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OBITUARY – HEINI HALBERSTAM, 9/11/1926 – 1/25/2014

Heini Halberstam, beloved husband of Doreen Halberstam, father of Naomi, Judith, Lucy, Michael, Jean and John, grandfather of eight, died peacefully in his sleep on January 25, 2014 after a short illness in Champaign, IL. He was 87.

Halberstam, a mathematician known for his work with prime numbers, was born in 1926 and was the only child of Rabbi Michael and Judita Halberstamova. He spent his early years in Most, a small town on the Northwestern edge of Bohemia, in a region then known as the Sudetenland. Michael Halberstam moved to the area from Vienna in the 1920’s to become the town’s Rabbi. When Heini Halberstam was 10 years old, his father died suddenly from a heart attack and he and his mother moved soon after to Prague.

As anti-Semitism crept across the region, Judita made plans for her son to leave for safety and, in April 1939, she put him on one of the Kindertransport trains leaving Prague for London. Halberstam arrived a week later in England at age 12 and he never saw his mother again. In 1942, Judita Halberstamova, along with most of Prague’s Jewish community, was deported by the Nazi’s during the round up of Jews from Prague as retaliation for the assassination of Heydrich in 1942. Judita Halberstamova died in a Nazi work camp of typhus within the year.

Halberstam was able to thrive in England and went on to university with the assistance of his beloved patron/foster parent, Anne Welsford. Halberstam was billeted with Welsford for the duration of the war and benefitted from her ambitions for him. She encouraged him to go to university and he read mathematics at the University of London, obtaining his PhD in mathematics in 1952 under the mentorship of Theodor Estermann. A long and successful career followed with appointments at Trinity College Dublin from 1962-64; the University of Nottingham from 1964-1980; and finally, he took a position as head of the department, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 1980, and became an emeritus professor there in 1996.

Halberstam’s first marriage was to Heather Peacock, a teacher and opera singer. When Heather died tragically in a car accident in 1971, Halberstam was left with four children. He married shortly after to Doreen Bramley and the couple enjoyed a long and happy marriage of 42 years.

Halberstam was an analytic number theorist whose work took up one of the most mysterious areas of mathematics – the distribution of primes. As one of his peers, E. Bombieri, said of prime numbers: “To me, that the distribution of prime numbers can be so accurately represented in a harmonic analysis is absolutely amazing and incredibly beautiful. It tells of an arcane music and a secret harmony composed by the prime numbers.” Many mathematicians use the language of mysticism to speak of primes – they are both seemingly unpredictable and oddly regular; they represent a pattern and natural order of some kind, but that pattern and its order feels unreadable and just beyond the reach of the human mind; primes are unique and eccentric but also part of a flow of numbers that has been variously described as “mysterious,” (G. H. Hardy), “cosmic” (M. Jutila), “glamorous,” (R. Bellman), “beautiful,” “lawless and devilish” (George Spencer-Brown). This “arcane music” and “secret harmony” occupied Halberstam throughout his career and he published a book with Hans-Egon Richert on Sieve Methods that remains a major book in the field.

Heini Halberstam was a complicated mix of great intellect, high expectations and ambition, impatience, generosity, love and passion. As a teacher, he did not seek to win popularity competitions but instead demanded a high level of performance and commitment from his students. As a consequence he was admired and respected by many students and colleagues over the course of his long career and he leaves an impressive intellectual legacy behind.

After his retirement, Halberstam, for the first time, returned to Prague with his wife Doreen to follow the trail of his mother’s deportation. He was moved and surprised when he found her name inscribed upon the wall of the Holocaust memorial at the Pinkas Synagogue dedicated to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia. He went on to research the history of the Kindertransport, his means of escape from Prague, and he spoke occasionally at high schools and in his own synagogue about his experiences of those times.

Heini Halberstam left behind a short memoir for his children and grandchildren to read when he died and he prefaces it with a provocative quotation from Nabokov’s “The Eye”: “A mysterious thing, this branching structure of life: one senses in every past instant a parting of ways, a ‘thus’ and an ‘otherwise’, with innumerable dazzling zigzags bifurcating… against the dark background of the past.” Clearly, Heini relished this mysterious structure of life in much the same way that he embraced the mysteries of prime numbers; he was aware of the ways in which chance, coincidence and random events shaped the contours of a lived life with as much force as will and intention.

At the end of his memoir, Heini offers: “I hope I have not dwelt unduly on my career; I wanted to convey that, with no talent whatever and only modest ability at my disposal, I did just about as well as my mother could have wished; and I hope that such success as I’ve had has been some service to you all. I’ve had a life split into incompatible segments, and no doubt this has left its mark on me.” Those incompatible segments – a tranquil childhood interrupted by global war; an adulthood marked by loss, love and success; and a decline at the end characterized by vulnerability, love and sadness – make up a unique life, a life divisible only by itself and one. Heini Halberstam, secular to the end, leaves us his survivors with this one piece of wisdom: that life, itself is full of surprise and horror, mystery and patterns, regularity and randomness and our task is not to solve these mysteries but to live in reverence along side them. Heini Halberstam, rest in peace.


On Pronouns

By Jack Halberstam


Every few weeks, I get an email from a colleague, a friend or a student asking me what pronoun I prefer. I mostly go by “Jack” nowadays, although people who have known me for a really long time and some family members still call me Judith. Then there are a few people, my sister included, who call me “Jude.” I have debated switching out Jack for Jude to try to compress the name ambiguity into a more clear opposition between Judith and Jude. But then again–and contrary to my personality or my politics–when it comes to names and pronouns, I am a bit of a free floater. This goes against my instincts and my general demeanor – I don’t hang in the middle ground on much, not politically, not socially, not in terms of culture, queer issues, feminism or masculinity. I am a person of strong opinions so why, oh why, do I insist on being loosey goosey about pronouns?


Well, a few reasons: first, I have not transitioned in any formal sense and there certainly many differences between my gender and those of transgender men on hormones. Second, the back and forth between he and she sort of captures the form that my gender takes nowadays. Not that I am often an unambiguous “she” but nor am I often an unambiguous he. Third, I think my floating gender pronouns capture well the refusal to resolve my gender ambiguity that has become a kind of identity for me.


I watch friends, one after the other, transition, mostly from butch to TG male and I wonder whether I am just sitting on a fence and not wanting to jump. But actually, as a real medi-phobe, I don’t see taking hormones, even in small doses as right for me for any extended amount of time. Top surgery? Well, yes please, but then again, would this make it even harder for me to use the women’s locker room when I swim or work out (and I do one or the other almost every day so that would really be something to think about). So, while I could “transition” and still live in the ever-evolving, improvised territory of transgenderism…well, I prefer not to.

Yes, like Bartleby, that wonderful and doleful example of a refusenik who declined to explain his refusal to work, to comply, to communicate even, I prefer not to transition. I prefer not to clarify what must categorically remain murky. I prefer not to help people out in their gender quandaries and yet, I appreciate you asking.

I still use women’s restrooms and I avoid any and all contact on going in or coming out. If someone looks frightened when they see me, I say “excuse me” and allow my “fluty” voice to gender me. If someone looks angry, I turn away but mostly I just ignore what is going on around me in the restroom and do what I am there to do.

I wish more people would behave like my partner’s son (he’s 9 years old) and simply ask, politely and without judgement, what pronoun anyone prefers – he rarely presumes and often asks. I also wish more people would adapt to a pronoun system based on gender and not on sex, based on comfort rather than biology, based on the presumption that there are many gendered bodies in the world and “male” and “female” does not even begin the hard work of classifying them.

So, if you are wondering about my pronoun use and would like it resolved once and for all, I cannot help you there. But if, like the UK in the 1980’s, you are ready to give up on the “imperial” systems of measurements in favor of new metrics, then consider my gender improvised at best, uncertain and mispronounced more often than not, irresolvable and ever shifting.

And ps: grouping me with someone else who seems to have a female embodiment and then calling us LADIES, is never, ever ok!


IN A WORLD of unappeased, unabated, capitalism, it is time to manufacture, promote and embrace failure, queerly.

Failure, of course, goes hand in hand with capitalism. A market economy must have winners and losers, gamblers and risk-takers, con-men and dupes; capitalism, requires that everyone live within a system that equates success with profit and failure with the inability to accumulate wealth.

But this boom/bust economy leads everyone to expect that they will win and so in the wake of the realization that in actual fact, no one wins from such a market except the bankers and investors, losing has become a way of life, a new reality and failure is something with which we must reckon existentially, economically and politically.

As the collective who published The Coming Insurrection put it following the 2005 French riots in the banlieux, the economy is not in crisis, the economy is the crisis. They suggest we get dis-organized, that we find each other and that we help to push the system into collapse and bring the bankers down with it. In short, they propose wide-spread failure! This is very much what my book argues for in The Queer Art of Failure.

Over the course of writing this book, people have sometimes misunderstood me to be saying that people need to learn how to fail (we all actually already know how to fail well!) and they want tips, so consider this a crash course in failure, a self-help guide to failing well and failing better; this is 5 steps to being a complete loser: and why should we learn how to fail? Because winning has become the byword for greed, arrogance, profiting from others, conformity; winning means gloating, hoarding, condescending. And losing? Failing? Failure can become a potent form of critique, a repudiation of capitalism and profit margins, a refusal of the norm, an indifference to assimilation and a route to other ways of being in the world.