Martin Perlmutter (1943-2023)

Martin Perlmutter, professor emeritus of philosophy at the College of Charleston and director of its Jewish Studies program, died this past January.

The following obituary is by David Benatar, professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town.

Martin Perlmutter (1943-2023)

Martin Perlmutter, who, for many years, was professor of philosophy and director of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, died early on the morning of January 16, 2023, a few months short of his eightieth birthday. Marty, as he was known to most, was not only a builder of institutions but also an institution himself. He was a legendary figure on campus, and widely known further afield.

He joined the College of Charleston in 1979, following appointments at the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Tennessee at Nashville. At the College of Charleston, he served as Chair from 1983 to 1991, and was instrumental in creating an excellent philosophy department. For his colleagues, he was an astute philosophical interlocutor, helping people clarify and shape their ideas. His own philosophical interests were primarily in bioethics and philosophy of religion. He taught courses in these and other areas.

During his tenure as Chair, he also established a program in Religious Studies, the forerunner of the College’s current Department of Religious Studies.

In 1991, he was persuaded to lead the incipient Jewish Studies program at the College. Between then and his retirement in 2019, he defied all doubts, growing the program and creating infrastructure to an extent that had been unimaginable to many—but not to him.

What became the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program now offers a major (and a minor) in Jewish Studies, supports Jewish student life, and provides an extensive outreach program to the broader community. It also has an impressive endowment, which Marty raised. The program is housed in its own building, initially purchased by a non-profit corporation that Marty established.

The Center’s kosher vegetarian and vegan dining hall, open not only to students, staff, and faculty at the College, but also to the public, was named in his honor – formally the “Dr Martin Perlmutter Dining Hall,” but more affectionately “Marty’s Place.”

He was amused by this unusual way of honoring an academic, but it was a fitting tribute to a man who liked to feed people not only figuratively with ideas, but also literally with food. To say that he “fried a good latke” would be an understatement, because he fried hundreds of latkes every Hanukkah. That was typical of Marty’s hands-on approach. Nor was he all hands and head, as his impressive 3:17 marathon time demonstrates.

In the early 1990s he established the African American-Jewish Connection, which brought together African American and Jewish students. In 1994, he was among those who started the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina.

Marty’s parents, Jacob and Esther Perlmutter, fled Berlin in 1938. He was born in New York on April 30, 1943. He grew up there, attending Yeshiva University High School. He did his BA at City College of New York, and his graduate work at the University of Illinois. His doctoral dissertation was written under the supervision of Frederick L. Will.

Marty was a superb and trusted friend, generously helping innumerable people over the course of his life. He was welcoming to all, and easy to like. His warm, endearing demeanour coexisted with a resolute determination. He and a much younger friend always wanted to let the other one through the door first. He jokingly told his friend that he was stubborn. His friend replied: “Look who’s talking!”

Marty preferred to focus on others rather than to be the object of focus. It was clearly a source of discomfort for him that becoming ill led him to be more the subject of attention than he would have liked. Even then he sought to deflect attention from himself. Despite that, he acceded to being the subject of an article about the novel medical treatment he was receiving, because it might bring some hope to others afflicted with cancer.

He was immensely grateful for the cutting-edge treatment he received. It extended his life for a decade, most of it of good quality. His wonderful sense of humor did not desert him even in his final days, when he was still sharing jokes. It was always a delight to experience his full-bodied laughter.

Marty is survived by his wife, Jeri, their children, Jacob, Aaron, Daniel, and Esther, their spouses and children, and by Marty’s sister Ruth, and the rest of their family. He was buried at the KKBE synagogue cemetery on Huguenin Avenue in Charleston, on January 17, 2023.

One of those eulogizing Marty quoted him as saying that those delivering funeral eulogies should always speak favorably of the deceased, but not so favorably that people think that they are at the wrong funeral. The eulogies for Marty were all glowing. Yet, given who Marty was, nobody could have had any doubt that they were at the right funeral.

David Benatar, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

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Douglas W. Portmore
1 year ago

He was a very kind man. I was at the College of Charleston for only two years, but I have only very fond memories of him, including memories of him frying many latkes in the kitchen next door to my office at the time.

Jacob Perlmutter
1 year ago

“The purpose of life is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson