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’s worth of “Stanecdotes” about his classroom charisma, blunt charm, sustained kindness and support—plus 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’ll 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’s In Memoriam site), and the professor is now interred in Wildwood Cemetery in Amherst. He once joked that his tombstone should be inscribed thus: “Here lies Stanley Jay Rabinowitz. Office hours are on Tuesday from 3 to 5 p.m. Sign up in advance. I expect to be busy.”


I was sleepwalking through orientation in 1982, when suddenly  an  imposing presence cornered me in the hallway. “John Barry!”

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—a foreign service officer—at 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’t 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 ’86

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

Read, Actually

“One day, when you actually read Anna Karenina, here are some things you might notice….” 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’s insights, I invoke him each time I teach my large lecture: “As a professor of mine used to say, ‘One day, when you actually read ….’ It never fails to get a laugh. Lisa H. Cooper ’93

Taking Care

In class, He once answered a student’s ringing phone and had a whole conversation with her mother. But what I remember most is that, one week, after I’d fallen off my bike and gotten some weird bruises, he pulled me aside after class to ask if anyone was hurting me. I’ll always remember him for caring about me in that way when he didn’t even know me well. In addition to the delightfully bombastic performances, he was a truly good man. Emmalie Dropkin ’07

Life Coach

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

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, “Dear Stephan, This is your other coach, Coach Rabinowitz….” 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’t know how Professor Rabinowitz got hold of Amherst baseball stationery. Stephan Rapaglia ’92

Class Act

Most of us didn’t want to miss a class, but there was one student who didn’t 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, “How lovely to see you! Glad you could make it.” The student blushed and looked down.

Stanley continued, “I think we have a slight misunderstanding between us.” The whole class perked up. “This class meets Monday—” (Stanley wrote M on the board) “—and Wednesday—” (he wrote W) “—and Friday” (he wrote F).

“However!” (He paused for dramatic effect.) “You seem to be under the impression that the class meets Monday—” (here he erased the M) “—or Wednesday—” (he erased the W) “—or Friday.” (Dramatic pause and tilt of the head.)

Circling the F, he said, “Sadly, if you continue with this misperception, this is all that remains.”

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

Selling Out

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’s eye of my favorite college professor. Josh Freedenberg ’95

Office Hours

I was a computer science major in my junior year when I took “Intro to Russian Literature.” I went to the professor’s office hours once. He asked me what else I was taking, and I said macroeconomics and two computer science courses. “I’m so sorry,” he replied. “It’s good that you’re here, then.” Beth Linker ’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’s 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 “available” and “accessible” to them: “they can come and talk to me without feeling embarrassed or humiliated.” 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 ’84

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


After my Senior Assembly speech in 2010, Stanley came up to me and shrieked, “Robyn, I had no idea how f***ed up you are!” One of my all-time favorite compliments. I tell this story at least 10 times a year. Stanley was a gem. Robyn Bahr ’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, “You would not believe what I saw one half hour ago on the second floor of the library.” I sank in my chair. “Someone in this room, sitting among you now, asleep, jacket over head, like this”—he mimicked my sleeping position. “And here’s the worst part: This person was still reading Crime and Punishment.” We were supposed to have finished it two weeks earlier.

He had jokingly (I thought) warned the class that he patrolled campus. “I’ll be watching you,” he had said. Now, my face reddened. I had become Raskolnikov.

Decades later, in the time-honored tradition followed by Rabinowitz’s 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—his students—for life. Seth T. Cohen ’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’d taken off the shoe and put the sock on the radiator to dry. He was also recovering from a cold, so he’d made a sign to hang around his neck: I CAN’T 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, “Why is Stanley only wearing one shoe?”

Russian professor Cathy Ciepela ’83 shrugged and replied, “Well, some days are better than others.” Zoe Fenson ’09


My first—and rarely used—name is Dorothea, which is what he used to call me. I wrote a paper that began: “The multifarious schisms of Raskolnikov ….” Professor Rabinowitz circled the entire first sentence and wrote, “Drop the thesaurus, Dorothea.” Amy Sargent Swank ’84

Don’t 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’s feelings in the overheated railroad car.

One, named Joseph, ventured, “I’m sorry, Professor, but I think this passage is about sex.”

“Of course it is about sex!” Stanley exclaimed—full volume, half-chortle, half-cackle. “Joseph, you must never, ever apologize for anything you say in class.”

On their evaluations, several students wrote that they had especially liked “the professor with the New York accent.” Eric Naiman ’79

A Fantastic Book

We took Stanley out to dinner. I brought his translation of Akim Volynsky’s book of ballet criticism. I’ve never read a book review like the one The New York Times did of Stanley’s translation. It starts, “This is a fantastic book.”

I asked Stanley to read his favorite passage, one that would convey to our son Volynsky’s 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 ’96

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

Language Arts

On the first day of “Strange Russian Writers,” 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, “¿Tú me quieres?

I said to him then, as I say to him now, “¡Sí, Profesor!”  Pascual Cortes-Monroy ’17

Always, the Students

At the celebration of his 50 years at Amherst in Brooklyn in October, Stanley didn’t want to talk about his many books, the Russian Center that he directed, the honors that he’d received. He instead focused on his students, as always.

Stanley read passages from letters that he’d received from alumni over the last 50 years. Some came from nearby, others from Russia, from the slopes of Everest. Alumni who hadn’t 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. —Thomas M. Cohen ’79


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—South Pleasant Street, across from the Town Common—I 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 ’16

Illustrations by James Yang