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Samuel Haber
In Memoriam

Samuel Haber

Professor of History, Emeritus

UC Berkeley

Sam Haber often said out loud what many people only think. A man who spoke only Yiddish before he started school in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, he liked to boast that he failed the college course designed to enable him to lose the accent. A chemistry major at Brooklyn College, he loved to remind his fellow historians that a chemist named Haber had devised poison gas for the Kaiser. Get him started on Founding Father John Adams of Braintree, Massachusetts and he could not stop himself from wondering if they really did grow brains on trees. Everyone loved Sam’s sense of humor. He especially liked Jewish jokes. Q. “Why did God choose the Jews? A. Because the goyim annoy’im.”

At once erudite and homespun, Sam was not a man to hold his tongue. But among his great gifts to graduate students were both the courage to express themselves freely and the wisdom to be diplomatic when circumstances demanded it. He saved many young scholars from blurting out what was on their minds at the wrong time – in what they scribbled on student papers or said, with too great a sense of self-importance, to peers. Yet many remember the loquacious Sam Haber delivering lines that a writer for cinema would envy. While running the University of California Study Center in Jerusalem, his helpful orientation to newcomers was that “Hebrew University is the last German university in the world while Tel Aviv University is a replica of the City College of New York in the 1930s.” During the fire that ravaged the Oakland Hills in 1992, Sam picked up a phone in Jerusalem to hear a daughter say, “Dad, sit down – I have some bad news.” Then she said, "Your house burned down." Sam replied “Thank God!!!” He had thought he was going to hear that “something had happened to one of my daughters.” (The Haber home on Broadway Terrace, it turned out, was spared.)

Sam and his wife, Jan, met in Hashomer Hatzair (“The Young Guard”), a Zionist Socialist secular youth organization. The movement combined elements of the Boy or Girl Scouts with those of a Great Books club, tailored for those glimpsing a socialist future. Sam became a leader, passionate about teaching. For several years he was the editor of a Hashomer journal, Youth and Nation. Sam and Jan married in 1949.

Soon after they moved to the Bay Area in the 1950s, they cut ties with the politics of this movement. In time they found a home in the Modern Orthodox community of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. This was a family steeped in many currents of Jewish life in the late 20th century. Sam, with the assistance of his wife, did an extra year of service for the University of California’s Education Abroad Program in Israel in the wake of the Gulf War. Jan Haber, who died in 2013, made her career as an occupational therapist in San Francisco’s Mount Zion Hospital. Ruth Haber, one of their three daughters, is a Judaica Specialist in the UC Berkeley Library.

Sam Haber made his reputation with Efficiency and Uplift: Scientific Management in the Progressive Era, 1890-1920. The book was published in 1964, three years after he earned his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. Efficiency and Uplift is a story of an enchantment with the idea that making all social and economic processes more efficient would help create a more just and equitable society in the United States. Haber showed that the widely recognized “Taylorism” movement, named for the great “efficiency expert” for business corporations, Frederick W. Taylor, was but one part of a larger ideological enthusiasm voiced by a great variety of social theorists and political actors. Haber was widely praised for having discovered that the notion of efficiency actually functioned in four distinctive, not always harmonious ways: 1) a trait in a business system, 2) an input-output relationship in a machine, 3) a principle of public policy, and 4) a personal attribute. Haber’s demonstration of how extensively political progressives relied on the ideal of efficiency was an enduring contribution to historians' understanding of the era. In 1965, the year after Efficiency and Uplift was published, Haber left his first academic appointment at the University of Delaware and began what was to be a nearly half century of teaching in Berkeley’s Department of History.

Haber was a deliberate, painstaking scholar who devoted a quarter century to his second book, The Quest for Authority and Honor in the American Professions, 1750-1900. Published in 1991, this ambitious book traced the social, economic, and cultural history of engineers, lawyers, physicians, and clergymen as agents of American public life. Haber challenged the popular view that professional associations developed largely as self-serving devices, enabling greater wealth and power. Honor was instead the center of Haber’s analysis. Professionals tried to present themselves as honorable men whose expertise could be trusted. They convinced clients of this not only by demonstrating that they knew more than the average person about a given domain of life, but by aggressively taking civic responsibility in local communities. The doctors, lawyers, engineers, and ministers were appreciated not only as service providers, but as respected community leaders.

In keeping with Haber’s deliberate style, he spent the last quarter century of his life working on other books that remained unfinished at the time of his death. “Journeys Outward: American Jews and American Culture” was to be a study of Jewish intellectuals of the middle decades of the 20th century. As he described it, the book “concerned men and women who grew up in relatively sequestered settings, but who eventually had an important influence upon the broader American culture,” including those who had their most significant impact after World War II. This was to be another very ambitious work, attending in detail to a number of social scientists, natural scientists, philosophers, and literary scholars.

While pursuing this project, Haber became increasingly convinced that the heritage of The Enlightenment in the 18th century was vital to an understanding of Jewish intellectual history in the American 20th century. He began work on a study he called “The Orrery,” taking its name from the mechanical model of the solar system that was a popular way of representing the post-Newtonian cosmos. A view of these delicate devices will bring smiles to students who, through the years, saw this professor try out the technology that transformed teaching. In this as in so many other areas, Sam was game.

Sam Haber, born in New York City on May 5, 1928, died in Berkeley at the age of 91 on November 29, 2019. He is survived by his three daughters, Kate, a veteran science teacher at Berkeley High School, Ruth, of The Library, and Sara, Director of Application Engineering at Chromation.

David A. Hollinger
Thomas C. Leonard