Thursday, February 27, 2014

Remembering Allan Halpern

Marash Girl met Andrea in Paris, France, many years before Andrea's marriage to Allan Halpern (we knew him as Avrahm); Marash Boy was best man at their wedding.  Marash Girl posts this eulogy in memory of Allan Halpern -- Avrahm -- who passed away on February 11, 2014, after a long illness.
Allan Halpern & Andrea Colls on their wedding day in Manchester, England
When you’ve grown up with someone your entire life, it’s difficult to summarize all that history in a few words. Allan was always a presence in our lives. He lived with us for a while, and was always present at family gatherings such as Rosh Hashanah and Pesach. We would get together around my mother’s table and discuss, or more precisely, argue about the issues of the day. Part of Allan’s role was the food critic. The gefilte fish was superb, but this year’s matzo balls, perhaps not up to snuff. Next year it might be the reverse. He would know. He had a lifetime of experience with it all.

Allan graduated from Stuyvesant and attended Brown University.  Allan ‘s  willingness to schlepp to Stuyvesant every day illustrates his intellectual seriousness, a quality he displayed his whole life. He was an avid reader and remained passionately engaged with ideas his whole life
At Brown he studied history with one of the great and larger than life characters in the historical profession, Forrest McDonald. My brother Saul, now a professor of history, ran into McDonald at a conference before the elder scholar passed away and mentioned that his cousin Allan had often remarked about the lasting influence of his course, and McDonald smiled and said, yes  Allan Halpern, I remember him “bright and energetic.”  In between the chopped liver and the main course at Passover one might hear Allan defending Hamilton against Jeffersonian heresies, as well as more current arguments on politics and economics.
Allan was a great Epicurean. He loved good food, good wine, classical music, and opera.   He had strong opinions here too, which he had no hesitation in sharing, about the tenor, or which high-end turntable to buy. When I was very young he took me to the old Metropolitan Opera, for a standing room view of the performance. It was a still memorable experience for me.
Allan was a man of strong beliefs. He was a frequent letter writer to the Wall Street Journal, many of which were published, including this one found by Saul that I will quote from. Always well-written and cogently argued, if there was one common theme, it was bemoaning the declining standards of public discourse in an increasingly debased political culture. I would venture to say that our current politics would not have discouraged him in his opinion.
Allan was not afraid to challenge even the most notable of opponents. Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote challenging Arthur Schlesinger, another giant of the field of history.
“ Mr. Schlesinger’s article is a sad abdication of intellectual responsibility. In commenting on a campaign characterized by an unfortunate excess of demagoguery and nastiness, Mr. Schlesinger chooses simply to add an additional dose of vitriol.
Messrs. Reagan and Carter are not stupid men, although the age we live in may appear to distill an excess of simplicity on the part of those engaged in the political process. They must appear to satisfy a broad range of expectations that are politically unobtainable, no doubt fortunately so; and they are forced to champion positions that are often silly and at the same time marginal.”
I think if he were still with us, he could reissue the same opinion by merely bringing the names up to date.
For Allan, genius was a zero sum game. One was a winner or loser, but always a combatant.

Allan liked his independence, so it took him a bit of time to find the right partner in his life. I was in college when he and Andrea were married, and in fact I was with Allan the night before in what passed for a bachelor party, which amounted to both of us getting very drunk and staying out most of the night  hopping around different Greenwich Village bars and coffee shops. But it was clear to me then, and has always been clear to all of us, that he had found a wonderful mate and partner in life, someone that everyone in the family has loved and cherished ever since she became part of our lives. Alan was always an Anglophile, a boy from the Bronx who somewhere along the way picked up a British accent, so of course finding a British wife was the logical next step.

Alan was always the cool cousin, the one who could provide the voice of experience to a younger relative. I will say that with the benefit of hindsight, the advice was occasionally not the best, but it always led to interesting outcomes.  

Allan served as our mentor in all things intellectual. My brother Gary could not be here tonight—his girlfriend’s mother passed away Friday and he had to fly to San Diego. But Allan was an important influence on his life as well, teaching him Algebra when he was in the fifth grade, starting him on the road to his degrees in math, introducing him to the Marshal Chess Club where he eventually became a serious player and taking Gary to Strand and other used book stores, where Gary started on the used book hunting that has been such a large and happy part of his life.

Allan faced many difficulties in his life, with parents who died when he was young, and a sometimes challenging family environment, for our family was not an easy one to live within, but he wanted to find his own way and did. He was an important influence on me and my brothers as we grew up, and a constant presence in our lives. We loved him and we will miss him. Grief is the price we pay for love.

 I will recite a quote from proverbs that I think exemplifies what Allan believed in, and how he lived his life.

The Proverbs of Solomon
Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruits. 

And lastly, a quote from Albert Einstein that I think Allan would appreciate
Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

 The song is ended, but the melody lives on.

Written and presented by Gene Cornell at the funeral service of Allan Halpern. Manhattan, New York.

1 comment:

  1. I met Avrahm on a few occasions, and was always pulled in by the gravitas of his energy. Since i have loved Andrea from the first moment she walked into our home in Newton, it is from my love for her that I grieve. I knew Avrahm by his gravitas, but i know Andrea by her love.