The Natural

Hyman Kleinman, literature faculty emeritus, turns 100

Fred Baumgarten

Hyman Kleinman

On a chilly Friday in late November, literature faculty emeritus Hyman Kleinman sits behind a desk in the Marshall Field Music Building, wearing a tweed jacket and a loud, patterned sixties tie. His devoted students, mostly adult community members from Westchester and New York City, sit with rapt attention.

Before the class begins, Mina Crasson, a long-time Yonkers resident, turns to me and whispers hurriedly, “We all love him, because he loves us back.” That mutual affection may be what keeps Kleinman coming back to campus, even though he celebrated his 100th birthday on January 19.

The venerable teacher retired from Sarah Lawrence in 1984, after 20 years at the College. But he soon returned to give a class for the Friends of the Library, and he’s been coming back ever since. “I live Friday to Friday in happy anticipation of meeting you again,” he tells the class. “I am doing off the payroll with great joy what I used to do on the payroll”—guiding his charges through a work of fiction.

Virtually everyone who has come into contact with Kleinman cites the remarkable breadth of his scholarship, his ability to bring mythology, religion, and vast personal experience to bear on a short story or other piece of literature. “He’ll always find something new, even if it’s a story he’s used before,” says Crasson, who has been coming to Kleinman’s class for 20 years.

She says, with evident awe, “He cares about every student. He gets to know everyone’s name. If someone misses a class, he’ll phone us.” She adds, “We all wish that we could continue to be as darling and intellectually stimulating, and have such a memory, at his age.”

According to Sha Fagan, director of libraries and academic computing, Kleinman was just as influential as a faculty member. Among his donnees were Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel ’81, author Richard Morais ’81, and Alice Greenwald ’73, director of the National September 11 Memorial Museum. “His quest for knowledge is insatiable,” says Fagan, who visits Kleinman every week and helps look up things for him on the Internet.

Ella Foshay ’69 met Kleinman while she was teaching art history at the College in the mid-1990s, and was so taken with him that she started attending his Friends of the Library classes. In 1999, she established the Hyman H. Kleinman Fellowship in the Humanities in his honor, which is awarded to outstanding junior faculty.

Kleinman’s love of teaching has always been clear. In the 1950s, Kleinman was teaching at Juilliard, where he had established the humanities program. “You’d be a natural” at Sarah Lawrence, a colleague told him, noting his zeal.

So began a love affair that hasn’t ended yet. “My wife used to refer to Sarah Lawrence as ‘the other woman,’” Kleinman once told an interviewer.

It may be purely coincidental that Kleinman was born in the same year, 1914, and the same place as one of his favorite authors, Bernard Malamud, both Jewish boys from Brooklyn. And like Malamud’s resurrected baseball player, Roy Hobbs, Kleinman truly is The Natural.

Back on that November afternoon, the last class of the fall term, Kleinman voices a tinge of regret—“I’m very sad to take my leave of you now, as I always am,” he says to the students—along with a hint of doubt for the future.

But I don’t think anyone in the room would bet against his swift return at the first crack of a bat in spring.