Lawrence L. Besserman, Professor of English emeritus at Hebrew University died peacefully on 17 July, 2017 in Jerusalem. A summa cum laude graduate of Columbia University and elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, Besserman received his Ph.D. from Harvard University. His dissertation, “The Story of Job: A Survey of Its Literary History, with Special Reference to Medieval English” was written under the direction of Morton W. Bloomfield and Larry D. Benson. It became his first book, published in 1979 by Harvard University Press, and defined the area of his life-long work. Other books followed from his hand: Chaucer and the Bible: A Critical Review of Research, Indexes, and Bibliography (Garland, 1988); Chaucer’s Biblical Poetics (University of Oklahoma, 1998); Biblical Paradigms in Medieval English Literature: From Caedmon to Malory (Routledge, 2011). In addition to 35 articles and chapters, many reviews and lectures, he edited The Challenge of Periodization: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives (Garland, 1996) and Sacred and Secular in Medieval and Early-Modern Cultures: New Essays (Palgrave, 2006).
A scholar’s scholar, fluently at home in Old and Middle English, Old French, Latin, Hebrew, able to find his way as well through Old Norse prose and Koiné Greek, Larry epitomized the learned life well lived, of a kind and to a degree grown increasingly rare in later times. Always a gentleman, he epitomized that too, in the best sense: ever thoughtful of others’ needs, generous with his time and his knowledge, committed to women’s equality both in his scholarship and teaching and in the Jewish congregation to which he was devoted, forbearant when forbearance was called for, he would nonetheless rise in a flash to oppose injustice wherever he found it. His students at Hebrew University, where he taught from 1977 until his retirement in 2010, and at Columbia, where he taught in the summers, knew him to set a high bar, but—ever willing to help—he would invariably find ways to see the slow-if-serious scramble over it. If his erudition, lightly borne but ever-present, earned their respect, no less than that of his colleagues, it was yet his kindness that won their hearts.
Or else it was his legendary sense of humor: few have been fonder of a good laugh than Larry Besserman, and even fewer, especially now, when the sidewise one-liner seems the hallmark of high humor, could unspool a joke or a shaggy dog tale with his flawless timing and exquisite choice of detail. His stock of funny stories and razor-keen witticisms was vast, seemingly collected over many years and in many places, and carefully collated according to some arcane mental system to facilitate instant recall. When he encountered a kindred spirit, little delighted him more than to “trade licks,” swapping story-for-story, first in one vein, then in another. If good food and a good bottle were present to share, so much the better.
Above all, Larry was a man who loved deeply. He loved his subject, the multi-lingual literatures of the Middle Ages; his many friends, to whom, once given, his commitment was absolute; his two countries—the United States, the place of his birth, and Israel, in defense of whose cause he could be fierce; and Judith foremost, his wife of many years. By all who knew him, learned from him, laughed with him, he will be greatly missed.
R. F. Yeager, University of West Florida
August 22, 2017