Transformations: A Profile of Richard S. Ellis

Teacher of “Purposes of Jewish Living” at

the Springfield, MA Jewish Community Center 2001-2002



Since I am blessed with a beautiful family, let me start by telling you about them.  Our daughter Melissa graduated from Yale University and Yale Medical School and is now a second-year resident in pediatrics at New York Presbyterian Hospital at Columbia.  In May 2000 she married Ken Glassman, whom she met at Yale.  After receiving degrees from Yale and the Wharton School of Business, Ken joined The Goldman Sachs Group, where he is now a vice president involved in distressed bond research.  Our son Michael graduated from Yale University in May 2001 and is now an associate at Katzenbach Partners in New York City, a management consulting firm. 

With Melissa and Ken.

On June 22, 1969, a month after graduating from Harvard, I married my high school sweetheart Alison, who, when she was a kid, dreamed of being a teacher.  She now teaches first grade in the nearby town of Leverett.  While at Harvard I pursued a double major in Mathematics and in German Literature, writing a senior honors thesis on the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.  Rilke’s work strongly influenced me to explore the transformations of that period of turmoil and growth, of intellectual maturation and the Vietnam War, that period when I came of age and fell in love.  Some of my poetry from those years is available online.

If in 1969 it had been possible to see the future, I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that thirty-plus years later I would be a professor of mathematics.  Not only had mathematics always fascinated me since my childhood, but also I had an excellent teacher, my father, may his memory be a blessing.  But that in addition I would be an adjunct professor of Judaic studies and that I would be teaching a course entitled “Purposes of Jewish Living” would have shocked me.  Exploring the strange, serpentine chain of causality that brought me to where I am now is one of the purposes of this profile. 

            An early link in that chain of causality was Alison’s sweet-sixteen birthday party in 1963.  While standing in the crowd of people in her back yard, I saw my wife-to-be smile.  In a moment of pure consciousness that I couldn’t have articulated at the time, her smile became a laser light piercing the shell that encased my adolescent soul.  But I was wide enough awake to ask Alison for a date; it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with her.  Marrying Alison and living with her have changed my life immeasurably by opening me up to my emotionality, to the beauty of silence, and ultimately, after many years of searching, to a spirituality that in my youth I never knew existed.  Without her, I wouldn’t have become the person I am now.

This photograph was taken at the graduation of our daughter Melissa from Yale Medical School in May, 2000.
From left to right: Alison, Michael, Melissa, Richard, and Alison's mother Rose.

            The last links in that chain of causality were the announcement of Melissa’s and Ken’s wedding that appeared in The New York Times on May 7, 2000 and the reading of that announcement by the wife of Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, the Director of Jewish Education and the Director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School at the Springfield Jewish Community Center.  When she saw that Melissa’s father was an adjunct professor of Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts, she called this to the attention of Rabbi Perlman, who later invited me to teach “Purposes of Jewish Living” during the academic year 2001-2002.

With great enthusiasm I accepted the invitation to teach in the mini-school.  I hoped that my participation would enable me to share with adult learners my passion for Jewish texts, which along with religious practice and Zionism I consider to be one of the three gates giving access into our magnificent tradition.  My own Jewish identity having matured as my study of Jewish texts deepened, I was eager to guide other adult seekers.  Teaching “Purposes of Jewish Living” has fulfilled every expectation.  By encouraging active student participation and by emphasizing that the Torah is not only the source of our religion but also a masterful literary text open to multiple interpretations, I have tried to create a relaxed and supportive atmosphere in which both students and teacher learn from one another.

I became involved in Jewish education about five years ago when my rabbi at the Jewish Community of Amherst (JCA), Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, suggested that I teach a course on the Torah.  I have subsequently taught courses on the art of Biblical narrative, the Book of Job, and the writings of Franz Kafka at the JCA, the University of Massachusetts, and the Springfield Jewish Community Center.

            Between meeting Alison in 1963 and teaching “Purposes of Jewish Living” in 2001-2002, the arcs of my life have traced numerous trajectories.  Or should I say “lives,” invoking the multiplicity of the Hebrew chayim?  The Jewish arc, for many years obscure, is now becoming clear.  My youth was spent in a Garden of Eden of preconscious Jewish existence from which I expelled myself to wander and to search.  And then, for reasons I don’t understand—my life until that point having prepared me in no way for this gift of consciousness expansion and identity transformation—I discovered Israel, where my family and I lived three times during the 1980’s and where the Torah discovered me, leading me to the beginnings of my path back to the Tree of Life, a path I am still exploring.

I grew up surrounded by Jews in the Blue Hill Avenue section of Boston within easy walking distance of one Conservative and four Orthodox synagogues.  The High Holy Days are among my fondest Jewish memories of that time.  After the obligatory half hour in shul, my friends and I gathered along the stone wall at Franklin Field, where we talked about sports and looked at the girls and shmoozed the entire afternoon.  Born into an Orthodox home, the religious life of which I did not participate in, living a preconscious Jewish existence without ever understanding it, I decided to truncate my Jewish education after four years.  My quitting Hebrew School so angered the principal that he forbade me from becoming bar mitzvah in his Conservative synagogue, forcing me to do this in my grandfather’s Orthodox synagogue, where the bar mitzvah training for our group of twelve year olds had two components: memorizing prayers and melodies without ever understanding the texts and chasing one other around the classroom as we whipped one other with the tefillin straps.

In 1967 my family moved from the area.  As a result of a combination of greed and misguided idealism practiced by powerful segments of the Boston establishment, the community of 90,000 Jews in which I grew up was soon completely destroyed.  Today my childhood home no longer stands.  The pathetic story is related in the book The Death of a Jewish American Community by Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon.  The jacket photograph shows the broken Star of David on the roof of the synagogue where I became bar mitzvah.

After my bar mitzvah and for the next two decades, Judaism to me was a closed society consisting mostly of old men who mumbled prayers in an incomprehensible language.  During college and immediately thereafter, I wanted to be as far away from that society as possible.  In fact, right after getting married, during our move from Boston to New Jersey, I refused to take the Passover Haggadah that my Aunt Ann had given us as a present.  My one link to Judaism was the poisoned dagger of the Shoah, which gashed a gaping wound in my soul that has never healed.  

While living in New Jersey for the next three years, I never stepped foot in a synagogue and, except for those dealing with the Shoah, never opened a Jewish book.  I received my Ph.D. from the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University and had my first academic job at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where for three more years I continued to have nothing at all to do with the ancestral religion.  Then our link to eternity: our first child was born.  I began teaching in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Massachusetts while Alison stayed home to raise Melissa.  We also joined the Jewish Community of Amherst, where I reluctantly went to High Holy Day services and, during one year in the late 1970’s, actually enjoyed the guitar-strumming cantor.  It was my first positive synagogue experience ever. 

Our son Michael was born in 1979, a natural talker, but a lousy sleeper who gave us two years of nights with interrupted sleep.  The lack of sleep, compounded by the usual tensions of life, doubly compounded by intensely hard work leading to my tenure and promotion, caused, in the spring of 1980, an eruption of severe tension headaches.  It felt as if the top of my head were being sliced open with a rusty hacksaw. 

It wasn’t a tumor, but it caused a turmoil.  Weeks passed until the severe pain of those headaches subsided, and years passed before I could absorb their spiritual lessons: first, that my life style was the cause of the headaches; second, that there is a limit to rational thought, to planning, to control; third, that through the hole in my psyche that the headaches had torn open, God was trying to enter.  But God had to wait until my visit to the Jewish homeland in the Middle East before I could let God in.

Meanwhile, I sought treatment for the headaches from a therapist, who taught me relaxation techniques based on Buddhist meditation.  Because the techniques were so effective, I began to explore the wisdom of the Buddhist tradition, discovering in it the clearest statement of spiritual truths that I had ever encountered.  In the attempt to translate these truths back into Judaism, I realized that Buddhism and Judaism have much in common.  But most of what in Buddhism is lucid—e.g., teachings on self and not-self, on the entrapment of attachments, on the spiritual law of karma—in Judaism remains encrypted.  But Buddhism had given me the key to unlock some of the secrets of my own tradition.

The Torah frames the narrative of my first visit to Israel in 1982.  In Chapter 37 of Genesis we meet Joseph, the beloved son of Jacob and the grandson of Isaac.  In this family traumatized by the near-murder of Isaac by his father, Joseph arouses the enmity of his brothers by telling them of his dreams.  When Joseph is sent by Jacob to look for Joseph’s brothers, quite by chance Joseph meets a man in a field in Shechem who tells him, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: ‘Let us go to Dothan.’”  Joseph goes to Dothan, meets the brothers, they throw him into a pit, he is taken to Egypt, he becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man, there is a famine ....  You know the rest.  Meeting that man completely changed Joseph’s destiny and that of his family.  In fact, all of Jewish history is, in a sense, a consequence of that chance meeting between Joseph and the man in the field in Shechem.

In my life the role played by the man in Shechem was played by Harriet Galler, may her memory be a blessing.  In the spring of 1981, at the bat mitzvah of our niece,  I overheard Harriet talking about her daughter and about the wonders of Israel, where her daughter lived.  I had a sabbatical coming up, and on the spur of the moment—stam, as they say in Hebrew—my wife and I decided to go to Israel although we knew no one there, except the name of my daughter Melissa’s pen pal in Jerusalem to whom Melissa had sent one letter.  In the summer of that year, I found a visiting position at the Technion in Haifa.

In the dead of winter, our house having been rented to a family we’d never met, we drove to Boston, my wife Alison and I and Melissa, then age seven, and our son Michael, who was two years old.  We flew to Israel, and after the long cab ride to Haifa, we entered our apartment totally exhausted, only to discover that the place was not in good repair, many of the appliances malfunctioning, an odor of gas from the kitchen stove, inadequate heat, an unbalanced washing machine from the 50’s that rocked the floor like an earthquake.  But from the living room of the apartment we had a glorious view: Haifa Bay, Acco, all the way up the coast past the white cliffs of Rosh HaNikra into Lebanon, where five months later war would break out.  More importantly, during our stay in Haifa we formed deep friendships that have lasted to this day.

Through our 10,000 kilometers of travel in Israel in our rented Subaru, through the deep friendships that we formed with Nessi and Haim, with Arnon and Tsipi, with Rina and Ido, through our love affair with the land and the people, I made an astonishing discovery: there are other paths to Judaism besides the path through the synagogue, which for many American Jews is often the only path.  In Israel, without being observant, without ever entering a synagogue, one lives the Torah as well as the rhythms of the Jewish week and the Jewish year.

            What happened to me in Israel transformed my life.  There, I discovered my Jewish identity.  There, the Torah discovered me.  But like Jews through the millennia, I could not stay in Israel.  My home being in the Diaspora, I had to learn to carry Israel with me, and I did this as Jews through the millennia have done.  I learned to carry Israel with me in the form of the great Jewish book, in a sense the only Jewish book, the one we love, the Torah. 

Upon returning from Israel in the summer of 1982, I began my formal study of the Hebrew language and learned to speak it.  I also began to study the Torah.  Because of my immersion in German literature at Harvard, I had the necessary tools to appreciate the narratives of the Torah as literature, paying attention to the artful use of language, the interplay of themes, narrative point of view, imagery, and the like.  What particularly struck me—and this is one of the crucial insights that I stress to my students—is the open-endedness of the narratives and their refusal to yield simple, univocal meanings, aspects of the Torah’s artistry that are enhanced by the nature of the Hebrew language itself.  Indeed, the necessity of wrestling with the text in order to wrest meaning from it is one of the fundamental spiritual injunctions of Jewish text study.  I have explored the Torah’s artistry in an essay on Emily Dickinson’s poetry and the Jacob narrative in the Book of Genesis (published in The Emily Dickinson Journal).  Other publications of mine on the Torah (appearing in Conservative Judaism), on Jewish-Christian relations (published in Midstream), and on the art of Michelangelo (to be published in Judaism) are available online, as is an article on my Dickinson essay that appeared in the UMass publication Synergy (“The Poet and the Mathematician”).

This photograph was taken in the garden of the Emily Dickinson Homestead.
Photograph for Synergy by Teresa A. B. Gauthier, UMass Creative Services.

Meanwhile, there are other arcs to follow.  While living in Haifa in 1982 and teaching in the Department of Mathematics at the Technion, I developed the ideas that would lead to my first research-level mathematics book, Entropy, Large Deviations, and Statistical Mechanics, to be published in 1985 by Springer-Verlag.  The theory of large deviations is a branch of probability theory that focuses on rare events, an appropriate subject for my research because of the numerous rare events forming the links in the strange, serpentine chain of causality that carried me from being an outsider in the Jewish society of my adolescence to being an adjunct professor of Judaic studies and a teacher in the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School.  Eventually my math book became a success, attaining the status—as one friend expressed it—of a standard reference.  A theorem that was highlighted in the book and that I had generalized from the work of another mathematician, Jürgen Gärtner, became a basic theorem in the field that has been applied in numerous contexts; it is now known as the Gärtner-Ellis theorem.

Four years after living in Haifa, we returned to Israel, this time staying in Jerusalem, where I taught in the Department of Statistics at the Hebrew University.  While we lived there, another large deviation intersected my path when, through a labyrinthine chain of causality stretching back six-plus decades, there occurred one of the most miraculous events in my life.  I discovered a branch of our family living in Israel, a branch separated from the Boston branch since 1923 when my maternal grandfather and his brother Sholem separated in Parchev, Poland, my grandfather to emigrate to America and Sholem to Argentina.

While living in Jerusalem, I received a phone call from my cousin Milton Fingerman, the son of another of my grandfather’s brothers who had left Parchev with my grandfather.  Milton was a marine biologist at Tulane University in New Orleans with a research specialty in shellfish.  He had come to Israel to study the shrimp and lobster in the kosher waters of the Mediterranean.  Somehow he had gotten our phone number—perhaps from my parents, who told him that I was visiting the Hebrew University.  Perhaps like Joseph in the Torah, he dreamed it.  Perhaps God told him.  Who knows?  In Israel miracles happen, like the miracle of Milton sitting on the sofa of our living room in Jerusalem in the spring of 1986, this marine biologist studying the shellfish of Israel, a person I had never met before and have never seen since, and Milton is revealing an amazing secret.  “Richard, do you know that you have family in Netanya, about an hour from here by car?” 

We contacted the family and visited them.  Yosef Fingerman, the son of my grandfather’s brother Sholem, entered the room, bearing a strong family resemblance to my mother's brother, who had recently died of a heart attack.  Alison and I became good friends with Yosef, his wife Yehudit, and their children, Shirly and Ofra.  A few years later Shirly visited our home in America. 

            The experiences of that half-decade—deepening obsession with the Shoah, tension headaches, treatment of the headaches through Buddhist meditation, exposure to Buddhist insights that gave me access into the spirituality of my own religion, love affair with Israel, publishing my first math book, discovering the Israeli branch of my family—were so intense, so identity-altering that they demanded an outlet.  This came in the form of a novel, which is now in the hands of a literary agent who is trying to sell it to a publisher.  Entitled Blessings from the Dead, the novel depicts the quest of a Jewish-American scientist for the truth about his mother, a woman he never knew.  Rich in Jewish history and the Bible, the novel deals with the Holocaust, the Arab-Israeli conflict in modern-day Jerusalem, and the psychological effects of scientific creativity.  A synopsis of the novel and the first chapter are available online, as is an article in UMass Magazine that discusses my novel, my teaching, and my second math book. 

Published in 1997, this book develops a new approach to the theory of large deviations having applications to modern problems in computer and communication networks.  In my current mathematical research, I have changed directions again.  In work supported by a grant from the Department of Energy, I apply the theory of large deviations to study statistical theories of turbulence, a fitting topic for this proud member of Am Yisrael, which has been buffeted and bruised by the turbulent currents of history for millennia.  Details of my research are available online in Section 1 and Section 2 of my web page.  In recognition of my research contributions, in 1999 I received the great honor of being elected a Fellow in the Institute of Mathematical Statistics.

            Many other profound experiences have continued to challenge me and bless me and force me to grow: the death of my father on the first night of Passover 2001; having my mother’s care entrusted to my brother, his wife, Alison, and me; the death of Alison’s father in 1993; spending two weeks in Israel in 1995 with my mother-in-law Rose; numerous trips to Europe and Russia focusing on both mathematics and issues of Jewish concern; my children’s growing up and leaving home and Melissa’s wedding with Ken and finally, after all these years, being alone with my beloved wife again.

            All of which bring me to where I am now, husband, father, brother, son, professor of mathematics, adjunct professor of Judaic studies, teacher of “Purposes of Jewish Living.”  I read, teach, write, do research, listen to music, bike, occasionally chant the Torah in our synagogue.  Through my involvement with mathematics and Jewish texts, my spiritual search comes full circle.  Both give access to the truth, and seeking the truth is serving God.  Most readers of this profile will accept this statement in the context of Jewish texts.  But they might wonder where in mathematics is the spirituality.  Isn’t math just arithmetic and geometry, and hasn’t it all been done before?. 

A sense of the profundity of mathematics can be conveyed by considering modern physical theories such as that of superstrings, which hypothesizes the existence of ten dimensions, of which we can perceive four: three dimensions of space and one of time.  These ten dimensions bear an uncanny resemblance to the ten dimensions of the sefirot, the ten primordial numbers which, according to Jewish mystical teachings, express the soul and inner life of the hidden God.  Without mathematics, modern physical theories of matter, time travel, black holes, gravity, parallel universes, the origin of the universe, the fate of the universe could not be formulated at all.  This is the surprise of modern science: that understanding the physical world requires mind-boggling acrobatics of abstraction, of which only mathematics is capable.  To me the startling insight is that reality is so complicated, so layered, so beyond our grasp to really understand.  This is also one of the deep messages of the Torah and Jewish mysticism, one that I have shared with my class in the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School: like the Torah, the world is a multilayered structure of grandeur and mystery, and we are mere atoms in God’s infinite brain. 

From the preconscious, Garden of Eden years of my youth until today, my life—no, as the Buddhists do, I will say “lives,” invoking the multiplicity of the Hebrew chayim.  From the preconscious, Garden of Eden years of my youth until today, my lives have been blessed by infinite richness.  However, the richness cannot be measured in books and articles and honors.  It can only be measured in the love that I have received and that I have given.  As I stroll into the ever expanding horizons before me, I thank You, God, for the gift of being alive and for the new experiences that make every day an adventure and a blessing.