Work at Figaro was only part-time. The rest of the day was spent at Brooklyn College, where I had made a resolution to be a much more serious student. And so it came to pass. Unexpectedly I met some incredible teachers who were going to influence the rest of my life. I believe I could have attended any elite university in the country and not have had the kind of experience I had at humble Brooklyn College. Possibly this was due to the fact that the professors’ primary responsibility was teaching. Publishing was not emphasized the way it is today, and “publish or perish” was not the rule at Brooklyn. Small classes and gifted teachers were the rule . Lecture halls with 800 to 1000 students were unknown, and all the professors were wonderfully accessible.
Among my most memorable professors was the remarkable Vera Lachmann. I didn’t know it at the time, but her doctoral dissertation, done in Berlin at the same time as Hitler was rising to power, dealt with the Icelandic Sagas. I also didn’t know that after Jewish children were denied public schooling in Nazi Germany, she organized and taught at a school for about sixty Jewish children in Berlin. She also helped many of these children flee to other countries, and in 1939 fled Germany herself. I knew that she had spent some time in England teaching Latin, and now she was at Brooklyn College, teaching a required Greek and Roman classics course and a few other things. She also taught Classical Greek, Greek mythology, and Greek theater. During the summers she ran her own summer camp, where parents on visiting days were sometimes shocked and/or amused by the performance of Lysistrata by their little boys.
I fell under Vera’s spell, although our first contact was rather embarrassing, as she had to wake me from one of my classroom naps. Her class was the last of the day, and she spoke English with a German accent which was sometimes difficult to follow when I felt drowsy. Whatever the reasons or the excuses, I really had difficulty staying awake, and when I told her my story of the job, late bedtimes, and so on, she understood, but suggested I not do it again, and I didn’t.
I began studying Greek under Vera Lachmann, and then I took whatever other courses Lachmann taught. Under her guidance, (and that of Ethyle Wolf, another classicist in the department) I read and learned from the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the comedies of Aristophanes. Most importantly, she taught me the Greek concept of κάλοσ κάί άγάθιά, which translates as the quest for the good and the beautiful, but which was also to be achieved in one’s own being as the development of the good, the true, and the beautiful in the self. As far as I was concerned, Lachmann embodied that concept. Does all this sound like hero worship or religious revelation? Probably, but I’m really proud of having known Vera Lachmann during those years at Brooklyn College, and I was not alone in how I felt about her. Suddenly Brooklyn College experienced an efflorescence of Greek majors, men and women who later in life went on to staff the classics departments of universities throughout the country. Absolutely amazing what one great teacher can do!