Professor Moshe Lazar was a Renaissance man and polymath whose studies ranged across the centuries, from medieval Sephardic life and writings to modern Hebrew poetry, according to his colleagues and students at USC.
Lazar died in his Culver City home on Dec. 13 following a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 84.
Sonia Lazar, his wife of 41 years, described her husband as a “soldier scholar,” who fought in four of Israel’s wars after surviving the Holocaust as a boy.
If Lazar had possessed a heraldic family crest, it would be inscribed “Safra V’Sayfa” -– Aramaic for “Book and Sword” -– both in the service of the Jewish people, a 1995 article in the Jewish Journal noted.
Lazar was fluent in 13 languages, translating plays, an Arnold Schoenberg opera and other secular works, but his overriding life’s work was to resurrect and preserve the rich Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) literary legacy of the Middle Ages.
In a tribute to Lazar’s life and accomplishments by the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, professor William Thalmann, like Lazar a comparative literature scholar, observed, “A chance hallway conversation, on whatever Moshe happened to be thinking about, was very often an education in itself.
“He was devoted to his students, and they to him… His door was always open, and no matter how busy he was, he always had time for his students.”
Moshe Lazar was born July 4, 1928, in Bercu, Romania. A few months after his birth, the family moved to Antwerp, Belgium.
In 1940, when Nazi planes bombed the city, 11-year-old Moshe and his parents sought refuge in southwest France, but were arrested and interned in the Rivesaltes transit camp.
The Lazars spent three years in the camp, even as most other inmates were deported to Auschwitz. Finally, with the help of the French Underground, the family escaped, and Moshe survived the last two years of the war in a Catholic school, where he spent part of his time memorizing English and mathematics textbooks.
After the war, Lazar enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he studied comparative literature. He shared an apartment with aspiring writer Elie Wiesel and took pantomime lessons with the great mime Marcel Marceau.
When the War of Independence broke out in 1948, Lazar made his way to Israel and joined an elite Palmach unit. He went on to earn a master’s degree at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, continued his studies at the University of Salamanca in Spain and received his doctorate at the Sorbonne.
Returning to Israel, he taught at the Hebrew University and then joined the faculty of Tel Aviv University, where he founded the country’s first School of Visual and Performing Arts.
USC invited Lazar as a visiting professor in 1977 and he stayed on as professor and chair of the comparative literature program and the drama division, retiring after tenure of 34 years.
During his prolific academic career, Lazar wrote and edited more than 50 books in various languages, numerous academic papers and analyses of medieval literature in Old French, Spanish and Provençal.
A voracious reader and book collector, he donated more than 15,000 volumes from his private collection to USC libraries.
Indicative of his range of interests were his translations of Marc Chagall’s writings from Yiddish into French and English. He also translated plays by Jean-Paul Sartre, Eugène Ionesco, Italy’s Ugo Betti and 17th century Spanish writer Pedro Calderón into Hebrew for the Israeli stage.
For decades and until the last months of his life, Lazar worked on a massive opus, titled “Satan’s Synagogue,” tracking down 1,800 years of anti-Semitic writings, sermons, caricatures and films.
With all this, the main focus of his creative life crystallized in 1957, when as a student at the Hebrew University, his mentor, Hiram Peri, charged him with the solemn mission of using his talents to preserve the Sephardic heritage, before it was too late.
Lazar spent five decades fulfilling this task and arguably his most important contributions were in transcribing, transliterating and critically annotating 14 volumes of the Sephardic Classical Library.
Included are such monumental works as a 15th century translation as Moses Maimonides’ “The Guide for the Perplexed,” the Ladino translation of the Bible, Yehuda Halevi’s “Book of the Kuzari” and the Ladino epic poem “Song of Joseph.”
Lazar was honored for his research and teaching accomplishments by the French government, USC and the American Jewish University. He received Spain’s Orden del Mérito Civil for his efforts to preserve and restore the medieval Jewish quarter of the Spanish city of Gerona.
Lazar was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2006, but was able to continue his work until a few months before his death, his wife said.
As part of the USC tribute to Lazar, Margaret Rosenthal, chair of the French and Italian department, noted, “Moshe lived and breathed his work. For him there was no separation between what happened in the university and what happened outside. He had enormous knowledge, he was an archaeologist of language, and he imparted that huge desire to learn to his students.”
Lazar is survived by his wife, Sonia; daughter, Ilanit; a sister and two brothers.
Memorial services are pending.