In Praise of Allen Hoffman

“Take a bit of the Baal Shem Tov, or at least his beard. Pour in a healthy helping of beatnik, well maybe the beret. Then add a smidgeon of Stan Musial. Step back and behold the golem you’ve wrought. Oh my Lord! It’s Allen Hoffman.”

This is Melvin Jules Bukiet ‘s note paying tribute to his friend Allen Hoffman—writer, teacher and mentor in the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University. The Program honored Hoffman’s  retirement at the Tsuris and Other Literary Pleasures Conference, May 6-8, 2012.

 Linda Zisquit read notes of appreciation from some of the Program’s former visiting writers and friends: Bukiet, Mark Mirsky, Steve Stern and Sidra Ezrahi Below are excerpts from Stern’s note.  Enjoy.

 …I had been frankly afraid to meet him. I’d read the stories (Kagan’s Superfecta and Other Stories, 1981. JL)—written in a language that fluctuated between a wise-cracking, street-savvy colloquial and the lyrical grace of the Psalms; it was a language that embraced extremes, passing from mood to mood in a single sentence with the deceptive ease of a pirouette on the flying trapeze. These were stories in which the smell of delicatessen and the stinky underwear of old men mingled with the scent wafting from Isaiah’s beard.

Stories in which gamblers, arsonists and survivors rub shoulders with angels, and Einstein Moses and Babe Ruth occupy the same turf at the same time; stories in which Uncle Maxie and the Messiah are interchangeable. And those sentences! To each of which the long train of tradition seemed to be attached, and yet, as if the tradition were the tail of a kite. Allen’s sentences remained lighter-than-air. I’d read the novels (Small Worlds series, JL) that set about visiting every historical station along the entire trajectory of the Diaspora. Books whose essence constituted a marriage between the haimish and the sublime, a wedding at which all the guests trafficked in magic. I read and thought: God help me; this guy’s the real thing. Having poached for years from those provinces of the sacred and profane that Allen Hoffman bestrode, I thought: he’s going to unmask me for the amateur that I am. He’ll make me eat every page I’ve ever written.

So I wasn’t prepared to meet the prince of menschlikeit. More than tolerating me, he embraced me like I might be Elijah in disguise, made me feel I was welcome to continue stealing fruit from the orchard wherein he dwelled. Still I was on my guard. I mean, the guy was formidable, a force of nature, with the energy and ready wit of a Borscht Belt tumbler spouting jokes fresh and stale from the eye of a hurricane. So accustomed did I become to his humor that only later did I realize how his jokes were disguised midrashim, how he leavened with laughter the wisdom he so casually imparted. And Lord, was he learned! He quoted Talmud and baseball stats with equal fluency, modulating his conversation between the Western canon—from Don Quixote to Don Drysdale—and the table talk of rabbis both ancient and still kicking. A tireless performer, he was a listener as well, and I think that I’d never been taken so seriously. But there was the rub: because to be in Allen’s company was to have to take one’s self seriously, and to assume the responsibilities attendant upon that humbling experience.

Whereas I was busy playing at being an obsessed and self-absorbed scribe, Allen was much more ambitious: he had undertaken to be a good man. An artist to be sure, he was equally committed to being a father, husband, teacher and friend. Go figure. The cliché is to say that Allen Hoffman lives in two worlds—past and present, earth and air, and so on. But that’s not really the case; because for Allen there’s no commute between worlds; antiquity and the current moment inhabit the same place and time. He lives in the Old City of Jerusalem as it was and as it is; myth and reality coexist in a timeless harmony….To sit at his Shabbos table is to be situated at once in the bosom of a family while at the same time participating in a séance at which David and Ezekiel persist in tapping the table. I’ve never known anyone whose nature combines in such equal portions the messy terrestrial and the giddy atmosphere of the upper Eden.

… Let my voice join the chorus; heap praises upon his hoary head and let them rain down upon his dandruff-sprinkled shoulders until he kvells to bursting and hemorrhages internally from overmuch affection. I haven’t seen Allen in several years, yet he’s become an irrepressible facet of my consciousness, part conscience, part guardian angel. There’s nobody like him. God bless his incandescent pupik.

About Judy Labensohn

I'm a writer and teacher of writing.
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10 Responses to In Praise of Allen Hoffman

  1. estherhecht says:

    Jesus, Judy, you’ve blown me away with this post. Masterful, to say the least (and to use a sexist descriptor, for which my apologies). Kol hakavod.


  2. Yonatan Sredni says:

    I want to add that A. Hoffman is quite amazing in that he has worked with so many students of so many backgrounds and yet he takes the time to work with them and truly serve as a ‘mentor’ and not just in their writing. When I completed my thesis (with him as my advisor) I gave him a little baseball statue (like the award you get as a kid) that said ‘To my coach’, he really was! – Yonatan Sredni


  3. I first heard about him ,almost three decades ago in NY from people who’d been his Shabbos guests. How our lives interconnect. Best


    • Jonathan B. Horen says:

      And I first met Allen (and Steffi, Avigail, and Eli… and then, Atara) when I was a bochur at Yeshivat Aish HaTorah, in early-February 1980. As with your friends, we met over the Shabbos table… his. We’ve been friends, ever since. He’s a good friend… a good husband and father, too (I was privileged to know, first-hand, that side of their lives)… a good Person, and probably the best I know. I knew Allen and Steffi for 25 years in Israel, before returning to the US, and my life is diminished by their absence. Allen’s stories of St. Louis Jewry are not to be missed; I would love to read his memoirs.


  4. Thanks for the intro to a new writer, Judy. He may be retiring, but I’m about to begin having a look at his work, given the gorgeous prose from Steve Stern.


  5. canalwriter says:

    This is brilliant writing Judy.
    Doesn’t half make me want to meet him – and to see you again soon!


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