be in a PhD program? Especially since I was pursuing a field where, to some, background matters. David made me feel as if I belonged, and now this half-Panamanian, son of an Iowa farmer, first generation college grad, non-Jew holds an endowed Chair in Judaic Studies. David did that. We did that. Now that I think of it, I don’t remember telling him I orchestrated a nomination for the Roelker Mentorship Award (he wasn’t awarded it). I should have mentioned it. I wish I had. But that’s ok. I have a lot to build upon. David gave me so much. He was a true friend, colleague, and mentor. He will continue to guide me, too. All I need to do is ask: WWDD?”
His former University of Colorado colleague Sasha Senderovich writes:
“David Shneer z“l created an enormous amount of opportunities for other people to explore their intellectual interests. David approached these with an ingenious skill of his to help other people imagine how such interests could shape up even before they themselves knew how, or even whether, to pursue such projects. He also—and this is just as important—showed how to let some of these opportunities, once established, not be dependent on his person. The latter is a nearly unique quality among scholars, who more commonly get caught up in their own self-importance. David the mensch was the opposite of that; now that he is gone, it’s this skill of his that can begin the process for some of us of learning to live without him.
“During my time teaching at the University of Colorado Boulder between 2013 and 2017, where David was the founding director of the Program in Jewish Studies, which placed Boulder on the map of Jewish Studies in a significant way, I witnessed two such projects take shape.
“One was the creation of the Archive of Post-Holocaust American Judaism, centering on the project of collecting materials of persons and organizations that, in their time and, some, still, were considered “counter-cultural.” David envisioned that these collections and the scholarship emerging from them would eventually help make that word “counter” in “counter-cultural” moot. The work of these persons and organizations, David believed, was post-war American Jewish culture, thought, and activism. The archive runs a biannual set of public events on Embodied Judaism to make the archive’s work and collections known to broader audiences, involving numerous other scholars, artists, activists (Rabbi Arthur Waskow in one case), and community leaders from around the country (Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, the founder of Renewal Judaism, in another).
“David also created Archive Transformed, a program that brought pairs of scholars and artists to Boulder, for a weeklong “incubation” residency, in which each pair would work on an archive, broadly conceived, and figure out ways to perform or otherwise make the archive accessible to the public. David’s own work with the singer and performer Jewlia Eisenberg, on performing an archive of antifascist Yiddish songs, was the sort of project he imagined others could be encouraged to do, effectively creating a pathway for scholars and artists to imagine a public that stands to benefit from such work.
“May David’s memory be for a revolution—including in how scholarly work, when conducted with the kind of intellectual generosity of others’ ideas that David modeled, can be approached to benefit a number of larger publics.”