Menachem Brinker, Hebrew studies scholar and activist, 1935-2016

Prof. Emeritus Menachem Brinker was known for his pioneering scholarship on philosophy and Hebrew literature as well as the relationships between philosophy, literature and society. The University’s first Henry Crown Professor of Modern Hebrew Language and Literature in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, he established the Modern Hebrew Language and Literature program at UChicago in 1995 and held the first chair in the program.

The noted Hebrew scholar, Israel Prize laureate and peace activist died Aug. 11 of pancreatic cancer at his home in Jerusalem. He was 81.

In 2004, he was awarded the Israel Prize—the most highly regarded award in Israel—for Hebrew and general literary research. He was the author of numerous books; among them the authoritative work on Yosef Haim Brenner, a Russian pioneer of modern Hebrew literature. He divided his time between Chicago and Hebrew University until his 2005 retirement, when he returned to Israel.

Brinker also was a prominent political activist who was one of the first to advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He co-founded the critical literary and political review magazine EMDA (Hebrew for “position, opinion, policy”) and was its first editor. Then he co-founded Peace Now and was one of the leaders of the organization, Israel’s pre-eminent peace movement, well into the 1980s and ‘90s.

“He was a voice of sanity relating to Israel,” said Josef Stern, the William H. Colvin Professor of Philosophy Emeritus and the inaugural director of the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies, remembering Brinker as a cultured, witty and intellectual colleague. “In exchanges, he could be wonderfully critical,” Stern said, but Brinker’s criticisms were well received because of his “extremely warm personality.”

Besides teaching and building the Modern Hebrew Language and Literature program, Brinker helped bolster the University’s library, filling gaps in its collection in his fields of expertise, Stern said.

Paul Mendes-Flohr, the Dorothy Grant Maclear Professor of Modern Jewish History and Thought, considered Brinker a beloved friend and mentor.

“Not only was Menachem generous intellectually, he was also blessed with the gift of friendship, which he nurtured and sustained with unflagging care and concern,” he said.

“As one of Israel’s most esteemed public intellectuals, his probing critiques of its cultural and political life attained a unique resonance precisely because they bore the stamp of a compelling existential concern for the ethical and spiritual direction the country had taken,” Mendes-Flohr said.

Brinker was born in Jerusalem on Sept. 20, 1935. Before commencing his university studies, Menachem was a shepherd in a left-wing kibbutz. In 1954, he completed his undergraduate degree in Hebrew literature and philosophy. He studied literature, linguistic theory and philosophy at Edinburgh and Oxford universities in 1966, and then earned his doctorate in philosophy at Tel Aviv University in 1974.

Brinker fought as part of the Jerusalem Brigade during the Six-Day War and also fought in the Yom Kippur War. In 1968, he was appointed a lecturer in the Tel Aviv University philosophy department, and a year later he was appointed to the department of poetics and comparative literature, which he also helped found.

In addition, Brinker was among the founders of the Israel Philosophical Association in 1967. Beginning in 1983, he taught philosophy and Hebrew literature at Hebrew University. At the same time, he served as a literary editor at the Keter publishing house. He was a member of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Mendes-Flohr said his friendship with Brinker was sealed when they were both on the faculty of Hebrew University. Mendes-Flohr “consulted with him about a concept coined by Jean-Paul Sartre, whom he knew personally and about whom he had written extensively.”

He said Brinker knew hundreds of poems by heart, not only in Hebrew but also English, French, German, Russian, Yiddish and even a few in Arabic. In his last weeks, Brinker composed a poem in alternating stanzas in Hebrew, English and French, and though he was too weak to write it down, he would recite it to his friends.

“What I do recall is his joyful and mellifluous recitation of this, his last poem, which he took with him to his final resting place,” Mendes-Flohr said. “As one says in Hebrew, “zikhrono le’vracha: May his memory be a blessing to all who loved him and to the many whom he loved. “

Brinker is survived by his partner, Janet Aviad, and his daughter, Hagit. His son, Gadi, died in 2010.

Services have been held in Israel. At his request, no eulogies were given, but poems were recited by some of Israel’s eminent writers.