Expecting the Unexpected: Deviations Common in Life of Math Professor

by Phyllis Lehrer

Amherst Bulletin, February 22, 2002, page 2

It all adds up.  The life and career of Richard S. Ellis has been determined by deviations.

“A deviation is a rare event you don’t expect to happen,” said Ellis, a math professor in the University of Massachusetts Department of Mathematics and Statistics since 1975. Coincidentally, his specialty is the study of large deviations; he’s written two texts and the Gärtner-Ellis theorem is named after him.

Sitting in his Bay Road home where a hallway is a family photo gallery and books predominate, Ellis described how the deviations altered his life. His conversation is peppered with mathematical terms. As in math, his life includes subsets, like religion and writing.

However the multiple efforts don’t subtract from each other. “I focus on what I am doing at the time,” he said.

His prime focus is math. “I was good at it, fascinated by it,” said Ellis, who grew up in Boston.

After obtaining degrees from Harvard and the Courant Institute of Mathematical Science at New York University, he began teaching.

“I love teaching. I love communicating the beauty of math. In math part of what you teach is a way of thinking,” he said.

The key to being a successful teacher: “You have to know the material. You can’t fake it and you have to prepare. It sounds obvious. You have to have the ability to animate, the ability to draw connections,” he said.

Students need to be a part of the equation. “Teaching without student participation is like talking to yourself — it’s not fun.” His final advice: “You have to respect the students, respect where they are.”

It’s a challenge at times to motivate students. “They come in all excited. Life is complicated. It’s hard to keep people’s attention.” When interest flags, he shifts his approach.

Now for the subsets. What’s the statistical probability that a casual conversation at a bat mitzvah would change the course of a life?

The net result of that conversation became a deviation since it prompted Ellis to visit Israel. “It changed my life,” he said of the trip.

While he grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household, he wasn’t observant. His view of faith was old men in black praying in an incomprehensible language in a synagogue. However, Israel showed him another path to religion where faith is found every day indoors and outside. After that experience he began a spiritual journey that still continues.

“You could approach religion by ritual observance, political activism or textual study. People have choices,” he said. His choice was through texts, the literature and language. He studied Hebrew and focused on the Torah. He explained that the Torah has several definitions, one being the first five books of the Bible. His definition is broader to mean “Learning, truth, a path of instruction, the way.”

His study led to teaching courses on the Book of Job, biblical narrative and the writings of Franz Kafka as an adjunct in the department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at UMass.

He described the parallels between the two fields. “In math the rules of logic are fixed but allow freedom. The Judaic canon is fixed but open to interpretation,” he said.

Both are specialized languages. Math has it own vocabulary; Hebrew is a unique language. You need a teacher for both. “You can’t pick up math without a guide. You need a guide for Judaic text study, too.”

Besides teaching in the Judaic studies department, Ellis has taught classes at the Jewish Community of Amherst, where he is a member. His latest teaching venture is “The Purposes of Jewish Living,” at the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School in Springfield.

That class came about via another deviation: a rabbi’s wife in Springfield reads The New York Times announcement of his daughter’s wedding, tells her husband, who then calls Ellis.

According to Ellis, the program allows adult access to Jewish literature in an open environment where they feel comfortable to read the texts and discuss interpretations. “To get in front of a group of people and open their eyes, it’s magical. It’s so much fun,” he said.

Another subset is his writing, which includes poetry, essays and an unpublished novel, Blessings from the Dead, that stems from one of his three trips to Israel. In one of those rare events he met a cousin for the first time who was also visiting the country. “He told me we had a relative living in Israel that I never knew.” The families met and have stayed in touch.

“The book expresses my love of Israel,” said Ellis. “It’s geographically beautiful. Words are hard to describe that. The colors, the view to infinity. It’s the land in which the Bible was written.”