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William Brinner


William M. “Ze’ev” Brinner

Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Emeritus

UC Berkeley

1924 – 2011


Professor William Ze’ev Brinner died in his sleep on February 3, 2011, at his home in Berkeley. A leading figure in numerous areas of Middle Eastern studies, both medieval and modern, Brinner’s long career was firmly anchored at the University of California, Berkeley, although he travelled frequently to lecture, research, and teach at numerous other institutions. He was one of the rare scholars to have worked extensively in both Egypt and Israel before the two countries signed a peace agreement.


Born in Alameda, California, on October 6, 1924, Ze’ev Brinner grew up in San Francisco, where he attended Lowell High School, graduating in 1941. He then worked in a shipyard before pursuing a B.A. (1948) and M.A. (1950) at the University of California, Berkeley, where he wrote a master’s thesis on the modern Hebrew language. Brinner started teaching at a Hebrew school while still in his teens and became a local and national leader in Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist Zionist youth movement. He spent two years in Israel, living on Kibbutz Beit Alfa, where he taught high school and befriended anthropologist Mel Spiro, who had come to conduct the research that would culminate in Children of the Kibbutz. Returning to Berkeley in 1952 to undertake his doctoral studies, Brinner began teaching in the Department of Near Eastern Studies (NES). He completed his dissertation, "Damascus during the reign of Sultan Barqūq" (1956), an annotated translation of a 14th century Syrian chronicle, and was appointed a year later to a tenure track position in NES.


Professor Brinner published extensively on subjects from modern Arabic literature to medieval Islamic history and religion, as well as on medieval Jewish-Muslim cultural interaction and the Karaite Jews. Among his books are two volumes of translations of Islamic Arabic stories about the lives of the Biblical prophets: Prophets and Patriarchs (1987) and The Children of Israel (1991), both published by the State University of New York Press. His final work, The Lives of the Prophets, was published in 2002 by Brill.


An extremely popular teacher, Ze’ev Brinner was one of the first recipients of UC Berkeley’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1959. He created Introduction to the Near East (NES 10), a survey course that drew crowds of students year after year. He mentored numerous students, many of whom now hold positions at universities around the country and abroad. Over the course of his career he held appointments as a visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, the Graduate Theological Union, the University of San Francisco, and the University of California, Los Angeles, and at the Hebrew University, Haifa University, and Tel Aviv University in Israel. After retiring from Berkeley in 1991, Brinner was the Stroum Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. He then served for a year as the acting director of the Annenberg Research Institute in Philadelphia before returning to Berkeley, where he continued his teaching through the Fromm Institute at the University of San Francisco.


Brinner was active nationally and internationally in various scholarly societies. He was president of the Middle East Studies Association (1970) and the American Oriental Society (1976), after serving on the board of directors of each of these organizations for several years. He also served on the Joint Committee on the Near and Middle East for the American Council of Learned Societies and chaired it for a year. Brinner was also active in many local community organizations, including serving on the board of directors of the Magnes Museum, Berkeley Hillel, and the Berkeley-Richmond Jewish Center.


Brinner served as a member of the Assembly of the Academic Senate and the Divisional Council, as well as on numerous committees, including Research, International Education, American Cultures, and the Committee on Committees, which he chaired for a year. The president of the University appointed him to the systemwide committee overseeing UC’s Education Abroad Program. His administrative posts at UC included service as chair of the Department of Near Eastern Studies in several stints totaling 10 years, between the mid-1960s and the late 1980s. He directed the Center for Middle Eastern Studies from its establishment in 1965 until 1977 and was chair of the Religious Studies Program from 1982 to 1987. He founded the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad at the American University in Cairo, directing it from 1966 to 1970. Later (1973-75) he served as director of UC’s Education Abroad Program Study Center in Israel. This position was unexpectedly demanding because of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War shortly after the first contingent of students had arrived.


In addition to a very full schedule of teaching, research, and administration, Brinner was much sought after as a commentator on contemporary political developments in the Middle East, both on radio and television, and in a number of publications. He commented on Arab and Israeli press on the nationally syndicated KQED television show "World Press" in the 1960s and 1970s.


Among his awards and honors were a research fellowship at Harvard University (1960), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1965-66), and a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Study Award (1970-71). Upon retirement he was delighted to be awarded the Berkeley Citation for Academic Achievement and Distinguished Service (1991). He was awarded an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, by the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles (1992). From 1993 to 2004 he led a monthly Bible-study group organized by Warren Hellman, traveling with the group to Israel and Jordan, as well as Jewish sites in Spain.


Former students and colleagues contributed to an international interdisciplinary conference, "Bridging the Worlds of Judaism and Islam," that was convened in Brinner’s honor at UC Berkeley in April 1993. The proceedings were published as a Festschrift: Judaism and Islam: Boundaries, Communication, and Interaction – Essays in Honor of William M. Brinner (eds. Fred Astren, Benjamin Hary, and John L. Hayes; E. J. Brill, 2000). Finally, a session at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association was dedicated to him on the occasion of his 85th birthday. The William Ze’ev Brinner Graduate Student Endowment was established to support study in the many areas in which Brinner taught and conducted research: Jewish studies; Islamic studies; Middle Eastern history and/or history of religions; and Arabic, Hebrew, and/or Judeo-Arabic literature and translations studies.


An eloquent public speaker, Ze’ev Brinner loved language. His sense of humor was often expressed in puns, and he wrote poems for every family birthday or anniversary. While he devoted his professional career to Arabic and Hebrew, he studied numerous other languages. He also loved travel and attending concerts and other performances. He and his wife Lisa held subscriptions to the symphony, opera, ballet, and theater.


Ze’ev Brinner is survived by his wife of nearly 60 years, Lisa Brinner, his three children and their spouses—Benjamin Brinner and Lisa Gold of Berkeley; Leyla Sulema Brinner and Yacov Sulema of Ramat Hasharon, Israel; Rafael Brinner and Danielle Fox of Oakland, eight grandchildren—Maya, Omri, and Devon Brinner, Sefi, Adar, Yuval, and Sharon Sulema, and Zoe Brinner, and a sister, Claire Krauthamer of Las Vegas, Nevada.



Benjamin Brinner

Anne Kilmer

David Stronach