Alan Dundes, popular professor and folklorist, dies at 70

Cultures have their restrictive customs, to be sure, but no one does it quite like the Jews.

“Jews have developed it to a fine art. They really have it down pat,” noted folklorist Alan Dundes told the Jewish Bulletin in 2002. “I don’t know anyone else who pre-tears toilet paper.”

Dundes, 70, a hugely popular professor of folklore at U.C. Berkeley, suffered a heart attack while teaching a graduate seminar on Wednesday, March 30. He died shortly after.

Dundes made the above observation on the occasion of the publication of his book, “The Shabbat Elevator and Other Sabbath Subterfuges.” When Dundes visited Israel and first encountered a Shabbat elevator in a hotel — an elevator pre-programmed to stop on every floor so the religiously observant do not need to push a button — he found it hysterical.

Dundes was born in New York City on Sept. 8, 1934, the son of a lawyer and a musician. His parents were not religious, and Dundes considered himself a secular Jew. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University. While he considered majoring in music — he was an accomplished clarinetist — he switched to English. He then got his Ph.D. in folklore from Indiana University.

Between his undergraduate and graduate studies, he served in the U.S. Navy for two years. In 1958, Dundes married Carolyn Browne.

After teaching one year at the University of Kansas, he joined U.C. Berkeley’s anthropology department in 1963.

The range of topics that Dundes studied could not have been wider. When it came to Jewish folklore, he studied jokes about Jewish mothers and the Jewish American Princess; he studied blood libel, and why the Jews were exiled from Spain in 1492. He studied German jokes about the Holocaust and published them, which offended many.

“He thought the Holocaust was the most horrendous thing that ever happened to mankind,” said his wife, Carolyn Dundes, of Berkeley. “But when he published German jokes about [it], people were outraged. They didn’t get it.”

Dundes defended himself by saying, “Folklorists with a sense of social responsibility have an obligation to do what they can to fight injustice.”

But Jewish folklore was only a fraction of his expertise. He studied such things as cockfighting, Romanian political jokes, Choctaw tongue-twisters, Turkish verbal dueling rhymes, offensive Polish and blonde jokes, Native American folktales, vampires, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. He studied the caste system in India and the prevalence of the number three in American culture. He wrote about the folklore in the Bible and in the Koran. And even that didn’t cover everything.

Dundes wrote 12 books and co-authored or edited 20 more. The number of scholarly articles he wrote tops 250.

In 1993, he became the first American to win the Pitre Prize’s Sigillo d’Oro, the top international prize in folklore and ethnography.

He was also one of the most popular professors at Cal. In 1994, he won its Distinguished Teacher Award, which is given annually by the students and staff at Berkeley.

On his memorial Web site, Haya Bar-Itzhak, one of his former students and now the director of the Israel Folktale Archives and director of Folklore Studies at the University of Haifa, wrote how she encountered Dundes’ work first as a student.

“When I heard that Dundes was visiting Israel and would even be coming to Haifa, my excitement knew no bounds.” A year later, Dundes invited Bar-Itzhak to teach a course on Jewish and Israeli folklore in Berkeley.

Bar-Itzhak wrote how she was asked to substitute for one of his undergraduate courses. When she got there, she found the huge lecture hall overflowing.

“Later, I found out that it was that way every year,” she wrote.

Dundes left such a great impression on his students that in 2000, a student from the ’60s sent him a $1 million check. He used the anonymous gift to establish a distinguished professorship in folklore at Berkeley.

In addition to his wife, Dundes is survived by his son, David Dundes, of Walnut Creek; daughter Lauren Dundes Streiff of Owing Mills, Md.; daughter Alison Dundes Renteln of Altadena; and six grandchildren.

Donations can be made to the U.C. Berkeley Library Development Office, 131 Doe Library, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000. Checks should be made out to the “Library Fund,” with “In memory of Professor Dundes” on the memo line.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."