Tikva Frymer-Kensky Collegiate Professor Anita Norich will be retiring from the University of Michigan this semester. The Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and Department of English Language and Literature invites the community to a celebration of Professor Norich’s scholarly contributions on March 21, 1:00 pm, in Rackham Assembly Hall. Bringing together colleagues as well as former and current students of Professor Norich, this symposium reflects Professor Norich’s influence and inspiration, while also suggesting directions that her scholarly legacy may take in future.
I first met Anita Norich on the shelves of an academic press bookstore during an extended layover in Houston. I was a young graduate student trying to organize my ideas about modern Jewish literature, and here was a title that demanded my attention: The Homeless Imagination in the Fiction of Israel Joshua Singer. What? A whole book dedicated to I. B.’s brother? Who was this I. J. and who was this A. Norich who had devoted so much time to him? That book showed me, as all of her dazzling scholarship has, what a serious Jewish literary criticism could and should look like. It was subtly argued, impeccably researched, wholly unapologetic, and sharply attuned to the multiple contexts shaping modern Jewish culture: literary, political, religious, geographical, and, of course, linguistic.
When I joined the Michigan faculty in 2000, Anita moved from being a key reference on my reading lists to my closest colleague and mentor, and a dear friend. I soon discovered that Anita had schooled the entire English department quite thoroughly in the nuances of Yiddish modernism. Here was a rambling assortment of midwestern Shakespeareans and post-structuralists with a keen appreciation for Yankev Glatshteyn. How easy it was, given Anita’s presence, to introduce myself to my colleagues as a Jewish Americanist. Indeed, I have been continually impressed by Anita’s ability to communicate with non-specialists, even with those whose awareness of Jewish culture may go no further than a few stereotypes. Where some in her position might leave Yiddish or Hebrew words untranslated or forget to explain historical figures and movements in Jewish life, Anita never makes anybody feel like an outsider (translation is, after all, one of her areas of expertise). She is keenly aware of her audience, which helps explain why everybody feels like an insider when she begins talking.
Having soon recognized what her students all knew—that Anita is a virtuoso in the classroom—I naturally turned to her for advice about teaching. After visiting one of my classes, she offered a critique that I still bear in mind whenever I teach. Each time I posed a question to the class, she noticed, I would rephrase the question in slightly different language several times, until somebody finally answered. “Instead, ask one good question,” she told me, “and give the students time to ponder it.” Thus is her pedagogy marked by deep faith the learning process—and her advice here as always was incisive, well-honed, and eminently practical.
I have been continually amazed by Anita’s brilliance and versatility, while being moved by her uproarious sense of humor and generosity. An example of the latter that I can’t help but mention here: When my father died, my wife and I were busy taking care of our newborn twins, and in no position to hold a shiva (Jewish mourning ritual). Anita assured me that such things are important, and she opened her home to me. What would I have done without a space to mourn with friends and colleagues? How would I have honored my father’s memory? Anita’s generosity in this case was matched by her deep wisdom, which has enriched me as it has so many at Michigan and far, far beyond.