Monday, March 01, 2010

Interview with Professor Noam Chomsky

Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, political activist, author, and lecturer. He is an Institute Professor and professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chomsky is well known in the academic and scientific community as one of the fathers of modern linguistics. Since the 1960s, he has become known more widely as a political dissident, an anarchist, and a libertarian socialist intellectual. Chomsky is often viewed as a notable figure in contemporary philosophy.

Chomsky was born on the morning of December 7, 1928 to Jewish parents in the affluent East Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of noted professor of Hebrew at Gratz College and IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) member, William Chomsky (1896–1977), a native of Ukraine. His mother, Elsie Chomsky (née Simonofsky), a native of what is present-day Belarus, grew up in the United States and, unlike her husband, spoke "ordinary New York English." Their first language was Yiddish, but Chomsky said it was "taboo" in his family to speak it. He describes his family as living in a sort of "Jewish ghetto," split into a "Yiddish side" and "Hebrew side," with his family aligning with the latter and bringing him up "immersed in Hebrew culture and literature."

Chomsky also describes tensions he personally experienced with Irish Catholics and German Catholics and anti-semitism in the mid-1930s. He recalls German-American "Beer parties" celebrating the fall of Paris to the Nazis. In a discussion of the irony of his staying in the 1980s in a Jesuit House in Central America, Chomsky explained that during his childhood, "We were the only Jewish family around. I grew up with a visceral fear of Catholics. They're the people who beat you up on your way to school. So I knew when they came out of that building down the street, which was the Jesuit school, they were raving anti-Semites. So childhood memories took a long time to overcome."

Chomsky is a graduate of The Central High School of Philadelphia. When I was a student at Central (1967-1971: 230th class), my music teacher, Joseph Ostrow, once mentioned that Chomsky had been one of his students.

Incidentally, I grew up in the (not so affluent) West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia. My father used to say proudly that his immigrant mother -- who was originally from Riga, Latvia -- didn't speak Yiddish "like some prost Russian Jew. She spoke German."


Gary Freedman said...

Do you think Sidney Rothstein remembers Joseph Ostrow?

Gary Freedman said...

Professor Chomsky,

You can check out the PDF version of my book "Significant Moments" at the following site:

The book is unusual in structure; it is written entirely in quotations from published literature.

Incidentally, I am a 1971 graduate of The Central High School of Philadelphia; I grew up in West Oak Lane. My music teacher at Central, Mr. Joseph Ostrow, once mentioned that you were one of his students.


Washington, DC
CHS 230

Gary Freedman said...

Message from Noam Chomsky:

Interested to hear from a fellow grad -- though I was 1945. Don't recall any music back in those days, but I could easily have forgotten.

Thanks for the information about your book. I wish I could promise to look at it in the near future, but I just can't. I'm swamped with ms's, and have to put them in a (pretty long) queue, hoping I can get to them some day. Frankly, unless they relate to something I'm working on and speaking about, it's a very long shot.

Noam Chomsky