A TRIBUTE TO A MENSCH
My son, Steven (z”l), passed away in January, after years of bravely fighting the “monster” disease, the name of which many people still have trouble saying. The outpouring of condolence communication from friends, “fans” and strangers was genuinely surprising to me. I knew he wrote well and published many articles on line and in print, but the level of his reach was gratifying. Many of Steve’s friends were drawn to him as a commentator on the unpatriotic Israeli Left and they admired and shared his position on Israel’s political foibles. I well understand how he came to the political position he reached in life and for the most part, I share it This modest composition will deal with Steve as humanist, as “mensch” par excellence.
When Steve chose his field for a future career, he was asked “why the great effort to obtain a doctorate in the ‘dismal’ subject, Economics? With a little more effort you can become a ‘real’ doctor (MD) and even make some money.“ His reply was sincere and serious:
“Economics is also a science that helps people live better lives.”
He lived by that goal in his many years of university teaching and had many compliments on his style of lecturing, adding humor and keeping the students awake. He reached the title of Professor at Haifa University, but to me “Mensch” was much more important. Forgive a mother’s “kvelling” (pride, Yiddish) but the best example I can give you is a letter from a student.
First a little background. Steve and his family loved to travel and they got to see a lot of the world. For some reason, Budapest, Hungary, held a particular appeal to him and drew him to its charms. A highly regarded University is situated there and is called Central European University. One of its founding principles in the Economics Department was to teach the value of the free market, i.e. Capitalism, as opposed to Communism, from which so much of the world had suffered. This has special appeal to students from the former Soviet bloc and the best among them vie for admission to C.E.U. Economics Dept.
This was “right up Steve’s alley”, so to speak. He once wrote a slim book called “The Joy of Capitalism” (unfortunately out of print now.) For the last 11 years of his working life he taught (as Visiting Professor) a semester at C.E.U. somehow fitting it into his teaching schedule in Israel.
He was genuinely taken by the eagerness-to-learn quality of the Eastern bloc students and their trepidation at facing the “horrors” of the capitalist Western world, about which they had been taught. One of his efforts to help them learn and adjust to this new world was to hire a bus and take them touring around Budapest. He was a good travel guide and a fine time was had by all. He also invited them to tea in his faculty quarters, during which they had singalongs and lots of fun.
In the following letter you can see the affection he aroused in his students, who voted him “Best Professor at C.E.U.” each year. This was written in 2015 as the disease began to make it more and more difficult for him to continue teaching, even though the oncologists were unrealistically optimistic about having found the “right treatment” this time.
I write this with tears and a broken heart, but with beautiful memories of a wonderful human being. May his memory be a blessing to all of us who knew and loved him.
Dear Professor Plaut,
I have really big doubts that you remember me since you surely had a lot of people coming and go in your life. I’ve been on a Program Economic Policy in Budapest in 2010-2012 (I will keep the memories of that evening tea parties when you sang and played the guitar). Professor, I am a bit busy with my entrepreneurship project right now and have not much time to check the social media, but recently I’ve recieved a message from Nurgul, saying you had some issues with the health. Since that evening when we have had a dinner with you discussing the politics, I feel very close emotionally to you, even though we’re very far way from each other. I really care and hope that you feel fine.
Professor, if you have a chance to reply to me with at least with several words saying how are you – I would appreciate it very much. You are a good person, and the very first our teacher in Budapest. But it is more than that. During the first weeks I thought I won’t pass the program, but your approach made me believe and I’ve graduated very successfully. And it is much because of you. You may not believe – but you were among those few, whos lectures I’ve nevere slept over)
Dear Professor, I really wish you strong health and hope to hear from you.
|COMMENT from my grandson, Elad, Steve’s middle child:
Dad loved teaching in Budapest because of the students. Some of his students in Haifa would disrupt class, not pay attention and even cheat on exams, whereas his students in Budapest, from Eastern Europe and Central Asia, were so respectful and timid and concerned with honoring the professor that they were afraid to ask the professor questions. Dad made them feel comfortable and engaged in their studies. When Dad heard that many of the students never left the university campus, he organized the bus tour, which completely changed their experience of Budapest. When he heard that one of his students was about to give up on applying to an ivy league university in the US because he was too poor to afford the application fee, Dad paid it for him and convinced him to apply.