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  • Remembering Amos
  • Steven J. Zipperstein (bio)

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Drawing by Rachel Biale, courtesy of the artist.

Where I recall him best is at his UCLA office, with its metalic bookshelves, his books helter-skelter, many still in boxes, the room gray, with Amos behind the desk scanning the first few pages of a book. Rarely did he seem to get beyond, say, page 13 or 14—and yet by virtue of osmosis, or, perhaps, late, late night reading, or simply the mysterious workings of singular mind (Isaiah Berlin is said to have read in much the same way), Amos absorbed it all. Sitting there, with the hills of Bel-Air behind him enveloped in smog, he would turn to you to talk, sometimes with a look of severity, usually with a playful glint, and the conversation would become, at various points, intimidating, erudite, bizarre, and wonderful.

Never did Amos describe what we were doing together as the preparation for a profession; he would have cringed at the term. What we were there to do was to learn. If we were good enough, we would later teach others, we would write, and, unless we wished to squander our lives away, we would strain ourselves, we would draw on every bit of energy at our disposal to do truly splendid things with our minds and hearts.

“Writers,” wrote Walter Benjamin (and I first heard his name on Amos’s lips), “are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books they could buy but do not like.”

California was then far away—from the vantage point of most scholars interested in Jewish studies, that is. As others saw it, I suppose, UCLA was a distant place with an inexplicably good university Judaica library. Yet it never occurred to us, sitting in Amos’s seminar, that we were anywhere remote, that the real intellectual action was elsewhere.

It was as a new Russian history graduate student at UCLA that I, prompted by my friend David Biale, signed up for a seminar of Amos’s on the medieval biblical exegesis of Ibn Ezra and Nahmanides. Amos [End Page 146] tended to teach much the same texts over the years; I suspect that there are many others who attended essentially the same seminar 10, even 20 years later. The class was held late, and its formal ending time was treated by Amos with much the same casual, regal, Kropotkin-like disdain with which he handled most dispensable formalities: class time bled into nighttime, bleeding into chess time. Amos talked, he smoked, he set up impossible challenges, he embarrassed us, he left us stunned, and we—nearly all of us—fell in love.

In his writings, too, he showed himself a master of conversation—a raconteur of the grand scale for whom written prose, when most effective, resembled talk: confrontational talk, talk that was astonishingly seductive and witty precisely because it was built as an assault on high places. I recall few modern thinkers in Judaism, with the exception of Nahman Krochmal or Gershom Scholem, who were left unscathed. He insisted that we, raw though we were, interrogate them, too. It is said of the young Saul Bellow that even before he achieved prominence he was the only one of his Partisan Review orbit who acted toward Joyce or Faulkner as a peer, as a member of the same literary guild. Amos’s power was made of similar stuff and what distinguished this—as in Bellow’s case—from hubris was an astonishing range and lucidity of mind.

Others have written in this issue of Jewish Social Studies about the content of his thought. It is fair to say that there was an intimate connection here between architecture and substance. In both his prose and his teaching, he would often begin with something familiar, a text that was well known, a cultural moment already seemingly honed to the point of instant, deceptive transparency. What would follow in a seminar was text reading—students, or Amos himself, would recite and translate. If you had not experienced a class with him before, you might...

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pp. 146-149
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