Near Eastern Languages and Civilization professor emeritus Franz Rosenthal, a noted Arab scholar and esteemed mentor, died April 8 in Branford, Conn., after a battle with cancer. He was 88 years old.
Rosenthal, who taught at Yale from 1956 to 1985 and became a Sterling professor in 1967, published prolifically, including a “Grammar of Biblical Aramaic” and a three-volume translation of Ibn Khaldun’s “Muqaddimah.”
“He was a scholar of tremendous international reputation,” religious studies professor Steven Fraade said.
When Rosenthal first immigrated to the United States in 1940 to escape persecution in Nazi Germany, he became one of America’s few professional Arabic scholars.
“The growth of a dynamic American discipline of Arabic and Islamic studies, with high scholarly standards, was strongly stimulated by his precept, example, and prodigious scholarly output,” Ben Foster, Near Eastern languages and civilization director of undergraduate studies, said in a recent obituary.
Rosenthal, a fellow at the American Academy of Jewish Research, had a wide range of expertise and was considered a scholar in Arabic and Islamic studies, as well as ancient Aramaic. Fraade said when he first came to Yale as a professor in 1979, Rosenthal helped him translate obscure ancient texts.
“He in many ways was a bridge between Arabic and Islamic studies and Judaic studies — [which] need to be very much integrally connected with each other,” Fraade said.
Born in Germany in 1914, Rosenthal attended the University of Berlin and after immigrating to America, became a U.S. citizen in 1943. As a product of the German university system, he appeared strict and formal on the surface, said Dimitri Gutas ’69 GRD ’74, a former student and colleague of Rosenthal.
Gutas, who is now chairman of the Near Eastern Language and Civilization Department, described Rosenthal as a challenging professor. He said students would study for hours just to prepare for his classes.
“We thought the earth should open up and swallow us because we had made such mistakes,” he said.
Gutas said Rosenthal motivated his students through his own scholarship.
“He was a very inspiring teacher by example,” Gutas said. “He set very high standards for himself.”
Despite this outward appearance, faculty members who knew him said he was a kind and gentle man who often invited students and professors to his home.
“He very much enjoyed taking younger professors and graduate students under his arms, under his wings,” Fraade said.
Colleagues and students also remembered Rosenthal for his sense of humor.
“He had a very dry and sometimes cutting sense of humor,” Gutas said. “It was a delight to be in his company.”
Fraade said he had been invited to Rosenthal’s house one time, but had to decline the offer because he had a six-month old daughter. In response, Rosenthal jested that the baby girl would fit in well at the gathering.
“Bring her along,” said Fraade quoting Rosenthal. “She can have a drink too.”
Rosenthal, who never married and lost several members of his family in Nazi concentration camps, was said to have cherished the relationships he forged at Yale with students and colleagues.
Some junior faculty members, including Gutas and Fraade, even referred to him as a father figure.
“Today I’m really an orphan,” Gutas said.