Cook: Some parting thoughts

Rifka Cook, Op-Ed Contributor


My cherished students:

When I started teaching at Northwestern, I asked students to simply call me Rifka: That’s who I am. I do not believe titles make a person better or more important — I believe in being 100% genuine and sincere. Teaching has been my life’s passion, and this is my battle cry. As author Simon Sinek wrote, “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.”

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we all encountered unique pedagogical challenges. Even though we found ourselves in uncharted territory, the virtual “classroom” did not dampen my enthusiasm to teach nor your eagerness and desire to learn. The experience was our adventure, and I derived a special satisfaction and sense of accomplishment in navigating these troubled waters. Working through these problems forced me to focus more sharply on my goal of teaching not just language, but also the underlying differences in culture between different peoples. 

One of the interesting things about teaching and being a faculty-in-residence at the University is having the chance to interact with you as you begin to form your adult personalities. The university years are when you forge your identity and start formulating your life’s mission. The classroom and extracurricular activities help guide you in the direction of life goals and your own personal truths. I’ve treasured the opportunity to exert a positive influence on these processes by way of teaching Spanish and conducting dormitory and campus activities.  

Genuineness and sincerity are the lighthouses of my teaching philosophy. I hope I have imbued you, my dear students, with the same feeling. No matter your background, identity or ideology, each one of you is a unique and special person whose dreams will impact the world around you. If you trust in yourselves and march to your own drumbeat, you will succeed in carving out a meaningful life. You are my inspiration for these 50 years of teaching, and this pleasure has been an invaluable gift. 

My professional career includes teaching in Israel, Venezuela and the U.S. Part of the joy of my job has been the contact and exposure to students from all over the world. Learning and exchanging ideas with multinational students engenders respect and tolerance for the whole spectrum of humanity. 

I thank God for having given me the opportunity to make an enduring impact on my students’ lives. This year brings a formal conclusion to my academic career, but all of you will remain dear to my heart. We will always be connected through learning.  

Some students have asked me if I will continue to teach. The answer is … not if it involves grading papers! I will still lecture on topics related to my favorite areas of research: Judeo-Spanish language, culinary traditions of the Spanish Jews during the Inquisition in Spain, Portugal and Latin America, and descendants of Crypto Jews in the Americas. Through my lectures and writing, I hope to rediscover and revive the sacred traditions and incredible stories of these amazing communities. The rest of the world may then appreciate and respect the legacy of these forgotten peoples.  

Now, I officially bid you farewell as a teacher and as a faculty-in-residence. I dedicate this letter to each of you whom I’ve met in class, on campus, in the dining hall, at games or in the theater. When I see any of you, my heart overflows with joy. Being with you and seeing your radiant smiles is something I will take with me forever. 

I am moving to Israel and look forward to staying in contact with all of you. I invite you to email me at my NU account so we can stay in touch. 

My life is richer and more joyful because of you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you all.  

See you soon, hasta pronto, lehitraot, 


Rifka Cook is an Associate Professor of Instruction and a South Area faculty-in-residence. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.