Avram Noam Chomsky was born on December 7th in 1928 in the East Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia (generally pronounced by locals as O’Clane) to Ze’ev “William” and Elsie (Simonofsky) Chomsky. Having fled Russia to Baltimore in 1913, Ze’ev did manual labor and worked in Hebrew elementary schools before attending college and thereafter moving to Philadelphia and becoming principal of the religious school at Congregation Mikveh Israel and also joining the faculty at Gratz College. He was a staunch believer in education toward people improving the world. Elsie was also a teacher (and an activist) from Belarus; they met at Mikveh Israel, where she was teaching.
[Your correspondent’s friend, frequent morning minyan attendee, and Hebrew High School and Gratz College grad Joe Charny sat alphabetically next to Noam Chomsky at Central High School for four years, and studied in the senior Chomskys’ Hebrew classes; their name was pronounced Khomsky.]
Noam Chomsky lived up to his beginnings, influenced by his parents and his surroundings into becoming something of what we now would call a political junkie. At age 10 he wrote about the spread of fascism following the Spanish Civil War, and he would also study the anarchists in contrast with the socialists and union leaders with whom he conversed.
Starting classes at the University of Pennsylvania at age 16, Chomsky studied philosophy, logic, and various languages including a specialty in Arabic. About to move to Palestine to join a kibbutz, he was waylaid by meeting linguist Zellig Harris, who taught him about theoretical linguistics, which would become Chomsky’s major. (His BA honors thesis was “Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew,” which he would revisit for his MA thesis and subsequently publish as a book.) He also studied philosophy. He would earn a doctorate from Harvard, and would go on to become a professor at MIT. And throughout the 1960s he published many works, such as Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (1966).
It would be during the Anti-Vietnam-War movement that Chomsky gained notoriety, at first speaking at small gatherings and then with contributions to The New York Review of Books. His first political book would be a collection of such essays, American Power and the New Mandarins (1969). This political intellectualizing seems to be what Noam Chomsky is most widely known for doing. Regardless the politics of the moment, someone will ask him his opinion and it will often contain viewpoints that others hadn’t yet mentioned.
Meanwhile, he was an outspoken activist, even being included on President Nixon’s master list of political opponents. And his linguistic works continued to be published.
Noam Chomsky is, as Joe Charny says, “still activating.” One of his best-known works is Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, written with Edward S. Herman, which deals with media’s role in reinforcing and bending to governmental policies while paying little attention to conflicting information and opinions. In 2017 he published Requiem for the American Dream. And he has continued to publish on philosophy as well, in addition to his linguistic works. Catch him on YouTube some time. In the opinion of your correspondent, his perspective is always worth hearing.