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The Wondering Jew 

For UVM prof Richard Sugarman, life's big questions are the sweetest pursuit

Bernie Sanders

Published December 12, 2012 at 9:33 a.m.

Richard Sugarman - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Richard Sugarman

Professor Richard Sugarman stands with a slight stoop at the blackboard in Room B-132 of the University of Vermont’s Living/Learning Center. He begins his last class of the semester the same way he begins all his classes: “Does anyone want to ask a question?”

None of the two dozen students in this midlevel Judaism course has one. But over the next 90 minutes, Sugarman asks many of his own, in a teaching style that’s part Socratic method, part Talmudic debate.

Some of his questions are strictly factual: After Israel’s war for independence in 1948, when Jerusalem became an international city, who granted the local Muslim clergy the power to govern their own institutions? “It was a famous general who had an eye patch,” Sugarman hints, “like the Hathaway shirt man.” (Answer: Moshe Dayan.)

Other questions are more speculative: In the early 20th century, a neighborhood in Burlington was known as Little Jerusalem because of its relatively large population of Orthodox Jews. “Why isn’t that community still here?” Sugarman asks.

“Rural flight?” guesses one student, to which his professor laughs but then acknowledges a kernel of truth in the answer.

In those years, Sugarman explains, Burlington’s Orthodox Jews, most of whom worked in Winooski’s woolen mills, didn’t have yeshivas, or Jewish day schools, where their children could study full time. It’s a problem that drove Sugarman’s own family, also Orthodox Jews, out of Burlington. For 15 years he commuted to UVM from Albany, and then later from Monsey, N.Y., so his three children could attend yeshivas. His wife, Linda, agreed to move back to Burlington only if they could live within walking distance of the synogogue.

Sugarman’s classes are fun in part because they’re packed with interesting trivia: “The first course devoted to the study of the Holocaust was taught at which university?” he asks. It was UVM. Sugarman’s old friend, the late Raul Hilberg, created the course for what later became the university’s Center for Holocaust Studies.

“Anybody minoring in the Holocaust? Anyone? No?” Sugarman asks, looking around the room. When no hands go up, he gives a resigned shrug. His disappointment is understandable. Sugarman grew up in a predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in north Buffalo, N.Y., where one in every four residents was a “DP,” or displaced person, tattooed with a number from a Nazi death camp.

But Sugarman’s most intriguing questions are the ones without easy answers: those about the meaning of life and death, the phenomenon of time, and our duty to create a better world. He teaches in the religion department, but his formal training at Yale University and much of his published scholarship since then have been in philosophy. Notably, he’s a world-renowned expert on the Lithuanian-born philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-95), whom Sugarman calls “the preeminent post-Holocaust Jewish philosopher.”

For Levinas, the other comes before the self, Sugarman explains. In other words, one’s responsibility to other people takes precedence over one’s individual rights and needs.

To those who know Sugarman well, his fondness for Levinas makes sense: A self-described “economic socialist,” he cofounded the Living/Learning Center, which is all about fostering lasting relationships between faculty and their students. And, by all accounts, no one is better at it than Sugarman.

That much is obvious from talking with his Judaism students, some of whom aren’t religion majors — or even registered for his class — but attend just to be around him. During an interval when their professor is out of the room so they can complete their end-of-semester course evaluations, there’s no shortage of students describing themselves as sweet on Sugarman.

“He exudes knowledge and wisdom,” one student says.

“He tells it like it is,” says another.

“It’s a worldly class,” another chimes in. “I definitely learned a lot from him about life.”

“We all have sort of a personal relationship with him,” adds senior Allison Coppola. “You don’t have to be intimidated by him. You can just talk to him.”

Kaleb Szabo, a senior, reveals one comment on his evaluation. Under the section that asks how this course could be improved, he suggests, “Make Sugarman immortal!”

Such glowing praise is typical. Sugarman, who’s been teaching at UVM since 1970, consistently receives top marks from his students. Eight years of feedback about him on the website attests to it: “Awesome!” “Amazingly brilliant!” “Hands down one of the best professors I have ever had.” One wrote that Sugarman “brings students back to a time when teachers were life mentors.” Several students exclaimed, “I love him!” One wants him as a grandfather.

“He’s very open to all people,” says Patrick Hutton, a UVM history professor who, like Sugarman, teaches in the Integrated Humanities Program. “There’s an ecumenical character to his religious understanding, where he relates to students of all faiths, as well as students who are primarily humanists.”

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of Sugarman’s oldest and closest friends in Vermont — the two roomed together in Burlington in the ’70s and still meet regularly for long walks — is rarely upstaged in public. But Sanders has seen firsthand the depth of emotion Sugarman’s students feel for him, even decades after they graduate.

“What impresses me about Richard is,” Sanders says, “I cannot walk down Church Street without people coming up to him who say, ‘I was in your class 20 years ago and it had a profound impact on my life.’”

Sanders has felt that impact himself. It was Sugarman who convinced him to run for mayor of Burlington in 1981, a decision that launched his long and storied political career.

“He thought that I had a chance to win it,” Sanders acknowledges. “I myself did not think that at the time, but Richard did.”

Sanders knows as well as anyone why students are drawn to Sugarman: It’s his warmth, intelligence, sense of humor and keen storytelling abilities.

“But I think young people also perceive that he really cares about them,” Sanders adds. “Richard has deep feelings for people and deep feelings about the world in which he lives.”

Those people include Huck Gutman, Sanders’ chief of staff for the last six years. Gutman, who himself began teaching at UVM in 1971 and will return there in January, is also close to Sugarman. They frequently talk by phone, sometimes for hours, discussing everything from sports to Spinoza, a 17th-century philosopher. Sugarman, Gutman says, is a model to which professors should aspire.

Why? His relationship with his students, Gutman explains, isn’t based on a desire for “disciples” who blindly follow his religious or philosophical pronouncements.

“He never aspires to that,” Gutman says. “What Richard wants from his students is for them to live an inquiring life philosophically, and that means constantly questioning things.”

An unapologetic Zionist, Sugarman is left of center on every issue “except Israel.” But Gutman insists that Sugarman never tries to indoctrinate his students or brings his politics into the classroom.

“I think he brings his humanity into the classroom,” Gutman suggests. “In my opinion, he is the single best teacher at the University of Vermont.”

Class over color

Sugarman expresses genuine surprise that someone is interested in telling his story. “What’s the matter?” he asks. “Did Seven Days finally run out of people to write about?”

Sugarman’s office is really just a small desk and computer in the common area of an office suite in Living/Learning. Here he often holds court with students on subjects ranging from French existentialism to his beloved New York Yankees.

Sugarman, 68, suffers from arthritis and walks slowly with a hand-carved wooden cane. Still, he directs a visiting reporter to the more comfortable chair. “Go! Sit! I’ll be fine,” he insists.

Sugarman looks the part of a Jewish philosopher — albeit one of bear-like stature who once boxed and played high school football. He sports a full salt-and-pepper beard and large black yarmulke, or skullcap, but eschews the payes, or traditional side locks, customary among some Orthodox Jews. Dressed entirely in black except for his white, perpetually untucked shirttail, Sugarman explains why the Orthodox wear black: modesty before God.

“I wear it,” he adds, “because I don’t like to think about clothes.”

It’s impossible to spend time with Sugarman and not discover his keen sense of humor. When he says, “Now, that’s a very interesting question,” it invariably leads down a rabbit hole of anecdotes that eventually circle back to some crucial point.

Sugarman was born in 1944, which, he notes only partly in jest, “Winston Churchill described as the worst year in human history.” He still speaks with the long “A” of his native Buffalo. There, his father ran a wholesale fruit business, which explains his surname, which he believes was originally Zukerman, from the Yiddish zuker, or sugar.

Actually, Sugarman’s father and uncles were “in almost every business you can imagine,” he says. “They were entrepreneurs — or would have liked to have been.” Among their short-lived enterprises was a PGA golf course his father and an uncle bought in Fort Erie, Ont., just across the Peace Bridge from Buffalo. This was at a time when most golf clubs wouldn’t admit Jews — not that it made much difference to them.

“They couldn’t afford to join. But nobody knew that,” recalls Sugarman, who worked four summers at the club as a greenskeeper. What did he learn? “To loathe golf,” he jokes.

Sugarman’s religious upbringing was “mixed.” His father’s family was Hasidim Orthodox from Ukraine; his mother’s, Reform Jews from England. Sugarman’s paternal grandmother expressed doubts that his mother was Jewish because she didn’t speak Yiddish.

By age 13, Sugarman had entered his “antireligion” phase. He penned an essay about the biblical story of Abraham nearly sacrificing his son, Isaac. Sugarman argued that Abraham was “totally irrational” and shouldn’t have been allowed around children. It got him kicked out of Hebrew school. “Little did I know,” he says, “that years later I would be writing about this [story] more sympathetically.”

Want to see an hour disappear? Ask Sugarman about the many jobs he’s had: cleaning laboratory test tubes, selling balloons at the Buffalo Zoo, delivering the Buffalo Evening News. He quips that on his paper route, his dog got more tips than he did.

But Sugarman’s most life-altering employment — before he discovered teaching, that is — was working at the Allied Chemical & Dye plant in Buffalo. He describes it as a filthy, sweltering and oppressive place to work. Several workers died during his employment there; the rest were checked for cancer every six months.

“That changed my view of life,” Sugarman says. “I never had a religious epiphany, but I did have a political one.”

In 1962, Allied Chemical employed about 12,000 workers. In those years, the plant had de facto segregation: blacks working in one area, whites — predominantly Poles — in another.

When Sugarman was hired, he was asked whether he wanted to work with the blacks or whites. Since Poles and Jews didn’t get along well, Sugarman joined the black unit.

After he had spent several hours shoveling coal tar vigorously, his black foreman asked why he was working so hard. Sugarman remembers feeling that it confirmed every negative stereotype he harbored about African Americans.

“That’s the problem with you people!” he told his foreman. “You don’t have the American work ethic. You’ll never get ahead!”

The foreman just laughed. Two hours later, when Sugarman was getting tired, the foreman again asked how he was doing. Sugarman looked up and realized that all the black laborers were working at the same pace as earlier that morning. With a newfound respect, he asked his boss how long those men had worked at the plant.

“‘Since the war,’” Sugarman recalls the foreman saying. “I said, ‘They’ve been here 17 years, doing the same work every day?’ Immediately, a light went on in my head.”

By quitting time, every worker in the plant, black or white, was the same color: that of whatever chemical dye they were producing that day. Class, Sugarman says, had triumphed over race and ethnicity.

“I began to change my political outlook immediately,” he adds. “I said, ‘There’s something profoundly wrong with the way I’m thinking.’ Did it have to be that way? I didn’t think so.”

Shul days

In the fall of 1962, Sugarman became the first member of his family to attend college. That was a big deal, especially in those years, he says, when Yale still had quotas for the number of Jews it admitted.

Initially, Sugarman told his mother he didn’t want to go to Yale because it wasn’t a “real school,” he recounts. Why? Its football team wasn’t ranked in the top 20. “Can’t I go to a real school,” he asked, “like Ohio State?”

At Yale, Sugarman roomed with another future U.S. senator: Joe Lieberman, whose mother encouraged Sugarman’s religious observances.

“Joe was in his lapsed phase,” he recalls, “but his mother certainly wasn’t!”

She often invited the boys to their home for the Jewish high holidays. Years later, when Lieberman got married, Sugarman signed his ketubah, or Jewish marriage contract. “I think I signed it twice,” he says.

When Sugarman’s father died, Lieberman and his first wife traveled to Buffalo for the funeral. As the story goes, the couple was trying to get pregnant, and Sugarman’s uncle told them that, according to the Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, it’s easier to conceive a child right before a funeral.

“Nine months to the day, they had a child,” Sugarman says.

Roger Duncan, now a philosophy professor retired from the University of Connecticut, also attended Yale with Sugarman. The two studied under philosopher John Wild, who eventually became Sugarman’s mentor and introduced him to Levinas. Nearly 40 years later, Duncan and Sugarman collaborated on a book about Wild — which, Duncan recalls, they hammered out in five hours in a pub in Oxford, England.

Duncan recounts how Sugarman met his other formative philosophy instructor: Paul Weiss, Yale’s first Jewish professor. By the 1960s, Weiss was already famous. Sugarman was just getting into Jewish philosophy when he learned that, every day, Weiss stopped at the same newspaper boxes on a particular corner in New Haven.

One morning, Sugarman stationed himself at the newspaper boxes. When Weiss stopped to check the headlines, Sugarman stepped up and introduced himself. Weiss was polite but curt, then hurried off.

“At which point,” Duncan says, “Richard yells after him, ‘Nice not meeting you, Mr. Weiss!’” According to Duncan, Weiss was amused and invited Sugarman back to his office. The two soon became fast friends.

After finishing undergrad and graduate school at Yale, and then his doctoral coursework at Boston University, Sugarman briefly took a job driving a taxi in Cambridge, Mass., a job for which, he readily admits, he was poorly suited.

“Richard could get lost in the supermarket looking for a can of tuna fish,” says Linda Niedweske, a former student of Sugarman’s who later served as Sanders’ first campaign manager and administrative assistant in Burlington City Hall. “But he’s one of the smartest and most genuine people I know.”

In 1970, Sugarman was offered a part-time job teaching philosophy in an experimental program at UVM that was a precursor to Living/Learning.

“They told me I’d be the philosopher-in-residence,” he says. “That sounded better than driving a taxi.”

Ironically, it wasn’t until Sugarman lived in Burlington, surrounded by more gentiles than Jews, that he began to appreciate “a more traditional kind of Judaism.” He began attending Ahavath Gerim, then an Orthodox synagogue on Archibald Street.

“I said, ‘You know, this is not so bad,’” he recalls. “I got to eat lunch there every Shabbas, which was the best food I had all week.”

Duncan, who has stayed in touch with Sugarman, calls his old friend “a living paradox”: a devoutly religious man in a secular world who doesn’t hide his deep faith yet to whom students flock like to “the Pied Piper.”

“In the broadest sense, he’s a thinker,” Duncan explains. “And he’s a thinker who attracts people not only because of his personality but because he has real thoughts, the kinds of thoughts that freshmen expect when they come to a philosophy course.”

As some college departments of religion and philosophy “lose steam” and become mere training grounds for jobs in academia, Duncan adds, “It’s people like Sugarman who represent the real thing.”

Sugarman, too, bemoans that trend in higher education.

“Right now everybody is concerned with making a living. Perfectly understandable,” he says. “But you also have to make a life.”

Living and learning in Burlington

In 1974, UVM’s philosophy and religion department became two separate entities. In the process, several of Sugarman’s philosophy colleagues were “purged.” Sugarman joined the department of religion and has remained there ever since.

“I was against the split,” he explains. “I’d already seen what happens when philosophy dealt with only narrowly defined questions, and I didn’t want that. I thought that religion helped keep you focused on the bigger questions of life.”

Though immersed in such “bigger questions,” Sugarman didn’t just live in his head. For a time he worked as a dorm dad and “bouncer” at Coolidge Hall on the Redstone campus.

In 1971, an ex-Marine had moved into Coolidge whom Sugarman jokingly describes as a “transfer student from the Bronx Zoo. We learned later that his hobby was beating up nuns at Rice High School. This guy was totally mashugana [crazy]. And a raving anti-Semite.”

One day, while Sugarman was volunteering at UVM’s Hillel, the Jewish students’ center, he learned that the ex-Marine was assaulting some female students in a dorm room.

“Maybe I was looking for a fight. I don’t think so,” Sugarman recollects about the confrontation that ensued. The former Marine threatened Sugarman with a beer bottle, then shoved him against a wall, which led to a “life-and-death fight over a banister” witnessed by scores of students. The professor still recaps the fight as though it happened yesterday.

Sugarman, a former boxer, ultimately prevailed. Several administrators called to congratulate him — although, because the student’s mother served on the UVM board of trustees, the university never ejected him or pressed charges.

Most of the time, however, Sugarman wrestled not with big drunks but with big ideas. He can’t remember exactly when he met Bernie Sanders, but he knows they were on a train together headed north to Vermont.

“I was coming back from finishing my doctoral dissertation,” Sugarman says. “Bernard had a family reunion, which was probably just as traumatic.” The two talked for hours on a variety of topics, including the economic inequities in Burlington.

“I was deeply disturbed by the fact that people who worked in the city couldn’t afford to live in the city,” Sugarman says. “I thought that was wrong.”

Later, after Sanders got evicted from an apartment on Maple Street, Sugarman invited him to move into his place at 149 Cherry Street.

Evidently, the two got along famously. Sugarman recalls how Bernie would often wake up — “Neither of us are the world’s best sleepers,” Sugarman says — and immediately launch into a discussion about some issue he’d been ruminating on all night. “I said, ‘Couldn’t you say “hello” or “good morning” first?’”

It was Sugarman who recognized that, while Sanders did poorly in statewide races, he did increasingly well in Burlington.

“‘I think you can win,’” he remembers telling Sanders, “‘but we have to make this about concrete issues: neighborhoods and snow removal and things that people actually care about.’ And he became an unbelievable student of this stuff.”

In 1981, when Sanders was elected mayor by just 12 votes, it was Sugarman who oversaw the vote recount to make sure Sanders’ victory wasn’t stolen.

“Later I asked him, ‘What’s in it for me?’” Sugarman recalls. “He said, ‘You get to be commissioner of reality.’” It was an unpaid position.

More than 30 years later, Sugarman still serves at times as the commissioner of reality — for Sanders and others. His fellow philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, who was a close confidant of Pope John Paul II, told Sugarman that one of his journal articles in Phenomenological Inquiry was on the pontiff’s nightstand the day he died.

Characteristically, Sugarman is too modest to dwell on such things. He’s just grateful to have had a career that lends itself to contemplation. As he puts it, “I certainly didn’t want to go back to the factory, or the golf course, or the zoo.”

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.

About the Artist

Matthew Thorsen

Matthew Thorsen

Matthew Thorsen was a photographer for Seven Days 1995-2018. Read all about his life and work here.


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