Marshall Berman. (Courtesy Youtube user Patell and Waterman's History of New York)
A few Tuesdays ago, my daughter and i stopped at our usual haunt—the Metro Diner at 100th and Broadway—for dinner. Metro was also Marshall Berman’s usual haunt, and it wasn’t long before he shlepped in wearing his tie-dye T-shirt, hair sprouting in every direction. We chatted amiably about the mayor’s race for a bit before the kid and I went back to our burgers and Marshall joined his wife, Shellie, for dinner.
He was back at Metro the following morning for breakfast, accompanied by his son, when he experienced a fatal heart attack. Marshall was just 72. I learned of this the next day when an obituary by Todd Gitlin, published in Tablet, showed up on my newsfeed. Gitlin rendered Marshall’s unique and outsize virtues as perfectly as a few hundred words could—no small feat given the massive contradictions that Marshall spent his remarkably productive life attempting to rationalize. Titled “Marshall Berman, Marxist Humanist Mensch,” Gitlin’s obit described “the bear-like sage of the Upper West Side” who, in his masterpiece All That Is Solid Melts Into Air and his later collection Adventures in Marxism, painted Marx as “part of a great cultural tradition, a comrade of modern masters like Keats, Dickens, George Eliot, Dostoyevsky, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence (readers are free to fill in their personal favorites) in his feeling for the suffering modern man on the rack.”
Marshall was a dedicated member of Ansche Chesed synagogue next door to his apartment building and, as Michael Walzer pointed out in his moving funeral oration, spent his too-short life as “a man of the left and a lover of Zion,” commitments not always “easy to combine, but he combined them with grace.” Marshall was also a man who experienced indescribable personal tragedy and yet not only persevered but flourished as a loving parent, a great teacher, and an archetypal public intellectual and scholar. He was a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York and a frequent contributor to badly paying lefty periodicals like The Nation, The Village Voice and, especially, the democratic socialist magazine Dissent, where he also served on the editorial board. I did not go for his tonsorial or sartorial stylings, but the word “mensch” has rarely been so aptly applied.
Imagine the shock, therefore, that I and hundreds of others felt just minutes after Berman’s obit was posted to see the editor of Commentary, a journal that was once the pride of American Jewish writers and intellectuals, comparing this gentle Jewish giant to, I kid you not, a Nazi. This clever fellow, John Podhoretz—a man who has spent virtually his entire working life sucking on the teat of Moonie/Murdoch wingnut welfare and now enjoys the nepotistic perk of a job inherited from his fire-breathing father, Norman—tweeted in response to Gitlin’s article: “Imagine a tribute to a Nazi humanist mensch.” He later said he regretted having done so, not because it was a poor comparison, but only because it appeared to be speaking ill of the recently deceased. Overall, however, Podhoretz found the reaction to his tweet “discouraging” because it failed to appreciate the genius of his effort to hold accountable anyone who used the intellectual insights and tools supplied by the various schools of Marxism for “the real-world manifestations of Marxism in the 20th century [that] had led to (by some estimates) 60 million deaths.”