Amherst, MA — Jules Chametzky, a Jewish boy from Brooklyn who drew on his background in multi- ethnic 20 th century New York to fashion a scholarly and civic career that spanned seven decades and two continents, died Thursday September 23 in Amherst, Massachusetts, to which he had moved in 1958. He was 93.
An expert in American Jewish and ethnic literatures, Dr. Chametzky's books include Out of Brownsville (2012), From the Ghetto: The Fiction of Abraham Cahan (1977), Our Decentralized Literature (1986), and Jewish-American Literature: A Norton Anthology (2001); he received the MELUS (Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States) Award for Distinguished Contribution to Ethnic Studies in 1995. A founder and for many years the editor of the Massachusetts Review, Dr. Chametzky taught at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst (UMass) from 1958 and at universities in Zagreb, Venice, Berlin, Copenhagen, Freiburg, and Tübingen. In 2010, the Massachusetts Review established an annual Jules ChametzkyTranslation Prize, awarded to a translation published in the magazine, to honor both Dr. Chametzky's role at the Massachusetts Review and his contributions in advancing cross-cultural understanding. In 1969 he and his UMass colleague Sidney Kaplan edited Black & White in American Culture, an anthology of essays and stories from the Massachusetts Review's first ten years, dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The critic Julius Lester wrote about this book in the New York Times "... this collection is more than a documentary. It is an exciting book, with a higher degree of relevance to an America on the eve of a second Civil War than almost any book of its kind." Retired Harvard University professor Werner Sollors wrote in an email that "[Jules] not only gave me a research agenda for decades but also a model of an engaged, somewhat egalitarian, at times tentative-seeming teaching and speaking style that, however, in reality firmly guided students toward responsible scholarship, of which his own work was a model."
Lee R. Edwards, former Dean of UMass's College of Humanities and Fine Arts said that "Jules Chametzky, through his personal scholarship, teaching, and mentoring; his institution building with, among others, the Massachusetts Review, the University Press, and the Massachusetts Society of Professors; his pushing for the establishment of departments of Afro-American Studies, Women's Studies, and Judaic Studies; and his service in literally every initiative that increased diversity at the University, did more over the years than any other single individual to transform the sleepy backwater at which he arrived into today's vibrant, thriving, and mature campus of which all citizens of the Commonwealth can be justly proud, feel truly belongs to them, and at which they fully belong. We are all in his debt." He was honored with the university's Metawampe Award in 1969, and the Vincent Gaston Dethier Award in 1994.
In addition, Dr. Chametzky was a founder (along with, among others, George Plimpton, William Phillips, and Reed Whittemore) and officer of the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines CCLM). He recalled one of the first meetings of the CCLM, when, entering the room, he saw some dozen other editors already sitting at the large table. "One of you," he declared while looking around the table, "will betray me."
In an email, John P. (Jack) Polidori of the Massachusetts Teachers Association said of Dr. Chametzky, "He was union to the core. Without Jules, there would be no faculty- librarian union at UMass. At a moment of crisis, he provided the essential leadership that helped to secure the first contract and stave off the anti-union forces."
Jules Chametzky was born May 24, 1928 to Beny and Anna (Zweig) Chametzky, Yiddish-speaking, working-class immigrants from, respectively, Russia and Poland. His older brother, Leslie, fought in both the North Africa and Sicily campaigns of WW2, and was taken prisoner by the Germans. Jules Chametzky graduated from Brooklyn Tech high school, and, in 1950, from Brooklyn College. Dr. Chametzky did his graduate work in English at the University of Minnesota, receiving his PhD in 1958 with a dissertation on Elizabethan drama and where he studied with noted scholars in American Studies such as Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx.
Even as a student in the deep-freeze of Minnesota, Jules Chametzky's life was not merely one of sitting and learning. There in 1950 he joined the NAACP, heading the organization's committee on fair employment practices, and was "intensely involved in Minnesota's passing of the first American Fair Practices Employment Act" as he put it in a 1988 interview with scholar Susanne Klingenstein, who dedicated a chapter to Dr. Chametzky in her 1998 book, Enlarging America: The Cultural Work of Jewish Literary Scholars, 1930-1990. Because of his political activity, in 1954 he was "named as a subversive element" by a witness before the Subversive Activities Control Board of the U.S. Justice Department. An investigation by the University of Minnesota put the lie to the accusations. It was in Minnesota, too, that he got to know another engagé Brooklyn ex-pat and long term Amherst resident, already teaching at the University of Minnesota: the filmmaker and photographer Jerome Liebling. And most significantly of all, in a seminar taught by Henry Nash Smith, he met a fellow graduate student, the German-born, Nazi refugee feminist, poet, editor, translator, and teacher Anne Halley. Their marriage of true minds lasted from 1953 until Halley's death in 2004. Their home in Amherst, according to an email from retired UMass Labor Historian Bruce Laurie "became a social center cum meeting place for local writers, artists, intellectuals, and social activists as well as international students and luminaries such as James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe, and many others."
Generations of students testified not only to Dr. Chametzky's intellectual depth and breadth and firm but kind counsel but also to his unbounded humanity and decency. As Professor Sollors also wrote in his email, "For me, the man who became my Doktorvater [dissertation advisor] was also like a father. When I met him and [Anne Halley] half a century ago in Berlin, they quickly became like family in my mind, generous, curious, and certainly much wiser than I was. . . . [they] gave me a sense of America as an extension and continuation of the democratic possibilities that Hitler and Stalin had so successfully killed off in divided Germany." Another former student, Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, the first Chair of UMass's W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, said that "Jules embodied what it meant to be a mensch."
Dr. Chametzky is survived by his children: Matthew (Cynthia Welsh) of Hamilton, NJ; Robert (Julie Hastings) of Iowa City, IA; and Peter (Susan Felleman) of Columbia, SC; grandchildren: Marcus Chametzky; Max, Aaron, and Samuel Fennell-Chametzky, and Henry Hastings; Benjamin Ginzky (Kirsten Ginzky) and Hallie Chametzky, and his loving partner for the last thirteen years, the psychotherapist, teacher, and author Joann Kobin, of Northampton, MA, whose house he shared for the last three years of his life. In her words: "The relationship came late in both our lives after long and strong marriages. It was a great gift that brought him -- and us -- unexpected happiness and joy." In addition to his parents, brother, and wife, he was predeceased by his nephew Steven Chametzky and step-grandson Maxfield Hastings.
In all his actions, interactions, and transactions across the United States and Europe, it never occurred to Jules Chametzky that who he was and where he had come from were anything other than an advantage for what he was doing. It was likely this that led a colleague at the Eberhard Karl University of Tübingen (founded 1477) to suggest, with some awe and no little admiration, that in the school's five-hundred-year history, Jules Chametzky may well have been its "first non-authoritarian professor".
His family and friends thank the staff of the Hospice at Fisher Home for the reciprocal bonds of care, concern, and respect they formed with Jules over his last months. At his request, he had a "green", Jewish burial in a grave next to Anne Halley and Jerome
Liebling at Wildwood Cemetery in Amherst on 27 September 2021. Rabbi Justin David of Northampton officiated. A Memorial Service will be held at the University of Massachusetts on a date to be determined.
Published by Daily Hampshire Gazette on Oct. 1, 2021.