Jew of the Week: Avraham bar Chiya haNasi

The Rabbi Who Discovered the Quadratic Formula

Avraham bar Chiya (c. 1070-1145) was born in Barcelona to a Sephardic Jewish family. It appears that his family was persecuted by its Christian rulers, so they fled to the neighbouring Arab kingdom of Zaragoza. Bar Chiya came from a long line of rabbis, and was also extensively trained in science, math, and astronomy. Famed for his wisdom, he became the court astronomer of Al-Musta’in II. Eventually, he was appointed minister of police and given the title sahib al-shurtah, “city governor”. This is why he was known in the Jewish community as HaNasi, “the prince” or “the president”. Al-Musta’in II was unable to defend his domain from the Christians, who soon took over. Bar Chiya moved to southern France for a while and lived in Narbonne and Provence. There he composed some of the most important scientific texts of the Medieval era. He translated a number of Arabic works into Latin, opening their study for Europeans, and played a key role in introducing the Hindu numerals we use today (by way of Arabia) to Europe, and thus to the rest of the world. Bar Chiya also synthesized ancient Greek wisdom with contemporary Arabic knowledge, and published new discoveries in number theory, arithmetic, geometry, optics, astronomy, and music theory. His Treatise on Measurement and Calculation inspired later greats like Plato of Tivoli and the world-famous Fibonacci. Meanwhile, Bar Chiya also served as the chief rabbi of the Jewish communities he presided over, and composed two important Jewish commentaries and texts. He is credited with being the first person to write a scientific book in Hebrew, and played an instrumental role in the development of the Hebrew language. His disciples included both Jews and non-Jews, among them the great Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, and the Flemish astronomer Rudolf of Bruges. The first historical appearance of the quadratic equation (with a complete solution of x2 – ax + b = c) appears in one of Bar Chiya’s works! He is also referenced in many philosophical works as “Abraham Judaeus”. All in all, his impact on the development of science, mathematics, and human history is unparalleled.

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Words of the Week

The mind of man plans his way, but God directs his steps.
King Solomon (Proverbs 16:9)

What I Learned from 10 Years of ‘Jew of the Week’

Haym Solomon

Jew of the Week was inspired by one person: Haym Solomon. Ten years ago today, when I first learned that one of the key financiers of the American Revolution was a Jew, I was so astounded that I quickly wrote an email to share this discovery with some friends and family. The following week, I was studying the Krebs Cycle for a biochemistry exam, and wondered: was Hans Krebs Jewish? Lo and behold, he was! Once again, I wrote an email to share the news. At this point, an idea came: why not write a short weekly email to point out the Jewish backgrounds of other great historical figures? And thus, Jew of the Week was born.

Within a few short months, there was a website and a proper newsletter subscription service. (Credit to my brother for setting it up.) Several years later, I put together a short (and very unprofessional) video: ‘Did You Know These People Are Jewish?’ The video started getting lots of views (and is approaching half a million on YouTube). The seldomly-updated Jew of the Week YouTube channel went on to garner a couple thousand subscribers of its own.

All in all, over the past ten years Jew of the Week has featured 634 mini-biographies of famous Jewish people. It has been an incredible learning experience researching the lives of these wonderful individuals and their immense contributions to the world. (On several occasions, these people have even answered back and contacted me!) Below are, briefly, the top three things I learned from ten years of Jew of the Week.

1. There is a Jew Behind (Almost) Everything

This is not a conspiracy. Yet, it is amazing how so many inventions, discoveries, and other breakthroughs were spearheaded by Jews. The “father of the internet” is Bob Kahn, while the major force behind the cellphone was Martin Cooper. The first antibiotics were produced by Waksman and Schatz, and the first anti-cancer vaccine by Baruch Blumberg. On that note, Waldemar Haffkine saved so many lives with his cholera and plague vaccines (which he trialed on himself) that he was called the “saviour of humanity” by Lord Joseph Lister.

Behind the first video game console was a Jew, and also behind the modern TV remote control. The Barbie doll was a Jewish girl, as was Mercedes (the car, that is). Whether your favourite ice cream is Häagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerry’s, or Baskin Robbins, all are kosher. And it doesn’t matter if you shop at Costco, Home Depot, or Staples, because all three were founded by Jewish businessmen.

If you cheer for the New England Patriots, you should know that it was Robert Kraft who saved the franchise from its curse and transformed it into a winner. And pretty much every major league sports team out of Washington, D.C. was brought there by the Pollins. (We didn’t forget about those of you in Europe, especially if you like Chelsea F.C. or remember the “Pitbull” of football.)

In short, Jews have been, seemingly, supernaturally successful in just about every field. Of the 930 individuals to receive a Nobel Prize so far, over 200 have been Jewish, making up well over 20% of the total, despite Jews being just 0.2% of the global population. This is simply astonishing.

2. Anti-Semitism is (Paradoxically) Stronger Than Ever

One thing you may notice on the Jew of the Week website is that there is no place to leave comments. The same is true for most of its YouTube videos. This was not always the case. Once Jew of the Week became popular enough, it attracted anti-Semites, too, and their endless barrage of hateful remarks. Every day, I would receive countless notifications of more disturbing comments on a post or video. At first, I tried to respond to as many of them as I could and educate these ignorant people. Not surprisingly, most of those attempts were futile. (Some of them actually were fruitful, and I was able to change the occasional mind.) Eventually, I had to shut the comments off completely. The hate came from Neo-Nazis and white supremacists, from Islamists, from extremists both on the left and right-wing, along with a surprising number of African-Americans. To such blind people, the Jew was to blame for everything.

It seems that the more Jews do for the betterment of the world, the more hate they draw. Many explanations have been given for this paradoxical phenomenon. I think Jean-Paul Sartre (who was not Jewish) said it best in his Anti-Semite and Jew, where he concluded that anti-Semitism mainly comes out of sheer envy. Because the Jews are so successful, they are hated. To the anti-Semite, there can’t be a natural explanation for their success, so it must be a conspiracy! In the words of Sartre:

The anti-Semite readily admits that the Jew is intelligent and hard-working; he will even confess himself inferior in these respects… the more virtues the Jew has the more dangerous he will be. The anti-Semite has no illusions about what he is. He considers himself an average man, modestly average, basically mediocre… However small his stature, he takes every precaution to make it smaller, lest he stand out from the herd and find himself face to face with himself. He has made himself an anti-Semite because that is something one cannot be alone. The phrase, “I hate the Jews,” is one that is uttered in chorus; in pronouncing it, one attaches himself to a tradition and to a community—the tradition and community of the mediocre.

[Though it does not necessarily express their true sentiments, it is worth noting that I have never received a hateful comment from an East Asian person. On multiple occasions, my interactions with the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese have been respectful. More than once I was told by an East Asian person that they look up to the Jews and see Jewish success as a model.]

On the bright side, Jew of the Week also has many readers from around the world, including places like Iran and Indonesia, which are not known to be very Jew-friendly. It has helped to dispel some of the myths around the Jewish people, and show the world how much good the Jews have done. In this way, Jew of the Week has played a role (however small) in combatting the scourge of anti-Semitism.

3. Fulfilment of an Ancient Blessing

Whether you are a believer or not; Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform; traditional or secular, there is one thing that is difficult to deny: the fulfilment of the Torah’s ancient blessing to the Jewish people, that they should be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6), and that the world would recognize, for better or worse, that “a wise and understanding people is this great nation.” (Deuteronomy 4:6) No one can ignore the supernatural success of the Jewish people—and it is all the more incredible that it was prophesied thousands of years ago.

More than the scientific and technological contributions, Jews have indeed been a light upon the world. It was Jews like Samuel Gompers and Louis Brandeis that devoted their lives to improving the wellbeing of others, and helped to introduce things like weekends, worker’s benefits, and fair wages. Lina Morgenstern pioneered child care and came up with the soup kitchen. The most prominent abolitionist in America was Abraham Jonas, who played an instrumental role in bringing Abraham Lincoln to the presidency and abolishing slavery for good. (In fact, the original textbook for the abolition of slavery, called A Plan For the Abolition of Slavery, was written by Moses Yulee in 1828.) There are countless other examples.

No doubt, Jews are not perfect, and we have had our fair share of bad apples. As a people, though, our track record is overwhelmingly positive, if not downright astounding. Winston Churchill probably summarized it best: “Some people like Jews and some do not; but no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.”

Thank you for being a part of Jew of the Week, for sending your feedback and submitting your suggestions, for sharing these posts with others, and for supporting our work. Looking forward to another ten years of Jew of the Week ahead!

Efraim Palvanov

Jew of the Week: Hannah Arendt

Greatest Political Philosopher of the 20th Century

Hannah Arendt in 1924

Johanna Cohn Arendt (1906-1975) was born in Germany to a wealthy family of secular Russian-German Jews. The family was anti-Zionist and assimilationist, desperately seeking acceptance into broader German society. Arendt was well-educated, and was already tackling heavy philosophical works as a teenager. At 15, after getting expelled from her school for organizing a boycott of an anti-Semitic teacher, she decided to go straight to the University of Berlin. Arendt then studied language, literature, and theology at the University of Marburg, where one of her teachers was the famed philosopher Heidegger (the two would go on to have a secret romantic relationship for many years). Arendt later became a towering figure in philosophy herself, writing on politics and sociology, Judaism and feminism (which she opposed, once writing, perhaps presciently: “what will we lose if we win?” Ironically, today Arendt is something of a feminist icon!) When Hitler came to power in 1933, Arendt operated an underground railroad for refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Realizing the flaws of her old assimilationist ways, she wrote that “Jewish assimilation must declare its bankruptcy.” Arendt immersed herself in Jewish study, while also vocally denouncing the Nazis, leading to her arrest by the Gestapo. After eight days in prison, the Gestapo let her go because they could not decipher her encoded diary. Arendt fled to Geneva, where she worked for the Jewish Agency to secure visas for Jewish refugees. From there, she settled in Paris and soon became the personal assistant of Germaine de Rothschild, taking care of distributing her generous charitable funds. In 1935, Arendt joined Youth Aliyah, eventually becoming its secretary-general. In 1938, she was put in charge of rescuing Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia. When the Nazis occupied France, Arendt and her family managed to escape yet again, eventually finding their way to New York. In 1944, she was hired as executive director of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, cataloging and preserving Jewish assets in Europe, and reviving post-war Jewish life there. From 1951 onwards, she devoted herself to teaching and writing. Her most acclaimed books followed, including The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. Arendt taught at a number of American universities, including Yale and Stanford, and was the first female professor at Princeton. In 1961, she spent six weeks in Jerusalem covering the Eichmann trial for the The New Yorker. (During this time, she coined the phrase “banality of evil”, and her conclusions were immensely controversial.) All in all, Arendt wrote hundreds of penetrating essays, articles, and poems, and has been described as the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, as well as one its most enigmatic women. The Library of Congress estimates that at least 50 books have been written about her, along with over 1000 scholarly papers. There is a “Hannah Arendt Day” in Germany, as well as an international peer-reviewed journal called Arendt Studies, along with countless things named after her, including the prestigious Hannah Arendt Prize.

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Words of the Week

“If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.”
– Hannah Arendt