Marvin Bram, professor emeritus of history, was recently given the Distinguished Faculty Award by the alumni and alumnae of the Colleges. Michael Dobkowski, professor of religious studies, wrote a tribute to Bram, available below.
Marvin Bram has a certain way of speaking: slow and deliberate, so that in the opaqueness of the statement, each word springs up new, unforeseen by the word that preceded it. It seems as if his thoughts never leave the flowing waters of spontaneity, mistrusting the clichés of language, its verbal habits and its tired rhetoric. Everything is fresh and unexpected. An original thought — always original — from the depths, but a poetic thought as well: inspired words, musical words, which is to say a thought by some marvel, that flows harmonically to recreate the secrets of its source in the act of expression. That is how we hear Marvin even in his everyday expressions, the chance meeting at the post office or the café — how his lectures on civilization rang out, or his musical commentaries, or his indefatigable interventions on behalf of principle and the rights of all. The rhythm and breadth of his spoken word still orchestrate the essence of the man. His words are ample, original and varied, nourished by an immense culture (philosophical, historical, literary and musical), inspired by an abiding faith in human potentiality. Because of that interiority opening initially as one approaches him, in genuine forms of welcome, and his somewhat reserved, sincere courtesy — because of the profound chant of that poetic language and music apparent beneath the coherent power of his oral discourse, as much as for the incomparable quality of an intellectual message indifferent to the fluctuating intellectual trends of the day, Marvin holds a special place in the minds of students and the entire Hobart and William Smith Colleges community. A place apart, already recognized as such at every stage of his career, from young assistant professor to senior mentor and intellectual oracle. In whatever circles and in whatever capacity he moves, ever so deliberately, Marvin is, in addition to the allegiances and functions to which his person might lay claim, simply Marvin. For three decades he, more that many of the other brilliant colleagues who labored with him, defined this community of teachers and scholars at the Colleges. The proof of intellectual gifts so abundant in him, the proximity one immediately feels of a presence that is gracious, exacting of himself (which is probably the very essence of ethics) blends in the minds of those who know him, into an impression and sense of a certain charm of luminosity, intellectual loftiness and inspiration difficult to formulate.
His courses at the Colleges attracted many people, even if, or possibly because, the disquisition heard at times — or often — was unconventional and cut against the grain. Crowds of students and former students came to listen to Marvin and a discourse that broke with all conventionality. His teaching and his being tended toward what had not yet entered into the consciousness of ideas and expectations already in possession of those he encountered. His words were a spontaneous surprise, a rapid turning, a sudden eruption of originality that seemed to flow from an endless source. All good teaching, Martin Buber once said, is a pointing, a gesture urging us towards the object of cognition. For many of us, Marvin was and still is that “pointer.” His greatest gift is as a teacher and it takes the form of worrying about the other, a spending without an accounting, a generosity, love and sense of obligation to others. A generosity without recompense, a friendship unconcerned with reciprocity, a duty performed without expectation of reward — that is Marvin's “technique.” It is always bathed in joy and a way of being open to art and the beautiful, but not as self-gratification. It is the search for the perfect “pastrami sandwich” of life so that its location can be shared with everyone. It is as if Marvin “lives” the last line from the Mishnah in Sanhedrin (37a) that says that “every single person is obliged to think that the world was created for their sake” which Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, a brilliant eighteenth century Lithuanian scholar, understood in the following way: every person is obligated to think that the subsistence of the entire universe depends exclusively on them, that they are responsible for it. That spirit, that ethic, that passion, that love of humanity and the particular species of human beings known as students, whom he engaged one by one, is what Marvin brought to this community. The countless hundreds, even thousands, who listened to him, who learned from him, who walked and talked with him these past decades, and who still do, have been immeasurably enriched by the experience.
Michael N. Dobkowski
Department of Religious Studies