The Way They Were (and Are)
The Pennsylvania Gazette, July/August, 2001
When Dr. Carol Chomsky CW’51 accompanies her husband on lecture tours, she often finds herself surrounded by “very young and breathless” women, who inevitably ask her the same question: “So what’s it like to be married to Noam Chomsky?’” Her response, which took her some time to work out: “I’ll tell you one thing—it’s never boring!”
A mixed compliment, perhaps, but no small achievement, given that she’s known him since they were children and has been married to him for more than half a century.
Back in the old country—Philadelphia—she was known as Carol Schatz. Her family and Noam’s belonged to the same synagogue.
“His mother was my Hebrew School teacher, and his father was the principal of the Hebrew School,” she says in an e-mail interview. “Later, when I attended the Hebrew Teachers’ College of Philadelphia (Gratz College), his father was one of the professors.”
It’s hardly surprising that it took some time before she became romantically interested in a boy she had known since she was five.
“When we were early teenagers, I viewed him as an overly intellectual, undersized, ‘nerdy’ sort of kid,” she recalls. “In our early teens, he definitely wasn’t somebody I would have wanted to date.”
But by the time she was about 15, she found herself changing her mind. “We were heavily involved in Jewish cultural activities—Zionist youth groups (for Noam it was certainly not the standard ‘Zionist’ viewpoint), Hebrew-speaking groups, Hebrew-speaking summer camps, social activities. He knew more about these things than anyone else, and assumed a position of leadership. So he was very noticeable and admirable.”
They began to date sometime in 1947—the year she began at Penn, and the year that a disillusioned Noam nearly dropped out. Her memories of the University are a little warmer than Noam’s. “I loved it there,” she says. “I found my interests; had many excellent, even wonderful professors; and looking back, received a quite satisfactory intellectual grounding.”
But as for those first, heady years of college romance, well …
“My recollection is that Noam and I didn’t see all that much of each other at Penn, simply because we were so busy,” she says. “We were both working (teaching Hebrew School), and involved in so many things outside of school. Life was compartmentalized. You went to school during the day, did your homework, taught Hebrew School, and pursued the rest of your life in what time remained.”
Somehow, they found the time to get married in 1949, when she was 19 and he had just turned 21. Did she, I wonder, have any idea what she was getting in for?
“I think I did know what I was getting in for, but found it exciting,” she says. “One of his political ‘mentors’ took me aside and explained to me about his politics, the extent of his radicalism, and the dangers his views could come to pose over time. He wanted to make sure I was aware of how extreme Noam’s views were and what that might mean for the future. So I guess you could say I did know, in a general and overall sort of way.”
Two years after she graduated from Penn in 1951, the young couple moved to a kibbutz in the new country of Israel. While Noam was turned off by the
“Stalinist” political leanings of the kibbutz, they both had some practical objections, too.
“The setup that we foresaw there would not have been personally acceptable,” she explains. “I would have lived in the kibbutz of our choice, and Noam would have spent the week in the city at a university job, coming home on weekends. This didn’t seem desirable to either of us. I think we never really regretted the decision not to return.” They now live in the Boston suburb of Lexington.
In the 1960s, Noam’s political activities were sufficiently intense that they decided that she should go back to graduate school to earn her doctorate. That way, if he were jailed for any length of time, she could support herself and their children, Aviva, Diane, and Harry. That never happened, though he has seen the inside of a jail. (See main story.)
She got her Ph.D. in linguistics at Harvard, and her work has been in language
development and psycholinguistics. But don’t jump to any conclusions. “It’s a very different sort of ‘linguistics’ from Noam’s pursuits,” she says. “I always have to laugh when people talk about how interesting our dinner-table conversation must be since we’re in the same field.”
She taught for many years at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in the Department of Reading and Language, and became involved in “educational issues of literacy and the like.” She has since “moved into educational technology, and developed software for language and reading.”
I wonder if she has any hopes or dreams of a quiet, disengaged retirement with Noam, now that he is in his seventies and a grandfather of four.
“I’ve given up on that one,” she responds. “He’ll never stop. Actually, it’s probably a good thing for him. So I settle for water sports in the summers, an occasional hour of television during the long, dark winters, and endless discussions of the grandchildren’s latest antics. Not too bad a deal.”