A Jewish Linguist of a Vanishing Breed

Dr. George Jochnowitz, ofessor emeritus of linguistics at CUNY, always listens not only to how people talk, but is closely attentive to what it is they're saying.

Uzi Silber
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Uzi Silber

Check for yourself: there's a certain bipedal mammal mysteriously absent from New York State's endangered species list. Frequently spotted throughout the city during the postwar years, the common Manhattan Polymath now verges on extinction, though it is still observed in isolated enclaves in and around Washington Square Park and on the Upper West Side.

Thankfully, I've met a surviving specimen: Dr. George Jochnowitz: renowned linguist, lifelong pianist, accomplished author and keen observer of the human condition in a tumultuous world both beautiful and cruel.

A born teacher never stops learning and the finest linguist never stops listening; George, professor emeritus of linguistics at CUNY, always listens not only to how people talk, but is closely attentive to what it is they're saying, and has plenty to say about what he's heard.

Listening and watching for decades from the rent-controlled perch he shares with his wife Carol on West Eighth Street, George is an intellectual of range, publishing articles, essays, and letters in an agnostic array of publications, ranging from the Village Voice and New York Review of Books to Commentary and National Review. The New York Times even featured him in a 1995 essay about its top letter writers.

A collection of his poignant essays and pithy observations spanning a variety of topics was published in 2007 as The Blessed Human Race: Essays on Reconsideration (Hamilton Books).

Our minds were programmed to make connections they were not programmed to make: In the finest tradition of polymathic renaissance men, George is interested in virtually everything, something he says comes naturally to linguists: "What in fact isn't tied to language?" asks George.

In order to understand one subject you must know something about the others: It all began at his parents bungalow colony nestled in the Catskill foothills. During lazy childhood summers in bucolic Orange County young George would tune in to the speech patterns of local farmers, comparing them with cadences of the Jewish colonists from Brooklyn.

This fascination with accents ultimately led him to master French, Italian, Spanish, a selection of Eastern European languages and even Mandarin while becoming a world-class expert in Yiddish and the extinct Jewish dialects of Southern France and Italy.

Erected on the scaffolding of medieval Germanic and Romance tongues these Jewish patois function as a window into language evolution and population migrations in Europe over the past 15 centuries.

Society, psychology, language and history are all linked: Since a passion for language inevitably leads to an interest in world history, international affairs and politics can't be far behind. Initially pulled leftward along with most of his Jewish intellectual contemporaries, George joined the antiwar movement on the Columbia University campus.

Yet unlike many of those same colleagues, George's opposition to the war in Vietnam didn't morph into America hate. An abiding patriotism led him to leave the antiwar movement - a break that occurred in wake of the 1967 Six Day War, a watershed event that underscored the radicalization of his former comrades into implacable foes of America and Israel.

The war against oppression and poverty must always be waged within the framework of liberalism and democracy: George's early letters in the New York Times reflect his estrangement from the so-called New Left. His first letter, published 1971, lamented the city's graffiti blight, a plague often praised by radicals as a manifestation of class warfare and cherished as an authentic voice of the downtrodden. A second letter was more direct, decrying the amorality of New Left radicals, who he described as "obscurantists and inhumane".

Nevertheless, George's views transcend contemporary notions of political right and left. An unstinting support for both Israel and the war against Jihad exists alongside his ranking of George W. Bush as one of America?s worst presidents. And his endorsement of gun control and gay marriage doesn't stop him from pinning a tiny American flag on his coat lapel - to the consternation of fellow Greenwich Villagers - a population reliably leftwing.

Marxism is a negation of both science and reason (and) totalitarianism is a rejection of modernity: While his interests are many, George tends to focus on two issues: the Middle East and the not-unrelated subject of tyranny. Two teaching sabbaticals in China (he narrowly escaped the May 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre) have sharpened his loathing of totalitarian dictatorships of all flavors with a special place reserved for Mao ('monster') and Marx (see Mao).

At the same time he consistently champions human rights everywhere, especially in Muslim countries, and the most persecuted therein: women and gays.

George's views recall those of Pim Fortuyn, a controversial and popular Dutch politician assassinated by a leftwing gunman in 2002. The flamboyantly gay Fortuyn blended an outspoken social liberalism with defiantly anti-Jihad policies that were downright neoconservative.

An orange can never be an apple, but a Jew may turn out to be a fruit: George expounds pugnaciously on other less urgent but still salient topics such as dim restaurant lighting (brighter please), Shakespeare (whose failures outnumber successes), car alarms (ban them), Art Deco (unappreciated treasure), child sacrifice ('God said yum yum!'), atonal music (skip it) and religion ('what is more cynical than being good solely because you want to be saved and not damned?').

The Manhattan polymath is, sad to say, a vanishing breed. Yet George is one specimen sure to continue issuing his pertinent observations from his Village lair for the foreseeable future.

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