In 2015, Prof. David Shneer stood in front of his austere colleagues at an Association for Jewish Studies conference and started belting out Yiddish cabaret songs in perfect pitch.
While some might have known that the academic, historian, educator and author had a beautiful voice, no one dreamed he would be gone just five brief years later.
Shneer, director of CU’s Program in Jewish Studies from 2008 to 2015, died of brain cancer on Nov. 4, 2020. He was 48.
“David was a brilliant scholar whose work received nearly every prestigious award in the field of Jewish studies,” Prof. Elias Sacks, head of CU’s Program in Jewish Studies, told the IJN shortly after breaking the news.
“But more than that, he was someone who cared deeply about building community.”
Sacks said he spent days Zooming with distraught former and current students as they shared stories of how his dear friend had shaped their lives at CU and beyond.
“David was someone who was profoundly committed to those around him,” he said, “and who was loved in return.”
Dr. Nan Goodman, who became the second director of CU’s Program in Jewish Studies in 2015, said that “there never was a more vibrant, lively person” than Shneer.
“He was incredibly generous and kind, and was always thinking about you — telling you about a book you should read, things like that. Nothing was ever too small for him to share.”
Goodman said that Shneer tried to break the mold as an academic.
“He engaged with students; mentored them. He was not a talking head . . . You felt his experience unfolding before you.”
Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., where Shneer ran a summer Yiddish program for years, commented on his masterful teaching style to JTA:
“We recognized immediately that he had a gift,” Lansky said.
“He knew how to explain things that a broader audience can understand. The students loved him.” Reviews submitted at the end of courses “were just off the charts.”
Shneer held the Louis P. Singer Chair of Jewish history, professor of history and Jewish studies at CU, and was engaged in several projects prior to his death.
Rabbi Evette Lutman officiated at the private service at Feldman Chapel on Nov. 5. Burial took place Nov. 6 at Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. Feldman Mortuary made the arrangements.
David Shneer was born April 6, 1972, in Los Angeles, Calif. He taught himself to read at age three. Once his kindergarten teacher discovered his student’s prodigious ability, he was placed in a third-grade class.
Shneer earned his BA in history and Slavic languages and literature in 1994, MA in history in 1996 and PhD in history in 2001, all from UC-Berkeley.
His subsequent research, which led the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to call him a “path-breaking” scholar, focused on 20th-century European, Russian and Jewish history and culture, the Holocaust, and diaspora and contemporary Jewish life.
Denverites met him in 2001, when he became director of DU’s program in Jewish studies, a position he held until 2008.
Grief: The Biography of a Holocaust Photograph, published earlier this year, traces the journey of the first widely circulated Holocaust liberation photographs from 1942 in the Soviet Union to the present.
Shneer taught or was a scholar-in-residence at Columbia, UC-Berkeley and UC-Davis, University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
He wrote articles for major publications and was East European Jewish Affairs’ editor-in-chief.
A prolific author, Shneer’s works include Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture, finalist, National Jewish Book Award; Queer Eyes, finalist, Lambda literary award; and Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War and the Holocaust, winner, 2013 Jordan Schnitzer Prize
Shneer co-founded Jewish Mosaic, a national Jewish LGBT organization (now Keshet, which he co-chaired).
“David loved to be at the Denver Botanic Gardens,” his parents said. “It was his favorite place in Denver and just a few blocks from his home. He and his family often used their special member key to enter via the secret back gate.
“Even with COVID restrictions and his declining health, the family went there regularly these past few months.”
Prof. David Shneer is survived by husband Gregg Drinkwater; children Sasha Drinkwater and Yannai Kashtan; parents Diane and Jim Shneer; brother Rob (Lani) Shneer; parents-in-law Margaret (Dennis Holman) McBride Holman and Mike (ConnaLu)Drinkwater; sister-in-law Michelle (Wayne) Trader; co-parent Caryn (Dawn Weber) Aviv; and nieces and nephews Emi Shneer, Kyle Shneer and Ben Trader.
Contributions may be made to the James and Diane Shneer Endowment Fellowship Fund, c/o the Post-Holocaust American Jewish Archive; or a future memorial in his honor at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
JTA’s Ben Harris contributed to this obituary.
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