Professor David Patterson • 10 June 1922 – 10 December 2005
A Eulogy by Raymond Dwek
David spoke to me on a Sunday morning recently when he asked me to give this address. He was as usual cheerful but said he felt weak. He was not afraid of dying and felt he was ready to go.
He asked about my work in the Negev and we both agreed that a new Israel was emerging based on Jewish learning and scientific technology that was rekindling the flame of enthusiasm and the pioneering spirit in Israel that David and Jose knew in the 50’s.We thought it significant that the symbol of Ben Gurion University in the Negev is a flame. He was full of admiration for what we were trying to accomplish in Israel and in turn I told him that I and many others were full of admiration for him and his legacy of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. I also discussed his work as a translator with him and his latest article on literary source and creative imagination in Moshe Shamir’s historical novel Melekh basar verdam-King of flesh and blood.
David Patterson was a remarkable man. He was a scholar, an administrator, a leader and a visionary, and above all he was modest. David’s lasting legacy will be that he founded the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, in a small room in the Oriental Institute of the University of Oxford in 1972.
David was extremely astute at academic politics. He knew instinctively when to go forward or when to hold his ground and such qualities coupled with his vision and devotion made him an ideal Institute builder. Many agreed with his vision but few actually thought that it would really happen. In this David showed once again the passion necessary in order to achieve dreams. Ben Gurion said in another context “in order to be a realist you have to believe in miracles”. David certainly seemed to bring about a number of miracles in founding and sustaining the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and he always had a remarkable and special affection for ALL the staff at the centre.
David Patterson was a scholarly leader. Both his public and private life related to the same person. The warmth and genuine affection that he showed to all his friends and colleagues, and his kindness and sensitivity together with his humour made David an exceptional man – who was liked by almost everyone. Isaiah Berlin said of David that “I know of no man who combines intellectual and personal honesty, kindness, professional integrity, a great deal of common sense, administrative skills and what I can only describe as goodness of heart to an equal degree”. There is a saying in the Pirkei Avot, kol shruah habriot nocha heymanu ruah hamakom nocha heymenu – when a person’s fellow creatures delight in him, God too takes delight in him.
David was an outstanding translator and because he was also a connoisseur of the English Language and understood all the nuances – this led to wonderful interpretations. Significant amongst these was Moshe Shamir’s historical novel, to which I have already referred, Melekh Basar Vedam-The King of Flesh and Blood, which first published in 1958, and is considered to be a landmark. In this book, Moshe Shamir writes about the Maccabean era while attempting to create language that would be reminiscent of post-biblical Hebrew. What a tremendous and exacting challenge for the translator. David told me that he could find no stratum in English which could reflect the specific quality of the post-biblical Hebrew, which is one of the novel’s main characteristics. David in recognising this difficulty nevertheless produced a brilliant translation – a mark of his outstanding scholarship.
In his recent article in August 2005, which I have already mentioned, and which was contributed for the Festschrift of Alan Crown, with whom he had a long and lasting friendship, David revisited this novel and analysed the author’s instinctive understanding of “some intriguing but elusive ancient texts”. One has only to read David’s article to recognise his enormous grasp of Jewish sources such as the Bible, the Talmud, Midrash, Jewish mysticism and of Rabbinic Judaism.
Because David was a remarkable scholar, it explains, I think, his exceptional judgement in selecting distinguished scholars from Israel and elsewhere to become Fellows of the Centre. He was widely respected by all significant scholars of Jewish studies throughout the world. It was highly appropriate that David should have been awarded the CBE in 2003 the first, since the order was introduced in 1917, that had the citation for “services to Jewish Studies”.
I need to say a word about David’s publications so we can revisit the depth of his scholarship. These publications include Abraham Mapu, the first Hebrew novelist published in 1964 and republished in 1968. The Hebrew novel in Czarist Russia published in 1964, and the second revised edition published a few years ago in 1999. A Phoenix Fetters was published in 1990 and Tradition and Trauma published in 1994 was jointly edited with Glenda Abramson.
His translations which are indeed masterful include The King of Flesh of Blood by Moshe Shamir published in 1958, which I have already mentioned; then there is Out of the Depth by J H Brenner published in 1992 and finally in 1999, Random Harvest: The Novellas of Bialik which he translated jointly with Ezra Spicehandler and which was republished in 2002. Only a couple of months ago he read from this, at our house, at a Menorah Society evening. David’s writings and translations will I am sure remain as a tribute to him and to his original work on 19th Century Hebrew Literature in Russia – a comparatively neglected field until he started to work on it. Many have commented that his books and articles have definitely helped the modern Jewish renaissance, particularly of the Hebrew language.
His writings really show the enormous breadth and depth of his scholarship. And he could communicate well. He had an easy and natural manner of speaking, there was virtually no pomposity, but he did have a tremendous sense of humour and fun, something I believe that he also shared with Jose.
His knowledge of the bible and of the Talmud was considerable. Because he was such a great scholar he was tolerant, something that comes easily to those with great wisdom. This was coupled with David’s easy style which made his capacity for friendship enormous. I well remember him in the Choolant Society in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Every Society was required by University rules to have one senior member and there was always confusion as to whether for the Choolant Society this was David Daube, Professor of Roman Law or David Patterson as either could have been the senior member! At successive termly dinners first one David then the other would give a scholarly discourse using Talmudic and biblical precedents to show why he was the clear choice of senior member. The wit and the scholarship were humbling to behold and we all felt tremendously privileged to be in the same company as these two outstanding scholars.
David had been Cowley Lecturer in Post Biblical Hebrew at Oxford University from 1956 – 1989. Another skill of David was that he really understood the nuances of Hebrew grammar. It was through this that David and I really began to know each other. My own interest in Hebrew grammar was such that whenever David and I would meet, usually in the Synagogue, we would exchange comments on words that I had found or phrases that I had come across. We discussed grammar in exceptional detail. I delighted in his knowledge, in his breadth, in bringing new examples. When Amos Oz, another one of David’s discoveries, visited Oxford I went to have tea in the Old Parsonage with him and David to discuss certain grammatical interpretations of some phrases in Isaiah.
But it was David’s sense of fun of mischief and of humour that made the process of learning so exciting and so exhilarating. And it was this, and his scholarship that enabled so many people to benefit from what he had set up at the Centre. He was still passionate about raising funds for the Centre and even discussed ideas with me at a Friday night dinner at my home, just a few weeks ago.
If David could leave one message about the Centre, I suspect he would quote from the Pirkei Avot “lo aleha hamelacha ligmor velo ata ben-chorin lehitbatel mimenah” – You are not obliged to complete the task but neither are you free to give it up. He has created a legacy in providing a Jewish intellectual and cultural centre in Oxford.
Indeed, there are many scholars worldwide who have seen David as a guardian angel of Jewish identity in Great Britain, not only for his founding of the Centre, but it was because he was an expert on Jewish and Hebrew literature and a true admirer of Israel and its culture. While the award of the CBE represented national recognition of David’s contribution to Judaica in Great Britain, it was also significant that the best picture of David on the steps of Buckingham Palace had Jose by his side. This was widely circulated in the community, largely because of OxfordShir, the choir whose resident poet laureate/songwriter and borrower of tunes is Jose, and where both of them sang.
Indeed, throughout his life David had Jose at his side. Organising him, supporting him and helping him realise his dreams and sharing a great sense of humour. The Centre owes a huge debt to Jose as well. It was not a case of behind every successful man there is an amazed woman! Jose knew it would happen because she shared the dreams. And David liked Jose to be involved and he depended on her. Together they made a lovely couple and we shared with them the stories of their children, Deborah, Louise, Dan and Ben and their grandchildren.
The last few weeks have been very difficult for Jose and the family and indeed for their many friends. But we have seen how Jose has coped with David’s illness, often without much sleep, but always with humour, and friendship, courage and practicality. But although it has been an enormous strain Jose has still managed to maintain her passionate interest in local events, especially the very successful OxfordShir concert at Yarnton two weeks ago, which she initiated but alas in which neither she nor David could take part.
We shall celebrate and remember David’s achievements. We shall mourn the loss of a good friend and a family man. He was universally loved as is his family. David leaves the crown of a good name, which is the greatest crown of all – as it says in the Pirkei Avot. Perhaps though, we can leave the last word to Shakespeare:
“His life was gentle, and the elements So mix’d in him, that Nature might stand up And say to all the world, “This was a man!”
May his memory be blessed • Yihieyeh Zichrono Baruch