Today’s NY Times has an obituary (by Margalit Fox) of a man whose name was vaguely familiar to me; after I read the first sentence I wanted to know more: “Israel Shenker, a scholar trapped in a newsman’s body who was known to readers of The New York Times for his vast erudition and sly, subversive wit, died on June 9 at Kibbutz Shoval in southern Israel.” It continues:

From 1968 to 1979, Mr. Shenker was a reporter on the metropolitan staff of The Times. But from the start, his portfolio ranged far beyond the city. Among the notable figures he interviewed over the years were Jorge Luis Borges, Noam Chomsky, M. C. Escher, John Kenneth Galbraith, Marcel Marceau (who spoke), Groucho Marx, Vladimir Nabokov, S. J. Perelman, Picasso and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Mr. Shenker was known in particular for his coverage of letters, lexicography and languages, especially Yiddish, to which he retained an ardent lifelong attachment. In later years, in ostensible retirement, he wrote freelance articles for The Times on European travel.
Reading Mr. Shenker’s articles was like panning for gold: just beneath their calm, reporterly surface were glimmering nuggets that produced small, sweet shocks whenever they came to light. “Labor Day, the holiday for the nation’s gainfully exhausted, beckons just ahead,” he wrote in 1972.
From 1976: “Insurance policies may be balm for the afflicted, but they are murder on the English language.”
And this, from a 1969 interview with the two writers behind the Ellery Queen novels: “In their guile they had hit on a wondrous formula: the same name for author and hero, so that readers and moviegoers who forgot one might still remember the other.”…
After Mr. Shenker retired from The Times, he and his wife moved to the deep Scottish countryside. To his relief, their idyll was interrupted periodically by the arrival of masses of pastrami, shipped from New York. Mrs. Shenker, who was Scottish, did not partake. Her husband, writing in The Times in 1984, inimitably explained why:
“My wife, moved by the sight of lambs at the window, has renounced eating meat, her abstinence reinforced by the spectacle of pastrami on the hoof — lovely Highland cattle, unpickled, unspiced, unsmoked.”

Great quotes from a life well lived, and now I want to read his In the footsteps of Johnson and Boswell.


  1. Sounds like an interesting figure. But why must erudition always be ‘vast’?

  2. Come to that, why is “subversive” used uncritically as a word of praise?

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