Remembering Stanley Rabinowitz

Lincoln High School / Brooklyn, N.Y. 11223

Since Stanley Rabinowitz, the Henry Steele Commager Professor of Russian, Emeritus, died in January, the Amherst community has generated a veritable steppe鈥檚 worth of 鈥淪tanecdotes鈥 about his classroom charisma, blunt charm, sustained kindness and support鈥攑lus his photographic memory. He was legendary for being able to recall the high school and hometown ZIP code of every student he taught since 1973. Below, you鈥檒l find an edited selection of alumni recollections. To access them all in full, go to Rabinowitz Recollections. An obituary also appears on the In Memory page for this issue.

The memorial service was held in Johnson Chapel on Jan. 25 (see the video on the College鈥檚 In Memoriam site), and the professor is now interred in Wildwood Cemetery in Amherst. He once joked that his tombstone should be inscribed thus: 鈥淗ere lies Stanley Jay Rabinowitz. Office hours are on Tuesday from 3 to 5 p.m. Sign up in advance. I expect to be busy.鈥


Beginnings

I was sleepwalking through orientation in 1982, when suddenly  an  imposing presence cornered me in the hallway. 鈥淛ohn Barry!鈥

How the hell did this guy know who I was?

He told me: He had been a graduate student 12 years earlier, in Leningrad, and had run into my father鈥攁 foreign service officer鈥攁t a party in the American consulate. I was 10 years old at the time.

Within a month I was en route to a major in Russian literature. It made me who I am. Isn鈥檛 that what liberal arts is supposed to be about? And the kick in that direction came from Stanley Rabinowitz, breaker of the mold that made him. John Barry 鈥86

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A book with a man and a woman on the front cover and notes in the pages

Read, Actually

鈥淥ne day, when you actually read Anna Karenina, here are some things you might notice鈥.鈥 In this way, he introduced us to the glories of Russian literature in translation.

Now a literature professor myself, with a young daughter who just read a tattered copy of Anna Karenina marked up with the genius of Professor Rabinowitz鈥檚 insights, I invoke him each time I teach my large lecture: 鈥淎s a professor of mine used to say, 鈥極ne day, when you actually read 鈥.鈥 It never fails to get a laugh. Lisa H. Cooper 鈥93

Taking Care

In class, He once answered a student鈥檚 ringing phone and had a whole conversation with her mother. But what I remember most is that, one week, after I鈥檇 fallen off my bike and gotten some weird bruises, he pulled me aside after class to ask if anyone was hurting me. I鈥檒l always remember him for caring about me in that way when he didn鈥檛 even know me well. In addition to the delightfully bombastic performances, he was a truly good man. Emmalie Dropkin 鈥07

Life Coach

I took Russian lit pass/fail, to skate by while I focused on other priorities, like baseball.

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A baseball glove catching a ball that has cursive writing on its surface

A few weeks into the semester, I received a letter handwritten on Amherst baseball stationery. It began, 鈥淒ear Stephan, This is your other coach, Coach Rabinowitz鈥.鈥 The gist of the letter was that my classroom attendance was lacking and it was time for a chat. I sheepishly visited his office, where he told me (not unkindly) that he could not in good conscience give me a passing grade if I failed to attend class. Needless to say, my subsequent attendance was much improved!

To this day, I don鈥檛 know how Professor Rabinowitz got hold of Amherst baseball stationery. Stephan Rapaglia 鈥92

Class Act

Most of us didn鈥檛 want to miss a class, but there was one student who didn鈥檛 feel the same way. One day he sauntered into the Red Room 20 minutes late. He nonchalantly took a seat in the back row.

Stanley stopped himself mid-lecture to gush, 鈥淗ow lovely to see you! Glad you could make it.鈥 The student blushed and looked down.

Stanley continued, 鈥淚 think we have a slight misunderstanding between us.鈥 The whole class perked up. 鈥淭his class meets Monday鈥斺 (Stanley wrote M on the board) 鈥溾and Wednesday鈥斺 (he wrote W) 鈥溾and Friday鈥 (he wrote F).

鈥淗owever!鈥 (He paused for dramatic effect.) 鈥淵ou seem to be under the impression that the class meets Monday鈥斺 (here he erased the M) 鈥溾or Wednesday鈥斺 (he erased the W) 鈥溾or Friday.鈥 (Dramatic pause and tilt of the head.)

Circling the F, he said, 鈥淪adly, if you continue with this misperception, this is all that remains.鈥

That student, of course, never missed another class. Stephanie Rosen 鈥90

Selling Out

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A person holding books with a hand reaching out with a handful of money

At the end of the spring semester, I sold all my Russian lit books back to the bookstore in town. That fall, Professor Rabinowitz was perusing the shelves and discovered my indiscretion. He gave me a good-natured ribbing. Mortified, I asked what I could do to make it up to him. He suggested I address his incoming Russian lit class. So I stood in front of the class and testified to the life-changing semester upon which the students were about to embark, strongly suggested how these classics should adorn their bookshelves in perpetuity and forewarned them of the dangers of ever parting with the books for a fistful of dollars.

The whole time I was speaking, Professor Rabinowitz was standing back, convulsively cracking up, stifling his laughter the way he did with just the tips of his fingers pressed to his lips while looking skyward. This is the lasting image in my mind鈥檚 eye of my favorite college professor. Josh Freedenberg 鈥95

Office Hours

I was a computer science major in my junior year when I took 鈥淚ntro to Russian Literature.鈥 I went to the professor鈥檚 office hours once. He asked me what else I was taking, and I said macroeconomics and two computer science courses. 鈥淚鈥檓 so sorry,鈥 he replied. 鈥淚t鈥檚 good that you鈥檙e here, then.鈥 Beth Linker 鈥98

Being Vulnerable

Stanley was part of a group of male professors at Amherst who had a lasting impact on the way I came to think about masculinity. Stanley assigned queer novels, like Andrei Bely鈥檚 Petersburg, which took me far beyond the limits of what I had come to think of as the patriarchs of world literature.

In an interview from 2019, Stanley said he tried to show his students that he was 鈥渁vailable鈥 and 鈥渁ccessible鈥 to them: 鈥渢hey can come and talk to me without feeling embarrassed or humiliated.鈥 That was certainly the way I felt around Stanley. And it was thanks to his open disposition that I went on to a career teaching literature. He taught me not to be afraid of bringing my vulnerable humanity into the classroom. Benigno Trigo 鈥84

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A woman with her arms spread out and a speech balloon above her with a man in it

Complimentary

After my Senior Assembly speech in 2010, Stanley came up to me and shrieked, 鈥淩obyn, I had no idea how f***ed up you are!鈥 One of my all-time favorite compliments. I tell this story at least 10 times a year. Stanley was a gem. Robyn Bahr 鈥10

Crime. Punishment.

Rapid footfalls came to a halt. I half-woke from my nap to see the hem of a trench coat. Whoever it was walked away quickly.

Rabinowitz made a dramatic entrance into the Red Room later that afternoon. Back of hand to forehead, he gasped, 鈥淵ou would not believe what I saw one half hour ago on the second floor of the library.鈥 I sank in my chair. 鈥淪omeone in this room, sitting among you now, asleep, jacket over head, like this鈥濃攈e mimicked my sleeping position. 鈥淎nd here鈥檚 the worst part: This person was still reading Crime and Punishment.鈥 We were supposed to have finished it two weeks earlier.

He had jokingly (I thought) warned the class that he patrolled campus. 鈥淚鈥檒l be watching you,鈥 he had said. Now, my face reddened. I had become Raskolnikov.

Decades later, in the time-honored tradition followed by Rabinowitz鈥檚 students upon finally finishing an assigned reading, I wrote him a note. I told him I took solace knowing that I had too little life experience back then to have gotten much out of Tolstoy.

He wrote back, elated. We met for lunch. We talked Tolstoy. He spouted humor and brilliance as if we were back in Converse Hall. We are students鈥his students鈥攆or life. Seth T. Cohen 鈥94

Go Socks

He was in his office, spotted me and waved me in. It was a slushy day, and he had apparently stepped in a puddle and soaked his shoe through to his sock, so he鈥檇 taken off the shoe and put the sock on the radiator to dry. He was also recovering from a cold, so he鈥檇 made a sign to hang around his neck: I CAN鈥橳 TALK I HAVE LARYNGITIS. We had a bit of a chat, he feigned indignation and kicked me out of his office, and I went down the hall to the Russian lounge for another meeting.

At one point, Stanley left his office and walked with his slow, stately gait past the open door of the lounge, wearing the sign.

We watched him go by, and Playwright-in-Residence Connie Congdon said, 鈥淲hy is Stanley only wearing one shoe?鈥

Russian professor Cathy Ciepela 鈥83 shrugged and replied, 鈥淲ell, some days are better than others.鈥 Zoe Fenson 鈥09

Add/Drop

My first鈥攁nd rarely used鈥攏ame is Dorothea, which is what he used to call me. I wrote a paper that began: 鈥淭he multifarious schisms of Raskolnikov 鈥.鈥 Professor Rabinowitz circled the entire first sentence and wrote, 鈥淒rop the thesaurus, Dorothea.鈥 Amy Sargent Swank 鈥84

Don鈥檛 Apologize

He guest-lectured in my Tolstoy course at Berkeley during the pandemic. No charisma was lost in Zoom transmission. At one point, Stanley asked the Berkeley students, who had never encountered anything like his teaching style, for their opinion about the depiction of Anna Karenina鈥檚 feelings in the overheated railroad car.

One, named Joseph, ventured, 鈥淚鈥檓 sorry, Professor, but I think this passage is about sex.鈥

鈥淥f course it is about sex!鈥 Stanley exclaimed鈥攆ull volume, half-chortle, half-cackle. 鈥淛oseph, you must never, ever apologize for anything you say in class.鈥

On their evaluations, several students wrote that they had especially liked 鈥渢he professor with the New York accent.鈥 Eric Naiman 鈥79

A Fantastic Book

We took Stanley out to dinner. I brought his translation of Akim Volynsky鈥檚 book of ballet criticism. I鈥檝e never read a book review like the one The New York Times did of Stanley鈥檚 translation. It starts, 鈥淭his is a fantastic book.鈥

I asked Stanley to read his favorite passage, one that would convey to our son Volynsky鈥檚 sublime writing. Stanley chose an excerpt where Volynsky writes that a ballet is like a fabric that has been stitched together very carefully and tightly. Remove one thread and the whole fabric starts to fray and fall apart.

Since Stanley has passed, I feel like a thread has been removed from my life. Joey Schotland 鈥96

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Two people holding a string that makes the letters S and I

Language Arts

On the first day of 鈥淪trange Russian Writers,鈥 he paced the room, pointing at students, rattling off full names, postal codes and high schools. Adding to my astonishment, he addressed me in Spanish.

Over the years, he became a mentor and friend. Stanley Rabinowitz was that professor you wish everyone met.

I had the opportunity to speak with him only a few months ago, which I feel very grateful for. Before hanging up he asked, as he usually did at the end of a conversation, 鈥驴T煤 me quieres?

I said to him then, as I say to him now, 鈥隆S铆, Profesor!鈥&苍产蝉辫; Pascual Cortes-Monroy 鈥17

Always, the Students

At the celebration of his 50 years at Amherst in Brooklyn in October, Stanley didn鈥檛 want to talk about his many books, the Russian Center that he directed, the honors that he鈥檇 received. He instead focused on his students, as always.

Stanley read passages from letters that he鈥檇 received from alumni over the last 50 years. Some came from nearby, others from Russia, from the slopes of Everest. Alumni who hadn鈥檛 read Anna Karenina when Stanley assigned it felt an irresistible urge to let him know when they finally got around to it.

That night, his generosity as a teacher showed itself in the ongoing ties that he had with his students. 鈥擳homas M. Cohen 鈥79

Departures

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A man with a cane looking at the back of a bus

In the summer of 2015, I visited campus to see friends and professors before embarking on my fall semester abroad in Polynesia. After a characteristically amusing office conversation with Professor Rabinowitz, I informed him that I should head off to catch my bus in town. He asked me if I knew where the Peter Pan bus stopped, and I said I did not. After he described the location鈥擲outh Pleasant Street, across from the Town Common鈥擨 rushed there with my luggage.

As the bus was about to reach me, I saw Professor Rabinowitz strolling leisurely across the Common, cane in hand. He had, much to my surprise, come from his office in Webster Hall to check whether I had found the correct place to wait. I boarded, the bus started to move, and out the window I saw him silently waving at me, wishing me farewell. It felt as if the spirit of Amherst itself was blessing my voyage. Kelvin Chen 鈥16


Illustrations by James Yang