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Howard Berger

One foot in Idaho, another in Israel


Dr. Howard Berger leaves for Israel on Sunday, June 5. Like most every other summer of his adult life, he'll spend some time showing students and friends around a land that he calls his second home.

His "other" home is the College of Idaho, where he can often be spotted at the Berger Bench, in the middle of campus, where he says he can spot anyone coming or going. Berger is approaching 30 years as a professor of history, influencing thousands of students to explore the themes of human rights and social justice through his courses on Jewish history and the Holocaust. He calls C of I his personal Brigadoon or Shangri-La, the fictional locales of perpetual youth.

Can I ask how old you are?

This would remain a secret, of course.

Don't tell us if we can't publish it.

I will be 61 in June.

How old were you when you took your first trip to Israel.

I was 20 in the summer of 1970. I was searching and drifting like much of my generation. I had an edge of rebellion. So I went to a desert kibbutz in the Negev [in southern Israel]. I loved the newness of the land. After all, in 1970, Israel was only 22 years old. I returned to Israel in 1972 to work at another kibbutz but that only lasted about eight months.

Do you ever regret returning to the United States?

I came back to go to graduate school at the University of Washington. That fall, the Yom Kippur War of 1972 broke out. Had I remained, I'm convinced that I would have fought and stayed there the rest of my days.

Is there anything similar in both?

No. But I love having one foot in this world and another in that world. I cry when my plane leaves Boise on my way to Israel, thinking of what would happen if I never came back. But then I also get teary eyed as my plane leaves Tel-Aviv. I wonder if it's the last time I'll see Israel.

Can you speak to the experience of being a Jew in Idaho?

Most Jews don't come to Idaho to see their jewishness flourish. But I felt early on that I had an especially important responsibility to teach and share whom the Jewish people are and what our traditions are.

How actively do you participate in your faith's traditions here?

Again, more than I ever would have imagined. On Rosh Hashanah, I brought a shofar [ram's horn] to campus. We had a huge Hanukkah party at the college last year. And we just had a knockout Passover seder with over 180 people attending.

Give me a rundown of the courses you teach.

Western Civilization, Intro to American History, History of American Ideas, Intro to Modern Europe, Jewish History and I teach a course on the Nazis: National Socialism and the Final Solution.

I understand your course on Nazism is quite popular.

Students are always attracted to blood and guts. If I were to teach a course on the history of peace moments in America, I'd probably get three students. If I taught a course on medieval torture, with a lab, I'd get 300 students.

Do you have a favorite?

I love every course I teach. If I don't love it, I try to dump it off on another teacher.

Do you get sentimental in the spring when it's time to say goodbye to students?

When they say goodbye, I get emotional because 98 percent of them will never see me again.

Do you see yourself spending the rest of your days in Idaho?

I have no idea what I would do if I retired. Until I can think of another life that would hold my emotions as much as this, there is no way that I would leave.

You had a bit of a health issue last year.

Cancer. It was an inconvenience [laughter].

Where are you with that?

When I had surgery, they told me it would knock me out for a semester. Nonsense. When I started radiation, they told me I wouldn't be able to teach for a month. Nonsense. I handled it well. As far as I know, I should be OK.

What's your secret?

Write this down. Haagen Dazs.

Does it matter what flavor it is?

No. It's Haagen Dazs. Occasionally, if you're in a pinch, it could be Ben and Jerry's.