Obituary: Rembering Isaac Hollander, a world-class scholar and dedicated teacher

Dr. Isaac Hollander

The sad reality is that as a high school student you can’t really appreciate your teachers and the degrees they’ve conferred, the grants they have received, the fellowships and scholarships they were awarded, and the painstaking years of academic scholarship and rigour that transformed them into an expert in the subject matter.

However, with Dr. Isaac Hollander, who died on March 8, his students at a small yeshiva high school in Toronto understood that they were privileged to be taught by a world-class scholar.

Dr. Hollander’s illustrious academic career took him from a Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (conferred in 2001) to teaching at the University of Michigan and the University of Toronto with various awards and accolades along the way, including: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada doctoral fellowship (1996–99); a Fulbright Commission doctoral fellowship (1997–99); Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture doctoral scholarships (1997–99); scholarships from the Authority for Research Students at the Hebrew University (1998), the Advanced Studies Center at the International Institute of the University of Michigan (1997–98) and the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace (1996–97); a Yad Ora prize (1996); an E’le Be-Tamar association prize (1996); and Morris Pulver scholarships (1995 and 1996), amongst others.

Somehow, Or Chaim, a Bnei Akiva high school in Toronto, was lucky to convince this overqualified academic to write a curriculum for a new course, The Modern Middle East. The class stood out like a sore thumb in the traditional course offerings of a yeshiva day school, and although Dr. Hollander was gracious enough to accept all those who registered, on the first day when he handed out the syllabus with extensive readings from textbooks and archives, assignments, independent study, and even a film, we all understood that this was not going to be an easy elective.

So by the second day of classes, when many had quickly dropped the class and retreated to art and gym, the brave few that remained became his students, and what an honour that became.

Dr. Hollander treated us like scholars, challenging our opinions, pushing us to investigate our questions in databases and journals, and rocking our sheltered ideas of the world around us. He exposed us to controversial topics at the time such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and gave us the tools to formulate our own educated and informed opinions on subjects that would be critical to us as Jews in general, and as students on campuses in the big world.   

He called our essays “papers” and our final project “a conference.“ He made us sign up for Mendeley, an academic software program,  and permitted us to conclude a paper with a question, because as he said, in the Middle East the questions usually outlive the recycled answers of thousands of years of conflict and conquer.

We critically analyzed the four-hour Hollywood classic, Lawrence of Arabia,over the course of six 45-minute classes (or three weeks) because he knew that at the end of the day, he could only keep our teenage testosterone occupied with the Sykes-Picot agreement for so long without the help of Paul Newman. And when the class was over, and we went on with our lives in Israel or university, with some, he even kept up.

Perhaps because Dr. Hollander lived in the area or because his wife was my little sister’s kindergarten teacher, I was lucky enough to be one of those few to remain in touch. Dr. Hollander would email me while I was in the army and ask my parents for updates about the trouble I was or wasn’t getting myself into at the time.

When I would return home to Toronto, I looked forward to meeting him at the shul kiddush and hearing his perspective on current Israeli politics, his new course offerings at University of Toronto,  schmooze about Or Chaim, and in general, just catch up.

And as his daughters eulogized him at his funeral in Rosh Haayin, Israel, where he lived the last six months of his life, Dr. Hollander was truly a renaissance man.

As the years went on and I began my academic career in New York, we would meet for coffee on my visits home and he would tell me about the screenplay he had written or the wine he began making. He would teach me new tunes he was using at the Kensington Home For The Aged where he brought joy to the tefilla of the residents, and rebuke my own davening for singing from my throat rather than projecting from my diaphragm.

From my understanding, Dr. Hollander wished his diagnosis to remain private, and this, combined with the uncertainties of the pandemic over the past two years, is possibly why we lost direct touch in recent years.

Between writing a paper on the “Ancient Islamic Scholar Al Ghazali” and “Analyses on Islamic Influences on Medieval Jewish Cultures in Andalusia”, applying for grants and fellowships across the world, and burying myself in the archives of libraries from Manhattan to London, it is possible that his influence on me was never more profound.

Looking back at my email chain with Dr. Hollander, the last contact we have was him regrettably informing me that he would not be able to attend mine and Eliana’s wedding. However, he wrote (in Hebrew) that “although we sadly will not be able to attend the wedding in Israel, my wife (Ilana) and I, are definitely taking part in the simcha of this joyous occasion.”.

Dr. Hollander, as you write in the acknowledgments of your seminal work Jews and Muslims in Lower Yemen (2005), you appreciate the “penchant for textual analysis and observations…and the moral example and pecuniary support” your parents bestowed upon you that enabled you to reach the pinnacles of your scholarship. However, as your student, I cannot find better words than your own to thank you for all that you have given me.

While in that small classroom on Faywood Drive we thought we understood how lucky we were to have such an excellent and forward-thinking teacher. Looking back now a decade later at the way your teachings have reverberated in me—in the various pitstops I have taken in my academic journey—it is clear that you, Dr. Isaac Hollander, were a true giant, and it is my hope that we can one day be worthy of the whole year you took out of your all-too-short life to show us its beauty.

May your memory be a blessing.