Genius and mensch: Remembering Stuart Schoffman

TRIBUTE: Stuart Schoffman, simply put, was a genius and a mensch, a combination that doesn’t occur as often as it should in this world. His memory will be a blessing.

 STUART SCHOFFMAN – he thought deep and hard on most subjects. (photo credit: Courtesy)
STUART SCHOFFMAN – he thought deep and hard on most subjects.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

A month ago when the controversy broke over Irish author Sally Rooney refusing to have her latest novel translated to Hebrew, the first person I thought to have comment on it for my i24NEWS program The Rundown was my friend and mentor, Stuart Schoffman, who in recent years has emerged as the finest translator of Hebrew fiction to English.

I hadn’t seen Stuart in a while and knew he was having health problems, but was hoping he could handle a Zoom call; unfortunately, he didn’t sound great on the phone and begged off – and this week he died at age 73.

I first met Stuart 31 years ago when he hired me to be his deputy editor while serving as senior arts editor at The Jerusalem Report – and, frankly, was in awe of him.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, the son of a Hebrew teacher, and a graduate of the famed Yeshivah of Flatbush, he earned degrees at both Harvard (where he was dorm-mates with Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones) and Yale, worked as a writer for Time and Fortune magazines, as a screenwriter in Hollywood, and university lecturer in history, before moving to Israel in 1988 after meeting and marrying the Jerusalem-based communications strategist Roberta Fahn.

Stuart had an awesome command of both high and low culture, Jewish and general knowledge, all of which he put to brilliant use in his sparkling columns for the Report over 17 years, the longer pieces he wrote for the Jewish Review of Books, and career as a lecturer at the Shalom Hartman Institute and many other institutions, events and venues.

 Stuart Schoffman (credit: Courtesy) Stuart Schoffman (credit: Courtesy)

His knowledge was encyclopedic, with friends and family playing on his Hebrew name, Shmuel, by referring to his ability to “shmoogle” on just about any subject they were curious about.

But his wasn’t just a Trivial Pursuit grasp of basic facts; Stuart thought deep and hard on most subjects.

One reason I asked him to speak on the Rooney affair was that I knew he could go beyond just making facile political announcements, and had the capability to address the topic from multiple angles, be it literature, language, the role and responsibility of the artist, etc.

This complexity of thought was especially so when it came to Israel. Although he knew more about this country’s history and spoke better (or more proper) Hebrew than many Sabras, Stuart seemed to me to have a deep ambivalence toward the Jewish state.

He was just as passionate in critiquing the flaws of his adopted homeland as he was in celebrating its achievements. Stuart had the capability to examine Israel within the context of the full sweep of Jewish history, to truly measure how it both fell short of, and exceeded, the three millennia of Jewish dreams and aspirations that led to its creation.

When the staff of the Report combined to write a biography on the life of Yitzhak Rabin shortly after his death, Stuart contributed the book’s closing chapter, placing the Rabin assassination within the context of internecine violence within the Jewish polity, ranging from the biblical murder of Gedaliah Ben-Ahikam to the killing of accused Nazi collaborator Rudolf Kastner in 1950s Israel.

Stuart’s final words for the book were a coda of how he viewed the Zionist enterprise in its current state: “Only if all Israelis can converse intelligently – and critically – with their rich and problematic Jewish past, will they be able to talk productively, and respectfully, with each other.”

If, on the page, Stuart attained profundity, off the page he was a great storyteller, one of the funniest and most entertaining raconteurs I’ve ever had the privilege to listen to, able to embellish his tales with a mastery of mimicry, accents and even music.

I loved best his unlikely anecdotes of working in Hollywood, especially as an in-house screenwriter for 1980s schlockmeister Menachem Golan. Imitating Golan’s thick Israeli-accented English with gusto, Stuart recalled being told once to come up with a story idea for a pair of muscle-bound twin professional wrestlers called The Barbarian Brothers whom Golan had just signed to a contract. When Stuart inquired just what movie Golan envisioned for the tag team, the effusive Israeli mogul replied: “Stuart, dere mus’ be beating an’ beating an’ beating... but funny!’’

As mentioned, in recent years Stuart became the go-to translator for a virtual roll call of the modern giants of Hebrew literature, including A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, Aharon Appelfeld and Meir Shalev. Surely those great writers knew how lucky they were to have such a talented and sensitive collaborator.

Last year I interviewed Yehoshua on the publication of the English version of his novel The Tunnel, and he couldn’t stop singing Stuart’s praises as a translator and person.

Even more impressive was Stuart’s work on Shalev’s Two She-Bears, delivering a masterwork of translation for a novel that relies greatly on the nuances of the Hebrew tongue in order to critique an Israeli macho ethos embedded even in the language of its characters.

I WAS only a few months into my job as Stuart’s deputy at the Report when he was diagnosed with his first bout of life-threatening cancer. Stepping into his giant shoes at that time was daunting, and for me wouldn’t have been possible without his support and encouragement, even as he had to struggle with the disease that initiated a lifetime battle to maintain his good health. It was one he waged with such tremendous courage, élan and good humor that my admiration for him only grew over the years.

After undergoing heavy experimental treatment, Stuart wrote an especially moving column for the Report about his initial recovery. In it he noted the fortuitous juxtaposition of receiving news of his remission just as his daughter, Rafaela, was being born, writing: “Jungians call such coincidences synchronicity; we Ashkenazim call them bashert, fated. In either case, it’s a way of finding meaning in a life that otherwise may seem random and cruel. By learning to discover the extraordinary in the commonplace, we are transported and empowered, which is what religious – and artistic – experience has always been about.’’

Stuart Schoffman, simply put, was a genius and a mensch, a combination that doesn’t occur as often as it should in this world. His memory will be a blessing.

The writer anchors the daily current-affairs program The Rundown on i24NEWS.