NEW YORK, NY / The New York Times / NYC / October 19, 2010
Lessons in a Life Well Lived
By CLYDE HABERMAN
If you are fortunate enough to live to 92, you are also unfortunate enough to have few people left from your formative years. Funerals for people in their 90s tend to be sparsely attended affairs, with but a sprinkling of contemporaries and maybe some friends of the children and grandchildren on hand for moral support.
His name may not be a household word, but he is widely regarded as the father of modern human rights law. A founder of the group now called Human Rights First, he argued tirelessly for the concept that human rights know no national boundaries, a truth not always honored even within our own borders.
Illustration courtesy: Claudia/Anastasia, Cyprus
There was, inevitably, a review of Professor Henkin’s work. But more than that, this funeral did what such occasions are supposed to do: provide lessons, through stories poignant and humorous, in the essence of a life well lived.
It is not measured by the number of books a person has written. It certainly has nothing to do with wealth; there’s not much of that for a university teacher. It goes beyond even impressive details like the Silver Star awarded to Mr. Henkin in World War II or his clerkships for Judge Learned Hand and for Justice Felix Frankfurter.
The true measure is in fundamentals that are as universal as human rights.
Like rearing children whose faith in you is total. That does not mean uncritical. Nonetheless, said Daniel Henkin, the youngest of Professor Henkin’s three sons, “if my father said something, it must be true.”
(By extension, truth must include thoughts on grandchildren held by the professor and his wife, Alice Hartman Henkin, a human rights lawyer herself. A few years ago, Mrs. Henkin explained to a newly minted grandfather what it was like to be a grandparent. She cited the account in Genesis of Abraham’s unblinking acceptance of God’s commandment to sacrifice his son. “I guarantee you,” she said, “that if Abraham had been ordered to sacrifice his grandson, he would have said, ‘Buzz off.’ ”)
Professor Henkin had his quirks. After watching a movie, he would fret over how the characters might have developed beyond the final credits. He was hardly up on pop culture, even back when pop meant the Andrews Sisters. But he happened to hear “A Hard Day’s Night” by the Beatles and wondered quite reasonably why “those young men couldn’t come up with a word that rhymes with ‘dog’ better than ‘log.’ ”
There were also insights into two basic elements of the human comedy: guilt and ego.
David M. Schizer, dean of the Columbia Law School, read reflections on Professor Henkin that had been posted on the school’s Web site. One that he did not read was from a former student who wrote that he had assumed that Professor Henkin would cut him some slack after he, the student, said he would miss a few classes to attend a wedding in Israel. Instead, the professor was stern. He instructed the young man to do all the required reading and be prepared to be called on his first day back.
“You’re making me feel really guilty about this trip,” the student said. Good, Professor Henkin said — “guilt is a purifying feeling when you deserve it.”
As for ego, Joshua Henkin, the oldest of the sons, told a story.
Louis Henkin, born Eliezer Henkin in what is now Belarus, was 5 when his family came to America in 1923. At Ellis Island, an immigration officer asked him a question. The boy refused to speak. The question was repeated, and he still kept his mouth shut. The family began to worry that he would be deemed deaf and mute, and might cost them entry into this country. His father then asked a mathematical question. The boy, a math whiz, instantly gave the right answer.
Years later, Professor Henkin recalled that moment. He felt bad, Joshua Henkin said, partly because of the trouble he caused but, worse, because he was showing off.
Guilt has its place, but ego does not — values that are the reverse of the prevailing ethos in this narcissistic age.
Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company