In Remembrance: James Yaffe ’48 Died on June 4 2017

James Yaffe, a college professor and writer whose fiction and nonfiction chronicled the lives of American Jews in the twentieth century, died June 4, 2017, at his residence in Denver, Colorado. He was 90.

Yaffe was the author of 11 novels, two short-story collections, and two works of nonfiction. His play The Deadly Game, based on a story by the Swiss writer Friedrich Durrenmatt, was produced on Broadway in 1960 and off Broadway in 1966 and was adapted for television in 1982. A later play, Cliffhanger, ran off Broadway in 1985.

From 1966 until 2002, Yaffe taught English at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. When he retired, after more than three decades on the faculty, generations of former students e-mailed tributes to his thoughtful, rigorous, and inspiring teaching of both literature and creative writing. “He always treated me as if my ideas mattered,” wrote one. “A teacher who changed my life and made it unimaginably richer,” said another.

James Yaffe was born in Chicago on March 31, 1927, to Samuel Yaffe, a businessman, and the former Florence Scheinman, a homemaker. The family moved to New York when Yaffe was a young child. His writing career began early: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine bought one of his short stories when he was just 15. After serving in the US Navy at the close of World War II and earning his Yale bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, as a Scholar of the House, he published his first book–Poor Cousin Evelyn, a short-story collection–in 1951.

During the 1950s and ’60s, he wrote for television anthology programs like The United States Steel Hour and Alfred Hitchcock Presents while continuing to publish fiction, both novels and short stories. In 1966, he wrote The American Jews, a nonfiction look at a diverse and vibrant community; a second work of nonficton, So Sue Me!—which told stories mined from the archives of New York’s Jewish community court—followed in 1973.

Yaffe was a lifelong fan of detective stories, on both the page and the screen, and between 1988 and 1992 he published a four-book mystery series starring a detective known simply as Mom. Originally featured in short stories that ran in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the 1950s and ’60s, Mom was a Jewish mother whose crime-solving prowess relied on a bone-deep knowledge of human nature gleaned from years of coping with troublesome neighbors and relatives.

Yaffe is survived by his wife of 53 years, the former Elaine Gordon; three children—Deborah (Yale ’87), Rebecca, and Gideon; and three grandchildren—David Yaffe-Bellany (Yale ’19), Rachel Yaffe-Bellany, and Oona Yaffe.

Funeral services will be held in New York City. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Elizabethan Club. 

—Submitted by the family.

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