People of the Books


Reviews, recommendations, and other reasons to read. By Spertus Institute's Betsy Gomberg.

People of the Books

Uncovering Jewish Family History

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Books about Jewish family histories - like the Jewish families they portray - come in all shapes and sizes. Some chronicle life in situations and places very much like your own family's experiences, while others share stories of Jewish families in circumstances and corners of the world entirely unlike your own.  

In The Family, this year's One Book | One Community selection, author David Laskin traces his own remarkable family across five generations and three continents. He sleuths out past locations, uncovers long unread correspondences, and interviews historians, close friends, and newly discovered distant cousins.

With Laskin's family memoir as inspiration, the books listed here are recommendations from the One Book team at Spertus Institute. Like The Family, each unearths the history of one Jewish family, often with surprises discovered along the way.

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance 
by Edmund de Waal 

When he inherits a collection of tiny Japanese sculptures, renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal seeks to find out where they came from and how they survived. In doing so, he uncovers the rise and fall of an incredible nineteenth-century Jewish banking dynasty.

Everything is Illuminated 
by Jonathan Safran Foer

In this novel based on real life, a young man sets out on a quixotic journey to find the woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. A film adapted from the novel starred Elijah Wood.

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street 
by Susan Jane Gilman

A dark comedy novel about the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, raised by Italians on New York's Lower East Side.

They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust 
by Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

A remarkable record-in both words and images-of Jewish life in a pre-WWII Polish town, as seen through the eyes of one inquisitive boy.

The Red Leather Diary
by Lily Kopel

A discarded diary rescued from a Manhattan dumpster compels a young writer working at The New York Times to find its owner and tell her story.

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million 
by Daniel Mendelsohn

Mendelsohn, an award-winning author and critic, searches for the truth behind his family's tragic past. 

A Tale of Love and Darkness
by Amos Oz

A family memoir that takes place against the backdrop of the birth of Israel, written by one of Israel's most important writers. A National Jewish Book Award winner. Soon to be released as a movie starring Natalie Portman.

My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Family's Past
by Ariel Sabar

The author and his father travel to find what's left of his father's birthplace, a tiny Jewish enclave that existed for 3,000 years in what is now the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography.

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir
by Meir Shalev

From one of Israel's most celebrated novelists, a charming memoir about his pioneer grandmother.

Little Failure: A Memoir
by Gary Shteyngart 

The acclaimed novelist writes with humor about his own American immigrant experience.

One Book | One Community is the Chicago Jewish community's celebration of Jewish Book Month. Each year, a single book is chosen for a series of activities and resources in Chicago and the suburbs. This year's winning book is David Laskin's The Family, named a best book of the year by the Seattle Times, Kirkus Review, and the New York Public Library. Visit for information.

One Book | One Community is supported, in part, by the Robert & Toni Bader Charitable Foundation. JUF News is the media sponsor. We are pleased to be working with synagogue partners Congregation Etz Chaim and North Suburban Synagogue Beth El as well as our colleagues at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center-and we hope to see you at one of the many events.

Tongue tied

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This month marked the convening of the 99th World Esperanto Congress in Buenos Aires. At this global event, Esperanto speakers from all over the world come together to sing songs, read poetry, and produce plays entirely in Esperanto, an artificially constructed language based on various Slavic, Romance, and Germanic dialects. With only 2 million speakers worldwide, and without an official country to call home, Esperantists often joke that the World Congress is the closest they get to feeling like part of a community. In this vein, they lovingly refer to the convention as Esperantoland.

If the idea of a Diasporic people uniting over a shared language strikes you as familiar, you're not alone. In her book In the Land of Invented Languages, linguist Arika Okrent makes the case that the creation and continued practice of Esperanto bares a strong resemblance to the revival of Modern Hebrew in Israel. Both languages, she says, were formed in part to unite people around a common culture. And in doing so, both lent a voice to a people who only wanted a land to call their own.

Esperanto was invented in 1887 by Dr. Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, a Jewish optometrist from Poland. A staunch pacifist, Dr. Zamenhof believed that most of the world's conflicts stemmed from misunderstandings between cultures, and felt a universal language had the power to put an end to all world wars. Esperanto came about through his desire to create the simplest, most comprehensible language possible. Though its early speakers were limited primarily to the Russian Empire and Central Europe, it took less than a decade for the language to spread to the Americas, China, and Japan. For a time, there were even plans to establish Neutral Moresnet, a small territory in Belgian-Prussia, as the world's first Esperanto state. But the plan never materialized, and to this day Esperanto remains a language without a country.

Unlike Esperanto, Modern Hebrew had no L.L. Zamenhof, an inventor to create its vocabulary, grammar, and syntax from scratch. But it did have an Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a Lithuanian-born lexicographer widely credited for instituting Hebrew as the national language of Israel.   

Though it has long been the language of Jewish liturgy and prayer, Hebrew had died as a spoken language by 200 BCE. It wasn't until the early 1880s, when Ben-Yehuda immigrated to Palestine with his family, that Hebrew received a second chance at life. "Hebrew…served as a sort of lingua franca of the marketplace for Jews from various language backgrounds, but it was nobody's mother tongue," writes Okrent. Most Jews at the time could read and understand Hebrew, but being a dead language, it lacked a vocabulary expansive enough to describe objects in the contemporary world. Think what it would be like to describe how to start your car in Old English, and you'd get an idea of how difficult the early Jewish settlers had it.

In the mid-1880s, just as talk about the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine began to percolate, so too did the debate over what its national language should be. "Yiddish was the language of the European Ashkenazi Jews," writes Okrent, "and many of them argued that Yiddish should be the language of Jewish nationhood." But at that time, Palestine was populated by speakers of many different languages, including Arabic-speaking African Jews and Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews, and German-speaking Western Jews. 

It wasn't just linguistic differences that divided these groups. They also ate different foods, recited different prayers, and followed different kosher laws. It was here that Ben-Yehuda felt that Hebrew could do the most good. Like Zamenhof, he believed that a shared language had the power to make people put aside their differences - linguistic and otherwise - in the name of something bigger. And for Ben-Yehuda, there was nothing bigger than a national Jewish homeland.

Putting his ideals into practice, Ben-Yehuda declared that he would make his home to be a Hebrew-only household. A prominent journalist, he frequently published articles about his family's efforts to learn the new language, and in turn inspired families across the region to adopt Hebrew as their language for daily interaction. Hebrew speakers remained sparse at first, but that all changed during the First Aliya, when over 20,000 Jews from Eastern Europe immigrated to the Land of Israel. "Many of them were receptive to new language habits," writes Okrent. "Some teachers began to teach Hebrew…through the direct method-just jumping in and speaking the language, without commentary or explanation in Yiddish, Russian, or any other better-known language."

The Second Aliya in 1904 brought thousands more Jews to Palestine, many of them from Russia, which was then on the verge of another violent pogrom. With their socialistic zeal and optimistic energy, these new immigrants were inspired to change their lives in dramatic ways. "Office clerks and doctors learned to plow soil and shovel manure on the newly established collective farms," writes Okrent. "Teachers and accountants built roads and laid foundations for new Jewish towns." Many of them were willing to change their language, too. As Hebrew grew in popularity, speakers began to add newer words, and the language's vocabulary grew in accordance.

1914 marked another major milestone for Hebrew. That was the year teachers at Technion University, a major science and engineering school, went on strike in protest of the university's decision to adopt German as the language of instruction. Eventually, the decision was overturned, and today Hebrew remains the official language of the university, as well as of the State of Israel. But how, you ask, did Hebrew spread from the university classroom to the farms, fields, and households of daily life? The answer is simple: the kids started playing with it.

"As modern studies…have shown," writes Okrent, "a generation of children can turn the effortfully produced, inconsistent input of the adults around them into a fully-fledged, effortless native vernacular." Put another way, because children of the Second Aliya were exposed to Hebrew early on, they were better able to do adopt it as their native language. This, in the end, is the true beauty of Ben-Yehuda's push to make Hebrew the national language of Israel. What he knew deep down was that he wasn't just creating a language for a limited people in a specific period of time, but rather, a medium through which generations of Jews could express their hopes, fears, aspirations, and dreams for a better future.

If the story of Modern Hebrew has anything to teach us, it's that all languages - no matter how antiquated or seemingly out of date - have the power to evolve. So, too, do the people who speak them.

I hope you enjoyed reading my article. Thank you, Dankon, and Toda Rabah.

People of the clock

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It's hard to believe it's already July. In fact, it barely seems possible that the calendar year is more than halfway over. I often wonder what accounts for this feeling of fast-fowarding. Maybe it was this year's long winter (and my willfulness to forget about it) that erased half of the calendar from my memory. With so much time slipping past me unnoticed, I wondered if there was anything I could do about it. Looking for answers, I turned to my good friends Science and Judaism. As always, they had a lot to say.

In his fascinating book A Geography of Time, social psychologist Robert Levine explores how different cultures keep track of time. His temporal pursuits take him to Brazil, where it is perfectly customary for businessmen to be three hours late to an appointment, and later to Japan, where people have a term for the time between syllables (ma), and for the time it takes for two people to agree on a complicated topic (nemawashi). Closer to home, Levine travels to America's busiest cities only to discover that a New York minute actually does feel faster than a Cleveland one, but that neither is as fast as a Boston minute. During the course of his journeys, Levine reaches some profound conclusions on how we humans choose to mind the hours. But at the end of the book, he turns to his own cultural roots in Judaism to learn how to appreciate the time he takes for granted.

"Judaism is very much a religion of time," says Levine in the closing chapter of Geography of Time. Indeed, when you really look at it, Jewish life seems as if it is constructed on temporal increments. In the Torah, we are told to prayer at three specific times each day. On Friday evenings, the Shabbat candles must be lit no later than eighteen minutes before sunset. On Saturday, the end of Shabbat is determined in time - precisely 42 minutes after sundown. The Jewish year is divided into exactly 29 days, twelve hours, and 793 halakim (a unit of time equaling three and a third seconds). "Our connection to time…is woven so much into the very fabric of Jewish life and Jewish death," says Debbie Weissman, director of the Institute for Humanistic Jewish Education in Jerusalem, "that one can say we are not just the people of the book, but of the clock."  

But isn't just the clock that governs Jewish ritual. It's the calendar, too. The male infant has his brit (ritual circumcision) on his eight day of life. The bat and bar mitzvah occur at age thirteen. The Jewish year prescribes eight days for lighting Hanukkah candles, six days for fasting, and eight to eat only unleavened bread. We know what all this time-keeping means for our calendars - they're chock-full of meetings and dinner plans - but what does it mean for our spirituality? Writer and magazine editor Letty Pogrebin, who's quoted extensively in Levine's book, believes that Jews place such high regard on the counting of time because we consider our time on earth to be extremely valuable. As she puts it, "one does not count what one does not value."

But why value time in the first place? Levine thinks it has something to do with how the religion developed. Given Jews' history as a wandering people, says Levine, they never developed the luxury of becoming attached to a place (except Jerusalem) or a sacred object. What Jews did form an attachment to was time. For evidence, Levine directs his readers to the Torah, which includes numerous mentions of perfunctory time off. One of the most famous, of course, is the Sabbatical year, or shmita.

In the Bible, the Sabbatical year refers to mandate of letting the land owned by Jews in their own country lie fallow every seventh year. All the produce of the land that grows by itself must be free to all (even animals have equal access), and all loans are to be forgiven, allowing people sunk in debt an opportunity to start over. The Sabbatical year remains a stirring example of an entire society choosing to live at a lower material standard for a year in order to devote itself to more spiritual pursuits than the daily grind.

After all, it's the daily grind that that seems to take up so much of our lives, isn't it? As Letty Pogrebin writes, "I realize I spend so much of my life producing things…As long as I have something to show for my time, I tell myself I know where the time went and what it was for." I can certainly say that's true for me. Often, I live my life in constant fear of time. Will I have enough time to finish my big article? Will I have the time to work out in the morning? Where will I find the time to travel? Write my book? Learn a new language? Make tomorrow's lunch? How can I get it all done before time runs out?

Sometimes, I find myself wishing I could take a break from producing things and just enjoy time itself. Can it be done?

Sure it can. Enter Shabbat.

"The essence of Judaism's mindfulness of time is the Sabbath," writes Levine. He has centuries' worth of Jewish wisdom to back him up. As is written in the Torah, God devoted six days to creating the heavens and the earth. Then, on the seventh day, God rested. It's such a simple concept, but as Levine makes clear, its implications are extraordinary. After such an astounding feat as creating the entire universe, God could have sanctified the creation with a material object, like a gilded palace in the clouds or a holy shrine in heaven.  Instead, God created a holy sense of time. "The seventh day…is a palace in time," writes Levine. "It is a sanctuary we build - a temporal sanctuary." In this sanctuary, we are more or less free from the fear of having to get things done by a deadline. We are forced to relax, step back, and appreciate the things that really count - like our friends, family, and faith - and the time we are fortunate enough to spend amongst them.   

Shabbat, however you choose to observe it, isn't just a day of the week. It's a mindset, one that can be incorporated into every aspect of our lives. As the hours and minutes tick by, it's important to remember to enjoy time for what it is, to set aside moments of "pure time-serenity," as Letty Pogrebin calls them. These moments enable us to understand not just the value in our actions, but the meaning as well. This concept isn't anything new in Judaism. It's been around for thousands of years. Take the shechecheyanu prayer for example, which thanks God for allowing us to live long enough to reach a special moment. It's an unbridled expression of appreciation for life, and one of the most commonly said prayers in Judaism. Its direct translation is "Who has given us life?" But more often than not, it's referred to as the Blessing over Time.

The Tzitzit: A colorful history

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Last Sunday I attended my first Greater Chicago Jewish Festival. What a thrill to be immersed in such a vibrant Jewish atmosphere. From the sounds of Jewish folk-singer Peter Himmelman to the smell of fresh falafel, everything about that day was saturated with Jewish pride and heritage. But there was one sensory experience that stood out most. It was everywhere at the Jewish Festival. In fact, it can be seen almost anywhere Jews congregate. It's a mark of pride for Jews around the world, and in many ways, it has come to represent the Jewish people. I'm talking, of course, about the color blue.

The prevalence of the color blue in Jewish history got me thinking about color in general. In looking for answers I turned to Victoria Finlay's exciting book Color: A Natural History of the Palette for answers. Finlay's book is an exquisitely researched collection of essays on the history of color. With each chapter focusing on a different hue, Finlay recounts the often surprising and always entertaining stories of how our modern color palette came to be. Interestingly, a good portion of Finlay's book deals with Jewish history, and one of the most shining examples of how Judaism and color intersect is the story of the Jewish prayer shawl, or tzitzit. As fascinating as this story is, it's also a long and winding one. So bear with me here, and prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

It all starts with the Torah. In the book of Numbers, God tells Moses and the early Israelites to "make fringes in the borders of their garments and put upon the fringe of each corner a thread of blue." As Finlay points out, the reason for the blue thread is complicated. Maimonides said its purpose is to remind us that blue is "similar to the sea, and that the sea is similar to the sky, and that sky is similar to God's holy throne." Kabbalists claimed that blue is a mystical color. To their reasoning, its presence on the tzitzit represented the spiritual wonders of the universe. Whatever the reason, the Talmud, the book of Jewish laws, went further, specifying that the dye used to turn the fringes blue had to come from a special source. That blue dye was called the Techelet.

The Torah's description of the Techelet is vague. All we know about it now is that it closely resembles midnight blue, and that the original source of the dye came from a sea creature with a shell, which the Torah refers to as the hilazon. Originally, only Jewish artisans were trusted with dying the fringes of tzitzit blue with the hilazon, since many Jews were suspicious that non-Jews would use a counterfeit shade of indigo derived from plants. For centuries these Jewish dyers worked without interruption, but that all changed during the Muslim Conquests in 623 CE, when Arab invaders ransacked Jewish towns in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. Many Jews were displaced, and the formula for making the special blue dye was lost.

For the next 1,300 years, Jews didn't wear blue in their tzitzit. Since no one could trace the origin of the blue dye back to the original hilazon, rabbinic authorities forbade Jews from using any other dyes in their tzitzit fringes. Consequently, the source of the Techelet became one of the most perplexing riddles in Judaism. Then, in 1856, an amateur chemist named William Henry Perkin made an accidental discovery that would change everything.

Perkin never meant to kickstart the search for the Techelet. Working in a makeshift lab on top of his East London home, the 15-year-old chemist was originally intent on finding a way to extract quinine (the anti-inflammatory additive in tonic water) from coal tar (a liquid byproduct of coal). But when he mistakenly mixed his extraction with alcohol, he found that the solution turned a vibrant shade of purple. The color he described was brighter and richer than any color he'd ever seen. With the help of his colleagues at the Royal College of Chemistry, Perkin realized that he had accidentally invented the first artificial dye.

As it happened, Perkin's invention inspired countless scientists to begin color experimentations of their own. A lot of those scientists were Jewish, and many were searching for the Techelet. In 1880, a rabbi from Poland named Gershon Hanoch Leiner came to the conclusion that the hilazon was a certain species of squid. He even succeeded in making a deep blue pigment from squid ink by adding iron filings to the mixture. His color very closely resembled the Techelet, and the mystery appeared to be solved. Using Leiner's findings, Jews the world over immediately went back to wearing blue fringes in their tzitzit. But the practice didn't last long.

Twenty years later, a Jewish chemistry student at London University began experimenting with Leiner's squid-based dye. What he found was that he could recreate the same deep blue pigment in his laboratory - without the squid. This proved that Leiner's special blue dye came primarily from the iron fillings. Since the squid was unnecessary, it could safely be ruled out as the hilazon. The search for the Techelet was far from over. (By the way, the Jewish chemist who made that discovery was Isaac Herzog, who later went on to become the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. His son, Chaim, would become the country's sixth president.)  

For the next seven decades, Jewish scientists tried and failed to produce the specific shade of blue described in the Torah. They used various species of shellfish to extract the special blue dye, but nothing worked. Then, in the 1980s, they found a clue: the murex trunculus, a medium-sized sea snail native to the Mediterranean Sea. The murex trunculus produced a special mucus that, when exposed to air, would turn a deep blueish hue. The only problem was that when the murex mucus was left in the lab for a few hours, it would change into a dark shade of purple. It was a close match, but it wasn't the techelet. (Amazingly, the shade of purple produced by the murex turned out to be the long-lost source of "Tyrian purple," which the ancient Phoenicians used to make robes for Greek and European rulers.)

Later, an Israeli chemist named Otto Elsner made an accidental discovery of his own. Working with the murex trunculus in the bright Israeli sun, he discovered that if the murex glands were exposed to sunlight, then the dye they produced was a rich, midnight blue - just like the color described as the Techelet. Elsner's discovery fundamentally changed the search for the hillazot, and is now considered the most likely candidate for the Techelet.

So, what lesson can we learn from this long and colorful history? According to Victoria Finlay, it's this: "Perkins discovery of modern dyes that day in 1856 had - years later - resulted in rediscoveries of how to make two of the oldest, and most revered, colors in the world. As with so many stories in [our] historical paint box, it turns out the old secrets were not lost after all. They were just waiting for someone else to discover them again."

Life's too bright to stop appreciating the colors. What will you rediscover today?

Can I see some ID?

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In Illinois, where I now live, all new residents are required to obtain an Illinois driver's license or identification card within 90 days of arrival, surrendering the identification from the state where they lived before. In the Land of Lincoln, identity is clear: either you're an Illinoisan or you're not.

But what about identity in Judaism? Obviously, Jewish identity is a lot more fluid than something like state residency. And the discussion about it touches many fields, one of which is genetics.

In Sam Kean's enlightening book The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code, the author makes the case that most things in our lives  - including our religious identities -  are determined by our DNA.

In a fascinating chapter on cultural genetics, Kean reveals how scientists have used DNA (those tiny molecules containing genetic codes for all living organisms) to untangle some of the mysteries of Jewish lineage. He tells of the Biblical division between Jews into the nations of Judah and Israel, which most scholars agree occurred some time between 926 and 922 BCE. He claims that because these two tribes functioned as independent states, each with their own kingdoms, customs, and laws, they probably developed their own distinct genetic markers. This tends to happen when people marry within their own ethnic circles.

Eventually, though, the kingdoms of Judea and Israel dissolved and Jews dispersed throughout the world. Judaism is now practiced by more than 14 million people who live in almost every part of the globe. One would logically assume that the common DNA Jews once shared has mitigated over time. But this hasn't stopped scientists from trying to trace international Jewish groups back to their original kingdoms. And as a matter of fact, it just got a whole lot easier.

In the past few decades, scientists have discovered genetic patterns among Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrahi Jews that can be traced farther back than ever thought possible. In doing so, they've determined that Jewish tribal associations have largely persisted through time. There is concrete evidence that Jewish tribal groups may be linked through their DNA. This inter-generational genetic bond is especially true for Cohanim, the supposed descendants of Moses' brother Aaron.

According to Jewish tradition, the Cohanim lineage is passed down from father to son. As it happens, there's another gene that does this: the Y-Chromosome. By studying this male-specific chromosome, scientists have found that Cohanim around the world -  from Ancient Egypt to Evanston, Medieval Heidelberg to modern Highland Park - all share a similar chromosomal trait, indicating that they do indeed descend from a single patrilineal line. Further study has revealed that the origin of this Y-Chromosome, known as the "Y-Chromosomal Aaron," originated in a human that lived roughly during the time of Moses. It's the perfect example of religious tradition confirmed through science.

The recent discovery of the Y-Chromosomal Aaron has also helped scientists delve deeper into the notion of the Twelve Lost Tribes of Israel. In Africa, the Lemba tribe of Zimbabwe have long made claim to their Jewish roots. As the legend goes, the Lemba are direct descendants of an Israelite named Buba who led his people out of the Middle East and into the Southern tip of Africa.

Initially, anthropologists wrote off Jewish claims of the Lemba as evidence of "cultural transmission"  - the result of Jews and proselytizing Muslims arriving in Africa circa 600 BCE. But the Lemba were adamant, holding firm to their Jewish ancestry. They did not eat pork, they observed a Sabbath similar to that of the Jews, and they even circumcised their male children.

To get to the bottom of this issue, scientists turned to DNA. They drew blood samples from Lemba men, and what they discovered surprised them. Over 10 percent of all Lemba men had the Y-Chromosomal Aaron in their bloodstreams. For members of the tribe's oldest families  - those with priestly rites -  that number was 50 percent. The Lemba could indeed claim descendance from Moses' brother Aaron. Science was on their side.

So is Jewish identity simply a matter of genes? Of course not. Identity is much more than physical and genetic make up. defines identity as "the stable understanding of oneself, including one's own traits, preferences, thought patterns, strengths, and weaknesses." I think you can say the same about Jewish identity. It too is a combination of characteristics and traits that, when combined, define a person as a Jew.

Few of these traits are genetic. Many are spiritual, like the traditions we hold and the beliefs we choose to follow. A few are historical, like the past we consider ourselves a part of and the events we choose to honor. Still others are cultural, like the music we listen to, and even the foods we like. Some of these things are passed down from our fathers and mothers. Many we develop on our own.

The biggest thing to take away from all this is that it doesn't matter how one's Jewish identity comes to be, but why. Judaism requires a great deal from its practitioners: an adherence to certain laws, the pursuit of earthly justice, a commitment to repair the world. And those who choose to identify as Jewish do so because they care deeply about these values. Even more, they want future generations to care about them too. After all is said and done, the most important tradition is that we continue to pass these values down from generation to generation. We don't need science to tell us that.

Fiddler in my head

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, and to celebrate, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, where I work, is hosting a free screening of the 1971 film adaptation on their Feinberg Theatre big screen.

In preparation for the April 6 event, I've been listening non-stop to the Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack. As a result, I often catch myself humming "If I Were a Rich Man," or "Tradition!" in the most inconvenient situations, like during a meeting, or when I'm trying to fall asleep (not in a meeting). As I learned the hard way, these Fiddler songs sure are sticky.  

Looking to clear my brain of Tevye's baritone voice, I turned to psychologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, whose book Musicophilia provided a handy explanation for why some songs are catchier than others.

Normally, writes Dr. Sacks, our brains perceive music in a passive state. They hear it, absorb it, then let it go. But for some music, that's not the case: "Sometimes normal musical imagery crosses a line and becomes, so to speak, pathological, as when a certain fragment of music repeats itself incessantly, sometimes maddeningly, for days on end," he says.

He calls these fragments "earworms," for the way they seem to bury themselves in our ears, and his book provides three theories on what makes them stick. The first is repetition.

Recalling the days of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing in England, Dr. Sacks describes a scene around his Seder table after the Passover meal when his family would sing "Chad Gadya," a traditional Passover song. As many of us know, "Chad Gadya" is a laboriously repetitive tune, with the chorus chanted up to 46 times.  After so many repetitions, Sacks said the tune "would haunt [him] and pop into [his] mind dozens of times a day throughout the eight days of Passover, then slowly diminish throughout the next year."

I admit, in gearing up for our Fiddler event I've probably listened to "Sunrise, Sunset" more times than is healthy your average human being. But as Dr. Sacks notes, repetition isn't the only reason a song gets stuck in a person's head. The second is cultural association.

In his book, Sacks theorizes that the stickiness of "Chad Gadya" had something to do with the context in which the tune was sung. For him, the song represented his own Jewish heritage, as well as the feeling of warmth and togetherness of being with his family. Because his brain craved those warm feelings, it would play the song again and again in his head, much to the annoyance of his eardrums.

Which brings us to the last ingredient in the making of a good earworm: overstimulation.

In the pre-industrial age, if people wanted to hear music, they had to go to a house of worship, concert, or party to get their fix. But with the advent of broadcasting, the way society consumed music changed overnight. Music became available everywhere - in our homes, our cars, our workplaces, even our showers. As Sacks writes, we now live in an era when "half of us are plugged into iPods, immersed in daylong concerts of our own choosing, virtually oblivious to the environment." There's hardly a public place we can go to today in which we're not totally bombarded by music.

Sacks thinks this musical omnipresence is responsible for the mass outbreak of earworms. "This barrage of music puts a certain strain on our exquisitely sensitive auditory systems, which cannot be overloaded without dire consequences," he says. He has a point. Overstimulation adds stress to our mental faculties, causing them to react in all kinds of unexpected ways. That's part of the reason why we experience anxiety when faced with mounting deadlines at work, or panic when we're lost in an unfamiliar place. When our brains are stressed, our mental faculties become confused, and that's when earworms are most likely to strike.

So is there anything we can learn from earworms, knowing that they arise from overstimulation?

Absolutely. And lucky for us, some of the wisest words ever spoken about musical overstimulation came from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, an 18th-century Jewish sage and founder of the Breslover Hasidic Dynasty.

A music lover, he often explained the world in terms of song. Take this psalm for example:

Know that each and every shepherd has his own tune.

Know that each and every grass has its own song.

And from the song of the grasses the tune of the shepherd is made.

How beautiful, how beautiful and pleasant to hear their song.

According to Rebbe Nachman, we live in a world in which every living thing has its own melody. We might assume that all these sounds blaring at our eardrums would make for a miserable existence, stressing our nervous systems the way Dr. Sacks describes. But Rebbe Nachman says the opposite, suggesting that a life filled with music is "beautiful" and "pleasant." He goes on to say that it's this accumulation of songs that defines our identities. In other words, we are the songs we choose to hear.

This got me thinking about my Fiddler on the Roof earworm, and it led me to a change in perspective.

I love Fiddler on the Roof. It's one of my favorite musicals, and I have fond memories of watching it on my living room couch with my family. It also brings to mind the long and captivating history of the Jews, a history to which I am proudly tied. So the next time "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" and "Wonder of Wonders" pop into my consciousness, I shouldn't get annoyed. I should think about how the songs remind me of my family and the Jewish traditions I hold near to my heart. After all, these are the "songs of the grasses" from which I am made. To that I can only say, "L'Chaim!" (Uh-oh, I think I feel another song coming on.)

If you want to join me at Spertus Institute on April 6 to see Fiddler on the big screen, reserve your seat at or call 312.322.1773.Get ready to sing!

The Jewish value of pi

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It's only my second blog for People of the Book, and already I feel like I'm coming full circle. That's because this post is about pi, the mysterious mathematical concept that has been fascinating scholars (even Biblical scholars) for centuries. In fact, pi is such an impressive number that British author and mathematician Alex Bellos devotes a whole chapter to it in his cleverly titled new book on mathematics, Here's Looking at Euclid. In his book, Bellos asks a simple but perplexing question: "What's so special about pi? Well, with the help of an ancient Egyptian farming technique, a Biblical swimming pool, and a supercomputer in a New York studio apartment, that's what we're going to find out.

First up to explain the pi phenomenon: Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, an American-born rabbi now living in Israel. In his article "The Story of Pi," he suggests that pi "represents the most basic intermediate spanning the gap between the human mind and nature's curve." What Rabbi Ginsburgh means is that circles and curves appear nearly everywhere in nature, yet as humans our minds tend to understand the world in straight lines. Because we're a scientific culture, we love to measure, quantify, and analyze the natural phenomenon down to its smallest atom. But pi - and the circle's they represent - often defy our angular expectations.

In case it's been a while since your last geometry class, here's a quick refresher. Pi is the ratio between a circle's circumference (the measurement around the outside of the circle) and its diameter (the measurement across from one side to another). This ratio is always the same, no matter the size of the circle, and its represented by the Greek letter ∏. In numerical terms, it's approximately 3.14.

As Bellos describes in this book, the peculiarities of this pi have been noted since ancient times. In Egypt, farmers used a similar ratio to measure the size of their circular crop fields. That ratio was 3 1/8. Later on, the Babylonians would use a similar ratio to measure their wagon wheels and whetting stones.

Pi is also appears in Jewish history and is even referenced in Jewish scripture. In Sepher Melachim, the Book of Kings, chapter 7 verse 23 describes a circular pit of water that King Solomon builds near the edge of the sea. The description is as follows:

"And he made the molten sea, ten cubits from brim to brim; it (was) round all about, and the height thereof (was) five cubits; and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about."

Did you spot pi? Look closely. The circular pit had a diameter of ten units across, or "brim to brim." That's the pit's diameter. If we were to calculate the circumference using pi, we'd end up with 3.14 units. And what did the Book of Kings say? 30 units! For Biblical times, that's a pretty close estimate.

But the Vilna Gaon, an 18th- century Talmudist, wanted to do better. Using gematria, the Jewish study of word-number relations, he provided key insight into the King Solmon's pit problem. What he noticed was that the Hebrew text for the word "perimeter" was written as kanah - a distinctly two-syllable word. But when reading this word from the Book of Kings, it has become custom to pronounce it as kahn - a one syllable word. The Vilna Gaon thought this was incredible. He noted, quite accurately, that for a circle with a diameter of ten cubits, the circumference would not be exactly 30 cubits. There'd be a remainder left over. That's where the difference in syllables comes in. The Vilna Gaon says that the added syllable that appears in the written form but not in the spoken form indicates the presence of pi's remainder - the extra 1.14! It was there all along, but hiding in plain sight.

As it turns out, pi's elusive remainder has been hiding from us for a long time. We still haven't figured it out after 2000 years of mathematical history. That's because pi is a transcendental number, meaning its digits literally go on forever, and with no discernable pattern. Still, pi's never-ending quality hasn't deterred us from trying to write it all out.

The Chudnovsky brothers, both math professors at Columbia University, once programmed a supercomputer in their tiny New York apartment to calculate pi to the 2 trillionth digit. Today's computers can calculate pi much quicker, and our current enumeration of pi is somewhere around 8 quadrillion digits. (In case you were wondering, the Guiness record holder for Most Digits of Pi recited by memory is 24-year-old Chinese graduate student Lu Chao, who remembered pi up to 67,890 digits. It took him 24 hours.)

Maimonides, in his Perush Ha-Mishna, chimes in on the transcendence of pi. Commenting on humankind's inability to understand the number in its entirety, he says the following:

"This is not due to a lack in our knowledge…but it is in its nature that it is unknown, and there is no way to know it, but it is known approximately."

This is what makes pi such a beautiful metaphor for Judaism's embrace of the unknown. In Kabbalah, God is often referred to in terms of transcendence, in which a divine presence is seen to be outside of the material world, and immanence, in which a divine presence is seen to be within the material world. For centuries, Chasidic and Kabbalistic sages argued over whether God's true being was transcendent or immanent. In the end, however, they came to the realization that a true Divine Presence could exist in both realms - finite and infinite, yet always beyond human understanding. This, they said, was an attribute of perfection.

Such is the case with pi. In a world where nearly everything can be charted on a graph, map, or screen, we should find great joy in the things that will forever remain out of our reach - and be happy that they'll remain there. Let's call it the ultimate peace of pi.