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Moshe Lazar (1928-2012)

From: Tenso
Volume 29, Numbers 1-2, Spring-Fall 2014
pp. 225-230 | 10.1353/ten.2014.0008

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Moshe Lazar was truly a man of the world, a tireless opponent of anti-Semitism, a ground-breaking scholar in troubadour studies, in medieval drama and in Ladino linguistics, a crusader for the preservation of Sephardic texts and culture, and a translator of poetry and plays from Spanish and French into Hebrew, and of modern Hebrew poetry into French, including that of Chagall who wrote in both Russian and Yiddish. His lively eclectic curiosity led him into an immense variety of intellectual fields, including original studies of Hell and the Devil, the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, modern French and Spanish drama. He began his life-long interest in drama by studying pantomime with Marcel Marceau in Paris at the end of the World War II; he counted Elie Wiesel and Eugene Ionesco as well as Marc Chagall among his close friends.

Moshe’s colleague William Thalmann, chair of Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California (USC) spoke of his “vibrant presence” and his delight in sharing his knowledge and research with colleagues and students. His colleague Mario Saltarelli called him a “perfect sleuth,” one of whose most intense missions was to collect and preserve as much material as he could about Sephardic Jewish culture; Varun Soni, Dean of Religious Life at USC, said that “his extraordinary life and legacy is an enduring testament to the power of courage, compassion, and wisdom”; his wife Sonia said: “Moshe was one of a kind … intense, passionate, a fighter … I called him my soldier scholar.”

He was born on the fourth of July in Bercu, Romania; as an infant, he moved to Antwerp, Belgium with his family, then after nine years to France in his father’s truck to escape the threatened Blitzkrieg; he and his family were captured in south-west France and held for three years in the Holocaust camp of Rivesaltes, awaiting transfer to Auschwitz, but they managed to escape with the help of the French Resistance; Moshe was concealed for two years in a Catholic school where he was able to talk his way out of training as an electrician in favor of developing his education in languages and culture; he was reunited miraculously with his parents, four brothers and sister after the war. After further studies at the Sorbonne and the University of Salamanca, he emigrated to Israel in 1948 at the age of twenty, where he fought in the War of Independence as a member of the Palmakh, and in two other wars in the Sinai, while studying for a master’s degree in Romance philology and history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; returning to France, he completed a PhD at the Sorbonne in 1957 with his provocative study of “courtly love and fin’amors” in which he showed once and for all that the troubadours were not only singing about idealized Platonic love, but clearly about sex, among other things. He was later to produce critical editions of Bernart de Ventadorn and of the fifteenth-century Occitan play Lo Jutgamen general. Over his lifetime, he established a vast personal library of rare and specialized books, and in recent years he donated over fifteen thousand of them to the University of Southern California Library.

Moshe was a polyglot who read, spoke or wrote in at least a dozen languages. He has published translations from Yiddish, Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, Old French and English into Hebrew, and from Occitan, Old French, Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew and Ladino into French and English.

His most enduring research interests were in the study and preservation of ancient Sephardic texts from medieval Spain, written in Spanish with Hebrew letters, prior to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, and in establishing as his magnum opus the richly documented history of 1800 years of anti-Semitic propaganda in speeches, writings, cartoons and films, a task which had preoccupied him ever since his teenage years of internment in France, and which he intended to publish in a monumental work entitled Satan’s Synagogue: The Dehumanization of Jews.

His teaching career was as innovative and broadly-based as his scholarly research; he began in Israel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; then, at the University...



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