A Tribute to Dr. J. Mitchell Orlian
On Wednesday, May 8, Professor J. Mitchell Orlian’s colleagues and well-wishers gathered to honor him after 60 years of teaching Bible and Hebrew language at Yeshiva University. As I listened to the warm tributes from family and close friends, I thought about what Dr. Orlian’s students learned from him that cannot easily be found elsewhere. Two words came to mind. Aptly perhaps, in writing about a passionate advocate of the Hebrew language, these are words that do not easily translate.
The Hebrew word miktso’iut can be taken as the translation of “professionalism.” But the Hebrew, I think, merely describes a high level of competence; the English conveys more. When I think of Rabbi Orlian as a consummate professional, I mean that he taught successfully and dependably at a variety of levels and that he was always diligent, deliberate and interested in the task at hand. It didn’t seem to matter if he was offering Tanakh in Yeshiva College or IBC, with his trademark focus on parshanut and language, or whether he was teaching Hebrew grammar and literature. In every academic context, his miktso’iut shone through.
He also brought this same attention and considerateness to his work outside YU, for many years running the North American Hidon HaTanakh competition for young people and teaching elementary Hebrew to adult education students.
Dr. Orlian concentrated on his teaching — for much of his career his course load was more than that of a full-time professor. His primary intellectual creativity was devoted to polishing his courses — in Bible, he taught an 8-semester cycle, more than anyone else — and making useful comments on the work of his colleagues, of whom I was an appreciative recipient. At the same time, he continued to work on his major scholarly project, the critical edition of the medieval Ashkenazic Sefer ha-Gan which I heartily recommend to anyone interested in medieval Jewish biblical interpretation.If professionalism is the word I feel best captures Dr. Orlian’s intellectual contribution, yosher is the word for his personal example, and I am sorry that English equivalents like righteousness, honesty and the like are inadequate by comparison. In the 46 years we have been colleagues and almost 40 years that we have been in the same shul, I have never heard Rabbi Orlian make light of a human being. I cannot think of anyone who knew him and failed to respect his integrity, scholarship, humility and his willingness to help anyone who asked. I hope that we — family, colleagues and students — will be able to gain from Rabbi Orlian and look up to him for many years to come. His example is one we need.
Photo Caption: Dr. J. Mitchell Orlian at a recent event honoring his 60 years of service.
Photo Credit: YU News