In his first novel, “The Fitting,” published last year, Joseph Zaitchik examined the tension between how the world should be and how it really is, a weighty topic for a college professor just as well known for his jokes and for rewarding students by tossing them pieces of hard candy.
A longtime English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Dr. Zaitchik started writing the tale a half-century ago. His story of a Russian immigrant tailor who gets caught up in the maelstrom of a university student’s murder appeared in print not long after his 87th birthday.
“Some people move to Florida and play golf when they retire,” he said in a profile posted on the university’s website in December 2011. “I’m lousy at golf, so I write.”
Dr. Zaitchik, who also wrote an award-winning play and taught English courses for nearly five decades, died July 18 at home in Wayland. He was 87 and had been diagnosed with metastasized cancer of the liver.
“Way back, it was a short story, then an aborted novel,” he said of the book’s evolution during an interview conducted by his grandson Alexander, which was published in the Boston Phoenix last year.
His main character, Alex, believes the problem with narcissism is ‘that your self-absorption empties you of any empathy.’
“Many years later it was a play,” Dr. Zaitchik said. “It was a finalist in three competitions, but I was unable to get a production. Finally, after I semiretired, I decided to make use of my free time to get the damn thing done! And so I spent almost a year, radically revising the entire work, pouring much of my heart and mind into it, until I was satisfied that I had written a novel that said what I wanted to say.”
Relatives were pleased by how it turned out.
“When I read it, I said, ‘Dad, this is a masterpiece; it’s just amazing,’ ” his son Mark of Gloucester said. “I couldn’t believe how good it was. . . . There was a moral vision in his stuff that’s very powerful.”
In the interview with his grandson, Dr. Zaitchik said that “the main character quotes from the Bible not because he’s a Jew, but because he finds much in the Bible that casts light on human nature, our strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices, achievements and failures, hopes and despairs.”
Among the human weaknesses Dr. Zaitchik tackled in the novel was narcissism.
The main character, Alex, believes the major problem with narcissism is “that your self-absorption empties you of any empathy that you may possess as a human being,” Dr. Zaitchik said in the interview. “Unfortunately, too often we fail to distinguish between self-esteem and self-absorption, and our individualism leads to narcissism.”
Dr. Zaitchik touched on the theme of individualism in his classes at UMass-Lowell. Among his courses was “The Bible as Literature,” which he taught well into his 80s. He also was known to recycle jokes, repeating several so often that the repetition in lectures became as much a part of the humor as the jokes themselves.
“He was very upfront about who he was: extremely humble, extremely intelligent, maybe the funniest person I met in my life,” said Tom Hersey, a former student and longtime colleague. “These things were seamlessly connected.”
Dr. Zaitchik quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson so often that Hersey took to calling his colleague “Ralph.” Dr. Zaitchik liked to joke that he knew the authors he taught, such as Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and their peers, “and there was something believable about that, because you can’t imagine a time when he wasn’t around,” Hersey said.
When Dr. Zaitchik’s mouth became dry during lectures, he would suck on hard candies. He would ask a class a question and throw candies to the students who raised their hands.
“What he did for me was take the obstacle away from learning about literature. It’s so easy to think this stuff is difficult, and he really made it approachable to me,” said former student Rob Velella.
“He had this sort of personable style,” Velella added. “You really felt you were in conversation with him, rather than hearing a lecture from him.”
Dr. Zaitchik was born in Minsk, Belarus, and moved when he was 4 to the United States, where his family settled in Boston.
He attended Yeshiva University in New York City briefly before moving to California for a short time. When he returned to Boston, he married the former Jeanette Katz. Their marriage ended in divorce.
While working as a janitor and a Hebrew teacher, he went back to school, graduating in 1953 from Suffolk University with a bachelor’s degree in English. In 1965, he received a doctorate from Boston University.
During those years, he also was very involved in the civil rights movement, spoke out against the Vietnam War, and was a religious adviser and choir leader at the former Temple Judea of Stoneham.
He started teaching at UMass-Lowell in the mid-1960s, often acting as a liaison between students and the administration. Family and friends said he used his wry humor to defuse tensions.
In 2004, Dr. Zaitchik’s play “Be Our Joys” won the Stanley Drama Award, which is presented by Wagner College in New York City.
Dr. Zaitchik retired in 2007, but continued to teach a course through 2011.
In 1977, he was invited to speak at the Concord School of Philosophy as part of a series.
“To be on that list is a very big deal,” said his wife, the former Holly Hagedorn, whom he married in 1975. “It gave him a lot of pleasure to speak where Emerson had spoken.”
A service has been held for Dr. Zaitchik, who in addition to his wife and son leaves four other sons, Michael of Danvers, Matt of North Providence, R.I., Benjamin of Baltimore, and Daniel of Los Angeles; a daughter, Michele King of Lebanon, N.H.; a brother, Samuel of Brighton; and eight grandchildren.
Teaching long after other professors had stopped stepping into classrooms, Dr. Zaitchik hoped to do more than just introduce students to good writing.
“I still teach ‘The Bible as Literature,’ but it can’t really be taught just as literature,” he said in the interview with his grandson. “It’s religion, ethics, history, philosophy, culture. What I try to do in my classes is get young people from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from fundamentalist to atheist, to join, harmoniously, in appreciation of what may very well be the most influential book in human history, certainly in Western history.”