Metlitzki, renowned literary scholar, dies at 86

Dorthee Metlitzki GRD ’58, one of Yale’s most talented and multifaceted professors of English, died Saturday of a brain hemorrhage. She was 86 years old.

Metlitzki taught at Yale for 26 years before retiring in 1984. Early in her life, she was active in Israeli politics and played a role in the founding of Israel. Metlitzki later became a distinguished scholar of medieval English literature, Arabic literature and the works of Herman Melville. Her 1977 book, “The Matter of Araby in Medieval England,” is still considered a major work in comparative literature.

“She was able to combine her knowledge of Arabic and her knowledge of medieval English literature and write about Arabic influence in Europe,” said Yale English professor Traugott Lawler, also a medievalist, who worked with Metlitzki before she retired. “She had an amazing knowledge of literature, philosophy and modern history — she lived modern history.”

Metlitzki knew at least six different languages and was admired as a cosmopolitan person who was acquainted with both academic and political life, Lawler said.

Born July 27, 1914, in Russia, Metlitzki spent much of her childhood attempting to flee the Russian Revolution with her family. She lived the later part of her formative years in Lithuania and moved to England at the age of 17 without knowing English. Metlitzki later earned master’s degrees in medieval English literature and Arabic at the University of London.

Upon completing her education, Metlitzki made a foray into the Israeli political scene in the years just before the country was formed in 1948. She was closely involved with the state’s founding and was an associate of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first two prime ministers. Metlitzki also helped found the English department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

She later became a traveling representative of Israel and after making a trip to the United States in 1954, she decided to stay, enrolling in Yale’s American studies doctorate program. After obtaining her doctorate in 1958, she taught at the University of California where she received tenure in 1965, becoming only the second female professor in the English department to be promoted to full professor status.

In 1966 Metlitzki returned to Yale with her husband, Jacob Finkelstein, also a Yale professor, and never left. She received tenure at Yale in 1976 and was, again, the second woman to be tenured in the English Department.

Her retirement in 1984 was not the end of her involvement at Yale. She taught a number of residential college seminars, including courses in Ezra Stiles College on the Bible. Metlitzki also served as that college’s first Mellon senior fellow for about 10 years and lived a very active life until last year.

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