(JTA) — In a packed conference room at a downtown Boston hotel in 2015, David Shneer, a Jewish studies professor at the University of Colorado, stood before his colleagues in the Association for Jewish Studies and began belting out Yiddish cabaret songs.
Dressed in black with a red tie and bowler hat, Shneer and his collaborator, Bay Area singer Jewlia Eisenberg, were doing their first performance of “Art is My Weapon,” a collection of songs from the repertoire of Lin Jaldati, a Jewish singer born Rebekka Brilleslijper in the Netherlands who survived the Holocaust to become an unlikely diva of Yiddish music in communist East Germany.
The pair would go on to perform Jaldati’s music at synagogues and universities across the country, with Shneer narrating the singer’s incredible life story to rapt audiences. But those who were there for that first performance remember Shneer enthralling a room of academics unaccustomed to seeing one of their own present their research findings in musical form.
Shneer, who died last week at 48 following a decade-long battle with brain cancer, was by all accounts an unconventional academic.
His scholarly pursuits were focused largely on Russian Jewish history, but he had a particular interest in the arts and visual culture, cultivating a raft of young artists, some with radical tendencies. His 2011 book, “Through Soviet Jewish Eyes,” was a National Jewish Book Award finalist that examined the Jewish influences on two dozen Soviet Jewish photographers. His latest book, “Grief: The Biography of a Holocaust Photograph,” describes how an iconic 1942 photo of an old woman grieving over a body felled in battle became emblematic of Soviet aesthetics and the formation of Holocaust memory.
Shneer was an activist, too, canvassing for Democratic presidential candidates in swing states and co-founding Jewish Mosaic, the Jewish LGBTQ organization that later merged with Keshet, where he served on the board. He was unusually solicitous of younger scholars, taking time to provide mentorship and guidance. And he had that rare ability to make complex ideas understandable to a general audience.
Shneer’s death on Nov. 4 prompted an outpouring of online remembrances. The word “mensch” came up repeatedly.
In 2016, Eisenberg and Shneer were in Pennsylvania for a performance on the day that Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton to win the presidential election. Jaldati’s anti-fascist music suddenly took on a shockingly contemporary resonance.
Shneer received his doctorate from Berkeley in 2001 and joined the faculty at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2008. He leaves behind a husband, Gregg Drinkwater, who also taught Jewish studies at UC Boulder, and a daughter, Sasha, whom he co-parented with Rabbi Caryn Aviv.