Ann Arborite and citizen of the world Lee Schlesinger died on September 1 at home, in the care of his spouse and fellow scholar Lisa Klopfer. The cause was glioblastoma, a brain cancer. He was 74.
He is survived by sisters Ruth Becker and Jaye Schlesinger, preceded in death by his parents Samuel and Regina Schlesinger and cousin Arlene Turoff, and survived by cousins Steve Schlesinger, Neerja Bhushan and David Whitehill, and well-loved nieces and nephews.
Despite the crushing irony of a disease that threatened and eventually obliterated his core gifts as a multilingual anthropologist, historian, and cultural devotee, Lee remained in joyful contact with many circles of family and loved ones during the last year of his life. During this time, he also created elaborate photo essays, led several intensive study groups, and sojourned to Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, where he took in as much music as he could and pilgrimaged to his most beloved architectural works and art museums.
Online gatherings became one of Lee’s late-in-life art forms. His interlocutors included several different groups of scholars, Skokie high school pals, cousins, and many close friends in or from India whom he had come to know, beginning with his Peace Corps service. The village of Apshinge in Maharashtra’s Satara district was the basis for some of Lee’s most enduring insights and relationships. Generations of Apshinge families were the focus of his doctoral and postdoctoral ethnographic research. He interacted with this community (with a current population of approximately 3,000 people) by living among them, and came to understand the patterns of their living arrangements, agriculture, culture, and family relationships. Over time, Apshinge became a second home for Lee, and his affection for them was returned in multiples.
Lee was born in Chicago, but he grew up with his younger sisters Ruth and Jaye in Skokie, a Chicago suburb that boomed in the postwar era. His mother, born Regina Whitehill, was originally from Baltimore. His father Samuel was trained as a lawyer, although after his military service he had to give up that shingle for the family butcher shops. Lee’s father was reluctant to introduce Lee to the butcher trade, however, and by the 1960s Samuel himself was successful in returning to a law practice, which he continued into the 1990s.
Lee believed that his parents’ move to Skokie was about education for their children, although white flight was also a factor, as he explained in a recording he made for younger relatives in the year before his death. Lee certainly flourished in the Skokie schools, extending his youthful enthusiasm for Beethoven, Mondrian, mathematics, and Russian language far beyond parental expectation. The home his parents bought in 1953 had three small bedrooms and sat among others of almost identical construction across the street from an area that was still farmland. As a little boy Lee watched the farms be torn up and houses put in. He liked to explain that between 1950 and 1960 the Skokie population went from approximately 15,000 to 60,000, making it the fastest growing community in the country for a while. An extension of the city’s elevated train line suddenly made the location convenient to downtown Chicago. Skokie’s population at the time was roughly 40 percent Catholic and 40 percent Jewish, with solid components of working-class migrants from Eastern Europe and war refugees. But with most Catholic students in parochial schools, the public schools were above 80 percent Jewish.
By the mid-1950s, Lee was becoming aware of the political world as his parents watched the 1956 presidential nominating conventions on their black-and-white TV. He sensed his mother’s admiration of Eisenhower, as well as his father’s disappointment when Adlai Stephenson, an FDR liberal and former governor of Illinois, lost the election. Soon the Cuban Revolution was on Lee’s radar, too, and he celebrated the overthrow of an oppressive dictatorship. Meanwhile, the postwar baby boom was such that teachers were in great demand as Lee grew up. His high school, Niles Township High School, was able to lure educators, some of whom had PhDs, who whetted Lee’s appetite for serious learning. He served on the well-regarded debate team, treated all of Chicago as his classroom, and graduated with highest honors.
Lee studied for bar mitzvah and confirmation with Rabbi Karl Weiner at Temple Judea, a reform congregation. Lee had high regard for Rabbi Weiner in part because the rabbi was active in the civil rights movement.
A few months before his death, Lee and his friends gathered via Zoom to recall how sympathetic Niles East teachers granted them passes to ride the “El” downtown to take in a Chicago Symphony matinee or visit favorites (medieval works, Dürer, Cézanne) at the art institute. As he and his classmates remembered it, the cultural field trips were also known to include detours for “statistical research” at the baseball park and classical music “ear training” in record store listening booths.
No one is quite sure exactly how Lee’s passion for music came about. One or two of his school friends or teachers may have introduced him to classical music. By an early age he was playing records of Beethoven symphonies as loud as the stereos of the time would sustain, driving his sisters out of the house while wildly “conducting” in time to the music. For much of his childhood he would go over to friends’ houses to listen to records and argue about conductors, orchestras, and pianists, whom he followed as avidly as baseball fans followed their teams. Lee begged for piano lessons, but they were not in the family budget at the time, and true to his stubborn temperament, he refused to tolerate the din of school orchestra or band. His ardor was for the entire experience of a work of art, including its historical context, dimensions of poetics, color, affect, movement, and rhythm. Friends attest to Lee’s astonishing memory for music. Not only could he recall specific programs and performances going back decades, but also their quality and characteristics.
Lee began studies at the University of Chicago in 1966, where he initially majored in math and European history, but his path to a bachelor’s degree was disrupted as his activist generation vehemently protested the protracted Vietnam conflict, the 1968 murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the same year’s Chicago-held Democratic National Convention, and the 1969 Vietnam draft lotteries. Upset by these events and what they reflected of American society, Lee dropped out of college and volunteered for the Peace Corps, which had been founded by John F. Kennedy in 1961. This program sent him to India, where he established the groundwork for his future intellectual path.
Rebecca Wolfram, an artist who was Lee’s partner in the ’70s, spent time with him as a fellow undergrad when he developed his lifelong photography habit: “I remember that we got ahold of a movie camera, on loan for a week. He immediately became obsessed with it, shooting on a train for hours as we moved along.” Rebecca was also in India with Lee during some of the Peace Corps period. “The tension of the Vietnam war, the moral taintedness, was something he could hardly bear,” she recalled. “He was glad to be out of the country, I think, like a lot of us. He was deeply confused, and what he expressed was not so much 100 percent clarity as a strong feeling of distaste for what was happening.” Fellow Peace Corps buddies recall that Lee dug intensely into the study of Marathi language and history, far deeper than was expected or even sanctioned by their supervisors. As he had done in his initial student research about early modern Europe, Lee sought to describe the lived experience of people he met using words and sketches without romanticizing, exoticizing, or applying anachronistic theories. By the time Lee returned to the United States in December 1971, his India experience (and the travel home through several Soviet countries) had broadly expanded his questions about history and society, leading to his shift into the field of social anthropology.
Lee’s sister Jaye also noticed a change. “Growing up, he was an obnoxious older brother, nasty to us younger sisters like brothers tend to be. But the thing that stands out to me was a complete transformation in his demeanor after he returned from the Peace Corps, about the time I entered college. He became a compassionate human being, and we began to have a close relationship that continued for the rest of our lives. I attributed this to his Peace Corps experience.”
Through a fluke of timing, Lee was able to resume undergraduate work at the University of Chicago without being drafted. He received his bachelor of arts degree in 1972 and pursued graduate work in social anthropology at the same university, obtaining his master’s in 1974 and in 1986 a doctorate after much struggle with his doctoral committee. His dissertation, based on nearly two years in India, was entitled “The Castes in a Village, Caste, and the Village: A Social Phenomenology of Terms and Talk in a Maharashtrian Community.” The doctoral committee initially rejected its unusual nature, but he did eventually receive the degree he had earned. Meanwhile, he did research in Berlin and London, taught at the University of North Carolina, University of Pennsylvania, Cal Tech, and Duke, and spent two years at Chicago’s Center for Psychosocial Studies, now the Center for Transcultural Studies. The multidisciplinary format at the Center for Psychosocial Studies nurtured several life-long friendships and provided a model for close reading and debate that Lee carried forward to other seminars and studies groups.
In 1986, Lee returned to India to master the written literary form of the Marathi language, which he spoke colloquially. He would travel back and forth to Apshinge for the remaining 35 years of his life. Unsuccessful at obtaining the prize of a faculty position, in 1991 Lee took an administrative position at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies.
Lee had already met his future spouse Lisa Klopfer in 1984 at the University of Pennsylvania, where he had a one-term teaching appointment and she was studying for a doctorate in cultural anthropology. Their initial contact in Philadelphia was sporadic and ambivalent, but when they met again in 1989 in Durham, North Carolina, their relationship solidified into friendship, and when they both landed in Ann Arbor a few years later, they became a couple. In 1993, they committed to a life together. On August 9, 1995, they took the step of obtaining a legal marriage certificate, making their promises under the sanction of the county’s first Black judge, Nancy C. Francis. She married them at her office in the juvenile detention center, to the amusement of Lee’s nieces. The step enabled Lisa to qualify for funding and a visa to accompany Lee on a Fulbright teaching grant to Aurangabad, Maharashtra.
In 1995–96, Lee and Lisa traveled together to Aurangabad for a year on his Fulbright fellowship. While he was on leave, Lee’s position at the University of Michigan was terminated, a move that Lee experienced as an unforgivable betrayal of trust. When they returned to Ann Arbor, Lee was compelled to take several jobs to make ends meet, including some substitute teaching in Ann Arbor Public Schools and Washtenaw Community College.
In Ann Arbor, Lee frequented the U-M Museum of Art, the U-M Kelsey Museum, and his beloved Hill Auditorium. He loved to take visitors on tours of the law school library, the Rackham building, the U-M School of Music’s Moore building and grounds, and various artworks including the wave field sculpture by Maya Lin on U-M’s north campus. Lee and Lisa logged marathons walking in the Nichols Arboretum, Forest Hill Cemetery, and the many Washtenaw County parks, small and large. Slightly farther afield, Lee was a regular at the Toledo Museum of Art, Cranbrook, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Detroit’s Heidelberg Project.
For the last 20 years of his life, Lee remained vigorously active in seminars, conferences, and study groups that ranged from Jewish theology to ancient Greek philosophy, from Kant and Hegel to Marx, and from Lévi-Strauss to Roberto Calasso. He is sorely missed by a small group reading and translating the Jnaneshvari, where his linguistic and cultural insights were keenly valued. If there was an interesting Ann Arbor program in social science or the humanities, not to mention the university’s Saturday Morning Physics program, Lee was likely in the audience. In art and architecture, he was voracious, admiring everything from an Etruscan piece at the Kelsey Museum of Archeology to mid-century design and the work of contemporary artists such as Julie Mehretu and Kanishka Raja. Lee followed music at the University Musical Society and the U-M School of Music and often traveled to Cleveland or Chicago for concerts.
While he never had the luxury of overseeing his own students, Lee was extraordinarily generous, but also strictly rigorous in reading and engaging with colleagues and students. Through his informal study groups, his often contentious questions at seminars, his close reading of many scholars’ papers, chapters, and dissertations, and his coaching of young writers at crucial points in their development, Lee’s influence was profoundly felt.
Even as his intellectual pathways seemed lofty, Lee genuinely believed anyone could engage with truth-seeking and ideas. He had disdain only for elitists who tried to shut others out. Lee kept close to ordinary people, in part by choosing modest modes of transportation and lodging. Sitting next to a scruffy fellow on an airplane he would discover a common love for Alban Berg; squeezed into a bus in Bombay he’d end up discussing Marx; at an art museum he would ask a child to look carefully to see a hidden element in a Claude Lorrain painting. In all his endeavors Lee shrugged off the dominant idea and instead listened to what people actually said. Responding to a simple comment or a scholarly argument, Lee insisted on examining the phenomenon as directly as possible. He would energetically oppose any effort to impose meaning onto the world and sought meaning through experience. This is the fierce but humble lesson he has left his friends.