You’d notice Marshall Berman, if you saw him. Back when I commuted to the City College of New York from my parents’ apartment in the late 1960s, my father certainly did. He rushed into our apartment to excitedly report that “a hippie” was entering our next-door neighbor’s place, a colleague of Berman’s at CCNY.
Berman drew stares not least because of his unruly Jew-fro, which he sported to the day he died, Sept. 11, at breakfast with a friend at Manhattan’s Metro Diner, an Upper West Side eatery he loved.
Berman, a prolific educator, philosopher, cultural critic and political scientist in the Marxist tradition, became my honors mentor at CCNY. I just saw him last week at the Rosh Hashana services of Ansche Chesed, down the block from the Metro, alongside his wife, Shellie. My experience of him was not great as a mentor, and I didn’t always agree with his views or fully grasp his more theoretical writings on culture, but he was a great intellect.
His doctorate was in political science, but his breadth of intellectual interests and knowledge was remarkable. I recall him first making his mark with front-page New York Times Book Review articles on works by the anti-psychiatry psychiatrist R.D. Laing and the symbolic-interactionist sociologist Erving Goffman.
In 1975, also in a front-page Book Review article, Berman took Eric Erikson to task for hiding his Jewish identity. Although never a Jewish chauvinist, and only a casual shul goer, Berman was a long-time member of Congregation Ansche Chesed, a venerable Upper West Side congregation where he occasionally was featured as a speaker.
I enthusiastically reviewed his “Adventures In Marxism” (1999), publishing three different versions in various publications. Berman charmingly made the case for Karl Marx as a humanistic thinker (as had Erich Fromm and Karl Pappenheim), before the Leninists and Stalinists made him into an icon to fortify their tyrannies. Berman regarded his father, who died of a heart attack at 48, as an early victim of capitalist globalization, because a Japanese firm undersold his parents’ small garment industry business, and contractually compelled his erstwhile friends and colleagues to cut him out.
Berman was one of Ric Burns’ talking heads in his documentary series “New York,” in which Berman spoke while literally laid back on a sofa — an amusing contrast to the starched upright posture of traditional onscreen authorities. But the reason was sobering. Berman was beginning to be plagued by the back trouble that increasingly bent him over and aged him rapidly in his final years. When I greeted him on the street after seeing the PBS broadcast, he told me that urbanology was his first interest. Berman’s 1982 work, “All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity,” includes an account of the catastrophic decline of his native Bronx in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
I was working at the City College Fund around 1980, when I was horrified to learn that his first wife had grabbed their young son and jumped out the window of their Upper West Side apartment together. The boy died, she did not.
He has had two sons since, Elijah with his second wife, novelist Meredith Tax, and Danny with his current wife and widow, Shellie Sclan.
Through all these years, my most vivid image of Marshall is one of my earliest. It was Marshall, again during one of his visits to the neighbor in my parents’ apartment building, strolling down the hall as I spied him though a peephole in our apartment door. About 30 then, he walked down the corridor toward our neighbor, swinging his arms apart and humming something, seeming for all the world like a defrocked chasid singing a niggun.
And then there’s the “Marxist” red tee-shirt he wore when doing a book talk on “Adventures in Marxism,” featuring Karl alongside the Marx brothers. Marshall Berman would definitely agree with Emma Goldman, who famously quipped, “If there won’t be dancing at the revolution, I’m not coming.”