Jew of the Week: Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer

The Rabbi Who Launched Zionism

Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874) was born in what was then Prussia (now Poland) to a long line of rabbis. After receiving his own rabbinic ordination and getting married, he moved to the city of Thorn and there served as the rabbi for over forty years. Incredibly, he never took a salary for this role, and instead made a living running a small business with his wife. He wrote commentaries on the Torah, Talmud, Passover Haggadah, and a wide range of topics in Jewish law. Meanwhile, Rabbi Kalischer was deeply concerned about the state of Jewry, both in Europe and in the Holy Land. He worried about the pogroms, persecutions, and poverty experienced by Jews in Eastern Europe, and equally worried about the mass-assimilation, secularism, and rise of Reform Judaism in Western Europe. Meanwhile, he wanted to make existing Jewish communities in places like Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias, and Tzfat flourish and become self-sufficient, instead of relying heavily on donations from abroad. For Rabbi Kalischer, the solution to all of these problems was Jewish nationalism, and he began writing on these issues in the Hebrew magazine HaLevanon. In 1862, he put his ideas together in a book titled Derishat Zion, and followed it up with Rishon L’Zion in 1864. He argued that Jews should come together to purchase land in Israel, build agricultural schools to teach farming and land management, and to establish a Jewish military force to protect the Jews of the Holy Land. He also hoped to re-establish the sacrifices and offerings in Jerusalem as specified in the Torah. Rabbi Kalischer argued that Jews should stop waiting for God to solve their problems: “One should not think that the Blessed One will suddenly descend from the Heavens to tell his people – ‘leave!’ – or that he will send His messenger any moment to call us on the trumpet…” While many critiqued this approach, Rabbi Kalischer defended his position with citations from all across Jewish holy texts. He went on speaking tours around Europe to spread the message, and convinced countless people to join the cause. Rabbi Kalischer was a key inspiration for prominent figures like Sir Moses Montefiore, Adolphe Crémieux, and Edmond de Rothschild. His work led directly to the establishment of the first agricultural school in the Holy Land in 1870, called Mikveh Israel. He even donated his own savings of 12,000 francs towards purchasing more land in Israel. Rabbi Kalischer is widely regarded as one of the early founders of Zionism.

Torah Simulation Theory (Video)

Words of the Week

If whites are successful, it’s “white privilege”; if minorities are successful, it’s “empowerment”; if Jews are successful, it’s a conspiracy.
– Jon Stewart 

Jew of the Week: Betty Friedan

The Feminine Mystique

Bettye Naomi Goldstein (1921-2006) was born in Illinois to Jewish parents of Russian and Hungarian heritage. She experienced a great deal of antisemitism in her youth which, she would later explain, fueled her “passion against injustice”. She became a writer in high school, and later penned award-winning poems. She graduated with a degree in psychology from the all-women’s Smith College in 1942, then did research at UC Berkeley. Shortly after, she dropped out of school, moved to New York, married Carl Friedan, and became a housewife, while doing some freelance writing on the side. It was at her high school’s fifteenth reunion that she saw an underlying unhappiness in the lives of her former classmates. The discussions, research, and study that came out of this eventually crystallized in a 1963 book called The Feminine Mystique. Friedan wrote about the problem “with no name”, of the “depressed suburban housewife” who was not given the opportunity to fulfil “the basic human need to grow”. The book was an instant bestseller, and is credited with launching the second wave of feminism. In 1966, Friedan co-founded the National Organization of Women (NOW), of which she was the first president. The organization was founded in her hotel room, with its purpose written on a napkin: to ensure legal equality and employment equality for all. The organization also worked to establish subsidized child care. In 1970, Friedan led and organized the Women’s Strike for Equality, with marches in over 40 cities, and 50,000 in New York City alone. Friedan supported many other women in important leadership roles, including Shirley Chisholm, America’s first black congresswoman. (Chisholm had an incredible encounter with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and credited him with inspiring much of her good work). Friedan worked hard to ensure that feminism not be equated with homosexuality (calling lesbian feminists “the lavender menace”), or with hating men, or with abortion (she did support a woman’s right to choose, but called it a “secondary” issue). She would say: “The women’s movement was not about sex, but about equal opportunity in jobs and all the rest of it.” She maintained the supreme value of a traditional family unit, and that children should “ideally come from mother and father”. Though originally self-described as “agnostic”, in her later years she saw the value in religion and started to regularly attend prayer services at her local synagogue. Friedan had also cofounded the First Women’s Bank in 1973 and Women Against Gun Violence in 1994. Among her many awards are Humanist of the Year (1975), the Eleanor Roosevelt Leadership Award (1989), induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and multiple honorary degrees.

Gentiles Becoming Jews

Words of the Week

A rabbi who is an optimist taught me that what you may think is a challenge is a gift from God, and if poor babies have milk, and poor children have food, it’s because this rabbi in Crown Heights had vision.
Shirley Chisholm, American’s first black congresswoman, on the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Jew of the Week: Erwin Chargaff

Discovering DNA Structure

Erwin Chargaff (1905-2002) was born in what is now Chernivtsi, Ukraine (then part of the Austo-Hungarian Empire). His family was of the little-known Bukovinian Jewish community that blended elements of Ottoman, Romanian, Austrian, and Ukrainian culture and had a mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardi heritage and practice. During World War I, the family moved to Vienna, where Chargaff went on to study chemistry. In 1925, he took a job as professor of organic chemistry at Yale University. He moved to the University of Berlin in 1930 to head the chemistry lab for the bacteriology and public health department. During this time, he made some important findings about bacterial membranes and lipids. When the Nazis came to power, Chargaff was forced to resign and fled to Paris. After spending a couple of years doing research at the Pasteur Institute, Chargaff returned to the States to become a professor at Columbia University for the next four decades. This is where he did some of his most famous work, including on the mechanism of blood clotting. His main focus, however, was on the chemistry of mysterious DNA. He soon discovered that DNA always contained equal amounts of the nitrogen bases adenine and thymine, and equal amounts of cytosine and guanine, suggesting that the two sets pair up. (This would become known as the first of “Chargaff’s Rules”.) His 1950 paper was instrumental in allowing Watson and Crick to solve the puzzle of DNA structure just a few years later. In fact, it was a conversation that Chargaff had with Watson and Crick in 1952 which led them to deduce DNA’s double-helix structure. Not surprisingly, Chargaff protested when Watson and Crick won a Nobel Prize while he was excluded. Chargaff did win many other prizes, including the Pasteur Medal, the Heineken Prize, and the National Medal of Science. After retiring from Columbia, he continued to do research at the Roosevelt Hospital until the age of 87! Chargaff was highly critical of genetic engineering and biotechnology, saying that it would inevitably be abused and lead to a “molecular Auschwitz”. (Many today would say he was right!) Chargaff is often considered one of the fathers of biochemistry, and “Chargaff’s Rules” are still a fundamental concept taught in biology classes today.

Lag b’Omer Begins Saturday Night!

The Hidden History of Lag b’Omer

Reincarnation in Judaism (Video)

Words of the Week

There are two nuclei that man should never have touched: the atomic nucleus and the cell nucleus. The technology of genetic engineering poses a greater threat to the world than the advent of nuclear technology.
– Erwin Chargaff