By Michelle Christianson
Longtime St. Anthony Park resident and award-winning journalist Jay Weiner has written a new book, “Professor Berman: The Last Lecture of Minnesota’s Greatest Public Historian,” scheduled for release on Nov. 12.
Weiner’s latest book is a fascinating compilation of Hy Berman’s writings, lectures and stories told in his inimitable voice. (Jay also wrote Stadium Games: Fifty Years of Big League Greed and Bush League Boondoggles and THIS IS NOT FLORIDA: How Al Franken Won the Minnesota Senate Recount.)
Many people knew University of Minnesota Professor Berman as their history instructor or as a commentator on local news programs discussing the historical implications of current political issues. Weiner got to know him personally when they both attended Tom SenGupta’s weeknight “salons” at Schneider Drug and later, even better, when the group planned a memorial to honor “the common man.”
Over dinner and drinks, Weiner heard many of Berman’s best stories (repeatedly) and learned that though he had been interviewed by California political scientist Jack Stewart, nothing had been done with the three-ring binder containing those interviews and some rough chapters.
On the spur of the moment, in 2015, Weiner accepted the challenge of finishing what Stewart had started. After conducting more than 40 hours of interviews and completing an outline and first chapter of the book, Weiner then learned the sad news: Berman had died on Nov. 29, 2015. How would he finish this book?
Initially, there appeared to be little detailed information about Berman’s thinking and evolution as a historian, as he said that he didn’t keep any papers or personal documents. But when the family cleaned out the house after his death, they found 22 boxes containing such papers, including stories he had never told before. Weiner spent another year going through the boxes, watching videos of Berman’s television appearances and reading all that he could about the man.
The final book product is part biography, part history and part funny stories.
Berman was the son of Polish immigrant garment workers who were very involved in the Jewish labor movement and the Communist Party in the 1920s and he soaked up their passion and ideology from a young age. After getting his B.S. in history from City College of New York, he taught at his alma mater, at Brooklyn College and Michigan State before coming to the University of Minnesota in 1961, earning his masters and PhD degrees along the way.
Weiner writes Berman “instantly became a Minnesotan” and was often called Minnesota’s historian. During his life, he intersected with many of Minnesota’s most influential politicians, including Hubert Humphrey, Rudy Perpich, Harold Stassen, Arne Carlson and Jesse Ventura. He evolved as a historian and political person, but always kept his devotion to progressive ideals and internationalism. One of the most important speeches he wrote was for Rudy Perpich, entitled “History Through the Eyes of the Vanquished,” which encouraged Minnesotans to look at how events affected the working poor, American Indians and people of color.
Weiner’s book contains interesting anecdotes about the history of the labor movement, what Minnesota and the University were like when Berman first arrived and how that culture changed, and how he knew the important people in the state and often influenced them. He was a larger-than-life man who knew it, playing a key role when Rudy Perpich decided to appoint Rosalie Wahl to the Minnesota Supreme Court and negotiating with students who took over University President Malcolm Moos’ office one day in 1969. Though he didn’t publish as much as some of his University colleagues, Berman felt it was more important to impart historical perspective to the public at large than to have articles appear in journals where only a few people would see them.
Weiner discovered a few things about Berman that he hadn’t known, including the death of his daughter, his wife’s internment at Auschwitz and his repudiation of communism in his later life. There is also a bit about his testimony in the tobacco trial and what his reason for testifying for the defense may have been.
Weiner says the audience for his book includes students who loved Berman, people who love history, the Minnesota Jewish community and, really, anyone who is curious about Minnesota’s history and political development. (And, it’s laugh-out-loud funny in places!)
The book will be available at all bookstores and online, including from the University of Minnesota Press website. Weiner will read from the book at the Minneapolis Central Library on Nov. 16 at 2 p.m., and at the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul on Nov. 25 at 7 p.m.
To learn more, go to the U of M Press’ website at https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/professor-berman