My 50-Year Journey

Sol Gittleman describes how his life—and the university’s—have changed since the early sixties

two photos of Sol Gittleman

One week and two cocktail parties after our arrival in South Hadley, Massachusetts, Robyn and I knew this was not the right place for us: too quiet, too few colleagues, no town, hardly any stores in the village center.

The University of Michigan, where I had just finished my doctorate, had been a hotbed for the new campus spirit that was beginning to examine civil rights, American military involvement around the world and students’ involvement in their academic lives. A young activist named Tom Hayden had formed the Students for a Democratic Society—the SDS—in Ann Arbor in 1962. But there was nothing stirring in South Hadley Center.

On the Mount Holyoke campus, the junior class was responsible for the Wednesday ritual of coffee for the faculty: skirts required, no slacks. When a letter arrived from Tufts asking if I could come in 1964 to Medford, just outside of Boston, as an assistant professor of German, we jumped at it, and soon were moving into an $80-a-month six-room apartment on Curtis Street.

It didn’t take long to realize that I had found exactly the right place for me. Within two years, a wonderful man, Dean Charles Stearns, made me chair of the combined Department of German and Russian, promoted me, gave me tenure and got out of the way. I was 32 years old and in charge of a department that desperately needed enrollment bodies.

Michigan and Mount Holyoke had given me a chance to practice my craft as a teacher of language and literature in the major. But I always had an itch to teach German culture and civilization in English to non-majors—particularly, the coming to power of Adolf Hitler and the great artistic explosion of German Expressionism that preceded him.

The library, which had no film collection, was puzzled when I requested that Tufts purchase some German silent movies—The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the Dracula film Nosferatu, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis—and three early talkies: Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda documentary Triumph of the Will, Marlene Dietrich’s star turn in The Blue Angel and the child-murder film noir titled M. In the 1960s these films had only recently become commercially available in 16 mm; they were cheap, and it seemed the right time for Tufts to start a film collection. Besides, they were my favorites, and I only ordered movies I liked.

German Expressionism in its European Context, German 89, was something new on campus: a general education offering with no prerequisites in a language department, open to anyone with a pulse. When students started coming in large numbers, I added Major German Writers, German 88, to the offerings, and engineering students, pre-meds and majors in every other discipline had the opportunity to read Kafka, Mann, Freud and Hesse in English.

This is what I always wanted: to break down the walls of departments and majors, to reach out with great literature and important history to anyone who was interested. Tufts students who had never seen a silent movie were stunned by the shocking black-and-white images of Riefenstahl’s Nazi triumphalism.

Talking About a Revolution

The mid-1960s was the right time for me to teach courses in revolution. By September of 1964, U.S. colleges were beginning to awaken. There had been race riots that summer in Rochester, Philadelphia and New York City; in Mississippi, three voter registration workers had been murdered by a local mob organized by county law enforcement officials. President Johnson had that summer signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act (see “A Win for Civil Rights”): the country was ready to explode.

Tufts, however, was slow to rouse. At a typical faculty meeting, one would be hard pressed to find a face that wasn’t white and didn’t require a regular shave (there had been little response on campus to an angry book, The Feminine Mystique, written the previous year by one Betty Friedan, who called herself a feminist, whatever that meant).

The history department had just hired its first non-Protestant faculty member—George Marcopoulos, who was Greek Orthodox—the year before we arrived. The freshmen wore beanies, fraternities engaged in hazing, the sexes separated at 10 p.m., the dean of women had removed all Coke machines from women’s residences because she said it was bad for their teeth, and the dean of men suspended a student in September 1964 for urinating behind a bush on campus. In the outer world, President Lyndon Johnson, in spite of increased American military involvement in Vietnam, overwhelmed the conservative Republican candidate Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. He seemed unbeatable.

Four years later, dissent over the war in Southeast Asia forced Johnson to announce that he would not run for reelection. With more students seeking draft deferments, campuses erupted in riots, building occupations and protests against college administrators. Tufts didn’t escape. Our students protested against all-white construction unions building dorms, the war in Vietnam and rules restricting their freedom.

Sometimes the search for freedom got out of hand, as it did in March 1970 when police raided the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity on campus and arrested 12 students for manufacturing LSD. In May of that year four students at Ohio’s Kent State were shot to death by National Guardsmen. The Tufts commencement was cancelled.

Yet from all of this chaos came change and innovation at Tufts. In the few months before our arrival, I had been asked if I could teach a comparative literature course in some new concept called the Experimental College, created in 1964 by the outgoing president, Nils Wessell, to try out novel ideas in education. Three of us designed a team-taught course, European Literature of the Absurd, and the Ex College was on its way (see “The Joy of Ex”). During the days of rage on American campuses, the Ex College provided a safety valve to let off student steam, allowing Tufts to come through with fewer scars.

My Past Becomes Present

In the early 1970s, my teaching got personal. As my parents grew older, I wanted to know more about their lives, how they came to America just after World War I, what things were like in the old country. I needed to connect more with my past. My mother came from Poland (she thought—it might have been the Austro-Hungarian Empire). She couldn’t read or write English until her later years. My father was born in Ukraine. Both spoke only Yiddish when they met as teenagers on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

I begged my father to teach me Yiddish, and whenever we got together, either in New Jersey or in Medford, he would read to me from the Yiddish newspaper and talk about the stories of Sholom Aleichem. I had been reading American writers who happened to be Jews—Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Tilly Olsen, Philip Roth—and all of this Yiddish and American literature seemed to come together in my mind.

I took my first sabbatical and second Fulbright leave in 1970. Our family spent the year in Tübingen, where I taught an American Studies course on the Jewish-American novel. When we returned to Tufts, in 1971, I was ready to teach An Introduction to Yiddish Culture for the first time—ready to connect to my family, and to connect my students to theirs. I haven’t stopped since.

I was lucky to find a university where I could teach whatever I wanted. There was a flexibility and an ease, a lack of territoriality that let individual faculty members go where they wanted to, and let entire departments spread their wings. We could teach mini-courses. I always loved Humphrey Bogart’s Warner Brothers World War II epics and put together with cheap rentals a series called Humphrey Bogart Goes to War, where hundreds of Tufts students saw Casablanca for the first time. The rentals had to be cheap, because we were a somewhat impoverished institution, without resources or fundraising.

Tufts needed a visionary leader—and we found one, by accident. When Jean Mayer took over in 1976, it was only because the two candidates ahead of him had turned down the job. By 1991, when Mayer left, Tufts had been transformed. John DiBiaggio maintained the momentum, and in 2001 handed the university to Larry Bacow, who flourished as president for 10 years, before turning the institution over to Tony Monaco: four presidents had overseen a metamorphosis.

All This and the Yankees, Too

After an unexpected 21 years as provost under three Tufts presidents, I had the opportunity to have one last fling at another passion that might find expression in my teaching: baseball. Beginning in 2002, first in the English department for first-year students and then in History as a senior seminar, I taught a course titled America and the National Pastime and fulfilled my final dream.

Fifty years ago and now? It’s different, and yet the same. I received tenure in 1966 when a single dean figuratively put his hands on my head and said poof! you have tenure. There was no peer review, no publication requirement, no comparison against faculty elsewhere. Today we have tenure committees and outside evaluators. I’m an oddity, in that I wrote my five books—one on German literature, two on Yiddish culture, one about Tufts from my administrative experience and one about my ultimate love, baseball—after receiving tenure.

At Tufts today, research has grown far more important, and we have more graduate students. Compared with the old days, senior faculty teach much less.

Deep down we’ve never lost our purpose or our mission: to teach and, if possible, to make wiser those whom we teach. It was true 50 years ago, and it is true now. The college on the Hill prevails.

Yet we have changed. We are a multi-ethnic community that bears little physical resemblance to the Tufts student body or faculty of 1964. Walk around campus and listen to the languages spoken; look at the faces: Tufts has joined the global community, and for that we are a better place to live, learn—and go to the movies. Right now there is a committee searching for Tufts’ first authentic film scholar, who will be in a chair named for me. That’s a delightful journey from the days of Caligari.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, has been a professor of German, Judaic studies and biblical literature and is a former provost of the university.

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