Professor: Bob Weiner
Chair: Thomas Roy and Lura Forrest Jones Professor of History
Years at Lafayette: 50
Received Chair: 1997
Song: Jewish spiritual “Kol Ha’Olam Kulo”
Connection to Endower
Regarding the endowed chair, I know [the Jones family] has given a great deal of support to Lafayette. There is only one other teaching chair. I was the first, and Rosemary Bukics was the second. I was thrilled when she got hers about seven years after mine was named, but I just know that they are unusually generous in all fields of education at Lafayette. There are Jones faculty lectureships, there are Jones grants for high scholarship, and they endow this teaching situation, which is very bizarre because they didn’t know what to do with me because at the time I got the chair, I hadn’t published a great deal, but I was well known as a special teacher.
Connection to Teaching
I began teaching at Lafayette College at the tender age of 26 in the year 1969. Next year will be 50 years at Lafayette. For many faculty the subject is what they teach. For me, the subject is the students. History is the medium through which I teach. It could just as easily be French literature. And if I were better in languages, it probably would be French literature and not history, but I want to teach a whole human being. I want to teach someone who is not afraid to state their opinions and defend their opinions. I want to teach students who will do good things in society and function as positive citizens. I want to teach and encourage people to reach as high as they can reach and have the character and the self-confidence to do that, but they have the tools. And in this department we are really united on the tools, which include the capacity to think, the capacity to analyze, the capacity to organize, the capacity to write, and the capacity also to speak and to do so, thoughtfully, but unafraid. If you take knocks, as you will sometimes for expressing unpopular ideas, that’s okay too. You grow from it. So I’ve taken plenty of knocks at Lafayette. But it has all ended up more beautifully than I ever could have imagined.
Former President Art Rothkopf wanted to do something consonant with the role I had played at the College, so he made me the first teaching chair. I had developed a powerful style as a lecturer. Probably because of my singing at an early age, leading services in synagogues by age 12 for 80-100 youngsters, I don’t have fears of audiences vocally. I have fear of being criticized for my writing but not fear of being criticized for my speaking. Teaching large groups of people is just a joy for me, and it comes naturally. In 2005 I published a 36-lecture series that also appeared in three little booklets called The Long 19th Century with The Teaching Company. I had won enough teaching awards that they called and asked if they could come to my classroom. They showed up. I went down for an interview and spent two full years preparing the material and then published these cassettes. And they’re still selling, and I’m still answering questions from readers from all over the country and from Britain and from Latin America, which is a joy. A month does not go by that I don’t get an inquiry. and I answer immediately. It’s one of the most enjoyable things—and difficult—that I’ve ever done.
Connection to Song
The song I’ve picked is called “Kol Ha’Olam Kulo—“the whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing to recall is to not be afraid.” It’s a Jewish spiritual song, not used in prayer services, but it can be. It expresses part of my world view and part of what I want to impart in my students also: Life is tough. Anyone who studies modern history knows it’s not a party time, and one period is worse or harder than another in one part of the world or another part of the world, but that is the human condition. That’s something that I also deal with, of course, in my French history courses, the views of [philosophers] Camus and Sarte. I have the students read The Plague about World War II as well. Although culturally and religiously I’m deeply Jewish, I’m also an existentialist in the sense that we’re walking up that hill pushing that ball, and we keep getting pushed down, and we walk back up the hill. So we have to have the courage to face the realities of life. My wife and I lost eight friends this year, including our best and among our best, and you have to make new friends; you have to face each day, you’ve got to get up with a smile, and you’ve got to bring joy and love to everything you do—and passion to cope with life and reality and to be productive. Mario Cuomo would call that tikkun olam, repairing the world, which is a very, very famous liberal Jewish slogan used today, especially for those who don’t believe in traditional ways. Instead of believing, we act.
Connection to Students
It is a joy to watch the quality of the students improve in so many different ways over the last 10 years, 20 years, from almost every possible positive dimension. So teaching is every bit as much a joy today as it was 49 years ago when I began. And that’s probably one of the main reasons why I’ve stayed so long. It’s a privilege to be able to teach these kinds of students in this kind of circumstance that we have. In higher education and in America today where we just have to defend that because it is under attack, and the average person doesn’t realize how much time most faculty put into their work and into their effort.
Connection to Singing in Class
Sometimes I sing in my class. As I’ve gotten older, I care less. So I might sing Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons” because we read [Emile Zola’s] Germinal, which is a mining story in France, strike breakers and human degradation and poverty and depression. Tennessee Ernie Ford sang just about that: “One fist of iron and the other of steel, if the right don’t get you, then the left one will.” And the kids don’t know who Tennessee Erie Ford is anymore!
Connection to Research
My most recent research was done with my dear, dear friend of close to 50 years, [former Lafayette history professor] Richard Sharpless, who co-authored a book on French-Jewish history with me that was published in 2012. It’s a collection of edited interviews of the French-Jewish community of Dijon, which can be a metaphor of the entire French-Jewish community because almost no one is born from Dijon. So they come from Paris, they come from Morocco, they come from Poland, they come from America even, and they end up in Dijon. I took students there for a five-month program abroad in 1993 and in 2000, became a member of the community, and quickly was able to begin interviewing people and returned every single year, sometimes more than once, because I am part of the Jewish community of Dijon. That’s another home for me, and some of the people there are my dearest friends.
So that community—25% of the Jews of France—were killed during World War II and had their citizenship revoked by their own government, and then they had to pick themselves up and start over again. And they were joined by another 250,000 Jews who left or were really forced out of North Africa as the North African countries became independent of French rule, and as Israel had more and more conflict with Palestinians, the Arabs in North Africa sometimes took this out on their own Jewish communities. Life became very dangerous. They then migrated mostly to France, but a couple of hundred thousand as well to Israel. Then they rebuilt and integrated European and North African Jewish communities, in this case Dijon, where they only have one large synagogue. So everybody has to be part of that community whether you were a secular socialist or orthodox. Finally, the Lubavitch folks arrive, and a breakoff takes place around 2000, and so now you have two halves, a divided community facing even greater challenges. The important thing is to get up every day and do the best you can and not to be afraid. Just take it where it goes. I have so many close friends who have gone through hell compared to the beauty of our life in this country. We’ve never had to face, most of us, what these people faced in Europe and North Africa.