Remembering Susan Rothstein
On Tuesday, November 5th, 2019, the department of English Literature and Linguistics held an event in memory of Susan Rothstein. Below are some of the memories and thoughts shared by her colleagues at this event; as well as memories contributed by friends and colleagues after the event.
"I remember Susan delivering the Shaindy Rudoff memorial speech. How crazy it is to be standing up here delivering a speech in her memory.
Although I’m meant to be talking about Susan as colleague, I can’t really help but talk about Susan as friend, because that is what she was to me and so many others, inside and outside the department.
I’d like to focus on just two of her many qualities: her generosity and her capacious mind
- With colleagues – she was the single most knowledgeable person in the department about the inner workings of BIU
- With time and experience – her synagogue
- With money – she quietly helped people. I know of several people she assisted financially, anonymously, people hoping to improve their lot in life through education.
And she and Fred helped me when I was performing major renovations and restorations on a 300-year old building in the Old City of Akko that I subsequently turned into a hotel and at which Susan and Fred became honored guests several times. The help came in the form of my housesitting for them while they spent 18 months on sabbatical in Germany. That also turned Susan and me into flatmates whenever she came back to see her parents and Alex. And those were terrific times. We got along famously, had terrific chats over dinners in the flat or at the family’s favorite restaurant, a tiny Italian eatery on Ben Yehuda Street. In fact, the owner, Yoav, once sat himself down with us and somehow, over a long, long philosophical discussion we finished three entire bottles of very good wine together, and while Yoav may have consumed the lion’s share I do recall Susan and me laughing and perhaps singing on our walk home to Trumpeldor Street. I’m pretty sure we did NOT have our usual nightcap – excellent scotch whiskey – that evening. Another of Susan’s surprising areas of knowledge.
Capacious mind. She had one of the sharpest minds I’ve ever encountered, and one of the most literary as well. She could wield that intelligence like a weapon, but mostly she used it to elucidate and educate.
When I heard she was ill, on her first hospital stay, I texted her and it turned out to be a good time to visit, so I hopped on my bike and rode over to Ichilov, where I stayed for several hours, until the ward was closed to guests. Fred and Alex had been there all day, so I had Susan to myself, and she was feeling fine, and the only interruption was a nurse to change the IV, so we talked and talked and talked. She patiently told me about her research [counting nouns?] and the conference she was preparing for in Jerusalem – which, ultimately, she did not attend – and I loved how she could make it accessible and fascinating to me.
With me: noncompetitive; respectful of artists, esp the literary kind; one of the best read people I’ve ever known.
She read all of my novels, and when the third one, The Parting Gift, came out, she wanted to discuss it. She told me it remind her, the whole time, of Camus’ La Chute and handed me her copy to read. I didn’t have the time, and I didn’t want to carry more books than necessary this summer when I was traveling, so I had the library in Vermont where I was working order me a copy. Alone in my dorm room while many of you were burying and mourning Susan, I turned to what I felt was her gift to me, the Camus text. I opened it for the first time to see what she could possibly have seen in my book that would remind her of Camus, and there it was, in the very first line: L’homme qui parle dans La Chute se livre à une confession calculée.
Susan herself reminded me of a literary character, at least in some ways: The redoubtable Hester Lilt, one of the protagonists in Cynthia Ozick’s novel The Cannibal Galaxy, mother of a lone daughter of whom she was exorbitantly and gleefully proud. Here she is, rendered through the perception of another of the protagonists, Joseph Brill:
She was an imagistic linguistic logician… … He entered her mind; it was very serious in there, and very splendid; it made him afraid to encounter such a majesty of assimilation…She dealt in scrutiny and commentary. Her genius for clarity frightened him. He was intimately persuaded that she was honest, too logical to lie. [Brill compares her to the Madame de Sévigné, one of the greatest icons of 17th-century French literature, whose greatness came through letters she wrote to her daughter. He describes her thus:] Her lips and eyes were vessels of wit; the small curled mouth had just swallowed a bon mot and shone with appetite for more.
In my opinion, Susan was at the best time in her life.
- Great relationship with Fred
- Alex in a wonderful relationship, with a beautiful son and a path in life to pursue
- Parents doing well
- New passion for the guitar
- Simple pleasures: knitting, music, friends, reading, trekking in Switzerland
- She’d celebrated her 60th birthday the previous September with a small group of friends and was beginning to look forward to retiring one day.
I take great comfort and pleasure and pride at having known her and having learned from her and am certain you all do, too."
"When I was asked to speak today, I was not sure I would actually be able to stand here and talk about Susan. As has already been said, her absence is present every day, and it is impossible to fill the void she left in our hearts.
Every person has a name given to her by her parents, by her smile, by her love, says the poet Zelda. Susan had a name she made for herself.
As I was making my first steps in Linguistics at TAU, her name reached us, as a rumor of this young brilliant Dr. from MIT, not much older than us, who was at Bar-Ilan. She was a semanticist which made it even more impressive, as our exposure to semantics was fragmented and made this field seem most challenging. She was an inspiration.
Little did I know then that she would become my academic mentor one day.
As I was just finishing my postdoc, I got an email from Susan, saying that there is an opening at BIU as a visiting lecturer. I had no idea how she knew I was looking for a job. Only during the shiva, I learned from Fred that this was one of the many dishes they concocted together.
In the years to follow, Bar-Ilan became my academic home, with Susan as my guide to the academic world. I quickly learned that Susan was not only a creative and innovative scholar, as many have attested to here. She was also a creative and innovative member of the university who knew the university’s ins and outs and how to convince her collogues to do things her way. Susan was a person that everyone listened to.
It was Susan who convinced me that joining the Gonda Brain Sciences research center was a good move for me, even though it meant being separated from the rest of the department. It was Susan who generously guided each of us as we became chair of the department, teaching us the secrets of the job.
It was Susan who started involving me in her vision of opening within the university, a center for the study of language and its acquisition; this was in 2004, not long after I joined the department. We kept trying to move this forward every few years, through a DIP proposal, through Yad Hanadiv, through different university internal initiatives.
When the current Rector, Prof. Miri Faust, opened a call for Interdisciplinary Research groups, Susan was the person who made sure that our proposal would be a model for all others. With the same vision, we suggested multlingualism and multiculturalism as a flagship topic. This culminated in the university’s decision to open the Impact Center for Multilingualism and Multiculturalism across the Lifespan. Susan’s hand was strongly marked in all these proposals. And her pleasure, this past June, that this materialized was immense. She called me back that day, after I left her a message, and not only she was pleased, but she already had an idea for the next research project that we should pursue.
More than anything else, Susan really cared about us, the new and the not so new faculty members. We were all her children. Susan was involved in the recruitment of each and every new faculty member. And then she made sure we knew exactly what we should do to meet the university and international standards of excellence. So much like herself, she called me in June on the morning of my first מועצה אקדמית עליונה to wish me good luck and calm me down, telling me what to expect. All I could say was that I was so hoping for her to be there with me.
Fred told me at the shiva that as Susan was thinking of early retirement, she felt that we are ready to function on our own, as she taught us all we need to know. She definitely taught us a lot, but there is so much we still had to learn. So much we had hoped and planned to learn.
I keep talking about my experience of Susan as a leader and mentor. But, what I miss most, is her popping into my lab on her way to the kitchenette or the bathroom; to chat about Ronya, Fred, Alex, Eatai, Ezra, each one at his or her time; to ask about my children, compare experiences. These small tokens of interest in others, just checking all is well, sharing little anecdotes here and there.
I feel very lucky to have had Susan as colleague, as mentor, as a friend. I terribly miss her.
יהי זכרה ברוך"
"It isn't easy to speak about Susan knowing that she isn't here. Susan was a central part of the department, which she joined in 1985, for 34 years. It wouldn't be an exaggeration or a cliche to say that many of us wouldn't be doing what we're doing today if it wasn't for Susan. This includes those who discovered the world of linguistics as Susan's students; as well as those of us who came here as faculty members, which for a number of us was the result of Susan's efforts as chair of the department. Even though Susan was deeply immersed in the world of formal theoretical linguistics, she also saw the huge value in having a diverse linguistics program that combines theory with experimental and applied work; Susan constantly fought for maintaining our department's diversity, which allows our linguistics program to play a unique role in the Israeli linguistics community.
Susan was often seen by her colleagues as the one whose opinion we should always trust. None of us can count the number of times we said to each other, 'let's ask Susan and see what she thinks'. This was true no matter what the issue was: a problem with our course offerings, a challenging research question, an exceptional situation involving one of our students, an issue with university administration, or anything else. Susan's unique combination of vast experience, sharp observation, analytical ability and absolute integrity meant that whatever she suggested was usually regarded as THE right thing to do.
Susan's persuasiveness was also a great asset - I might even say a secret weapon - in any situation where the department had to deal with the outside world. Whether it was writing a recommendation letter, a report, or fighting against an administrative obstacle, Susan's ability to make the most accurate and relevant claims in the most convincing manner rarely failed, whether it was done in writing or via face to face discussions. For any new faculty member submitting their first grant proposal, the most helpful piece of advice you could get was: 'first of all, ask Susan for one of her grant proposals and study it'. When the council of higher education - the Malag - sent a committee to evaluate our program in 2013, it was more or less obvious that Susan should be the one to be in charge of writing our own self evaluation report. Thanks to Susan's efforts, wisdom and expertise, the committee's visit to our department was a great success which led to a highly positive final report about the department.
Susan's high standards, and her ability to communicate her knowledge and her opinions in the clearest and most accurate manner, were of course expressed in numerous ways in her teaching as well. Students knew very well that Susan's courses were never easy; making things intellectually easy was not on Susan's agenda, and the fruits of her high demands can be seen in the amazing work done by her graduate students. Over the last decade, Susan also taught a special graduate seminar meant mostly for advanced doctoral students, a seminar that dealt with general issues of performing research and presenting it, as it applied to the specific research of every one of the students. Even though Susan's field was formal linguistics, whereas many of our graduate students work in experimental - and not formal -fields, Susan was without doubt the right person to teach such a seminar. In every discussion I had with students who took this seminar I always heard the same thing: 'wow, I'm so glad I took this seminar, I now understand how to work so much better than I ever did before'. Susan also regularly organized international workshops, and a significant component in every one of those workshops was the work presented by Susan's students, which, needless to say, was always top quality.
We will all miss Susan dearly. For the last few years, before her illness, Susan started preparing us to the unthinkable idea that in a few years the department will have to go on without her; none of us really wanted to think about her retirement, and now that her absence has all of a sudden become a reality we are still struggling to understand how this can be possible. At the same time, Susan's image is so clear and vivid in our minds that it's almost as if she's still here with us. Certain people leave such an impact on others that their image stays long after the person is gone. Susan has affected all of us, and in this sense she will always be here."
I knew Susan from her first Shabbat in the United States when she sat next to me at the Young Israel of Brookline, Massachusetts.It was one of my first times at the Young Israel, although I had lived in Brookline for over a year. She and her friend, Miriam Solomon, then a beginning graduate student at Harvard, became mentors to me in my journey to become a ba'alat teshuva. I was twelve years older than Susan, but she still became one of my best friends. I discovered her passing when I looked up her bio to see exactly when she began at MIT, information I need for a memoir I am working on. She was, as others have said, always generous, hospitable, and thoughtful. In spite of our age and educational difference she brought me into her circle, and her friends also helped me in my spiritual journey.
Although we have not been in touch in many years, she was important to me at a a time that was both difficult and, religiously speaking, important and inspirational. My heart aches to know that she is gone.
Hanna Bandes Geshelin