Tag Archives: Lithuanian Jews

Jew of the Week: Richard Feynman

Revolutionary Physicist 

Richard Phillips Feynman (1918-1988) was born in Queens to Lithuanian Jewish immigrant parents. Before his birth, his father had decided that his son should be a scientist, and raised Feynman from an early age to question everything. Feynman did not speak his first word until he was three years old. In childhood, he loved to take things apart and even set up a lab in his home, hiring his little sister for 4 cents a week to be his assistant. (He would later inspire and encourage her to become a renowned astrophysicist in her own right.) At 15, he taught himself advanced algebra, calculus, and trigonometry. He applied to Columbia University but was rejected because the quota for Jewish students had been filled. Feynman went to MIT instead, first majoring in math, then electrical engineering, and finally physics. He published his first two papers as an undergrad, and his senior thesis (putting forth what would become the Hellmann-Feynman theorem) brought him a great deal of recognition in the scientific community. Feynman then applied to grad school at Princeton, and got an unprecedented perfect score on the physics exam. Again, he was initially brushed aside for being Jewish before the dean was convinced not to miss out on the young genius. (Feynman was admitted only on the condition that he wouldn’t get married!) At 23, he defended his Ph.D, and was already being compared to Einstein (he would win the Albert Einstein Award in 1954). Meanwhile, Feynman was working on the Manhattan Project, leading a team developing the isotron (to isolate uranium-235), then developing what’s now called the Bethe-Feynman formula for fission bomb yield. At Los Alamos, he was one of the “human computers”, and helped to develop better machinery for some of the world’s first digital computers. Towards the end, he spent time lecturing on the dangers of nuclear power, and put together a safety manual for uranium enrichment.

After the war, Feynman joined the faculty of Cornell University, and there developed his famous (and revolutionary) “Feynman diagrams” to solve and explain quantum problems more easily. After a sabbatical in Brazil, Feynman moved to Caltech, working on superconductivity, superfluidity, nuclear decay, and quantum gravity, among many other subjects. He is credited with being the first scientist to conceive of both nanotechnology and quantum computers. In the 1960s, he began writing books on physics, many of which went on to become bestsellers and university textbooks. In 1965, he won a Nobel Prize for his theory on quantum electrodynamics, and in 1979 won the National Medal of Science. Feynman became even more famous in 1986 when he lead the team that investigated the crash of the space shuttle Challenger. Feynman was voted by scientists as one of the 10 Greatest Physicists of All Time, and Bill Gates recently wrote an article (titled “The Best Teacher I Never Had”) about how it was Feynman that served as his greatest inspiration. Feynman was famous for his sense of humour and his rebellious nature. He rejected his religion (though at a later age encountered the Talmud and said it was “a wonderful book”), resisted his superiors (he was sought out by Niels Bohr because all the other physicists were too fearful to argue with the great Bohr), and even derided his Nobel Prize (saying the real prize was the scientific discovery). Feynman also loved biology and poetry, and was an avid painter and musician. Last Friday would have been his one hundredth birthday.

Words of the Week

As they set out from their place above, each soul is male and female as one. Only as they descend to this world do they part, each to its own side. And then it is the One Above who unites them again. This is His exclusive domain, for He alone knows which soul belongs to which and how they must reunite.

– Zohar (I, 85b)

Jew of the Week: Eddie Jacobson

The Man Who Made Israel Possible

Eddie Jacobson with Harry Truman

Edward Jacobson (1891-1955) was born in New York City to Jewish-Lithuanian immigrants. The family was extremely poor, and soon set out for new opportunities in the Midwest. As a teenager, Jacobson worked in a Kansas City factory and became good friends with one Harry Truman. The two eventually parted ways, with Truman enlisting in the National Guard and Jacobson working as a salesman. Years later, at the outbreak of World War I, Jacobson enlisted in the army and happened to be placed in the 129th Field Artillery – where Truman was first lieutenant. Over the course of the war, Truman and Jacobson ran a unit canteen (where soldiers can buy goods), starting it off by collecting $2 from their fellow soldiers to get their initial stock. While most canteens inevitably lose money, Truman’s and Jacobson’s canteen actually turned a huge profit. They were able to return the $2 to all the soldiers, and eventually raised $10,000 in profits. After the war, they used some of this money to try their hand at a number of business (including the Truman & Jacobson Haberdashery), all of which ultimately failed. Truman would go into politics, while Jacobson remained a travelling salesman. Whenever he happened to be in Washington, Jacobson would make sure to visit his old friend. In 1945, Jacobson founded Westport Menswear in Kansas City and finally found success in business. Meanwhile, in 1944, President Roosevelt was running to be re-elected for an unprecedented fourth term. He realized that to win he would have to replace his increasingly unpopular vice president, and the party eventually settled on the likeable and devout Truman. The duo won the election, and were sworn in on January 20, 1945. However, Roosevelt was in failing health, and would often get severe headaches or suddenly fall unconscious. Just 82 days later, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving Truman with the presidency. Throughout this time, Jacobson and Truman retained their strong friendship, and some report that Jacobson had open access to the Oval Office. In early 1948, the Zionists were campaigning for support of their hopeful state. While Truman sympathized with the Jews, the US State Department was vehemently opposed to the creation of a Jewish state. So many Jews were petitioning Truman that he refused to hear any more of it. When Chaim Weizmann made a last-ditch effort trip to the US, Truman wouldn’t meet him. It was then that Jacobson, though reluctant and afraid to damage his lifelong friendship with Truman, approached him and said: “Your hero is Andrew Jackson. I have a hero too. He’s the greatest Jew alive. I’m talking about Chaim Weizmann. He’s an old man and very sick, and he has traveled thousands of miles to see you.” Truman relented, and Weizmann managed to convince him to support a Jewish state. While the State Department warned Truman that he would risk losing the support of Arabs, and more importantly, their oil supply, Truman replied that he would decide “on the basis of justice, not oil.” Less than two months later, Ben-Gurion declared independence, and Truman was the first to recognize the State of Israel just 11 minutes later. When Truman left the presidency, he intended to take a trip to the Holy Land, and Jacobson was planning to be his guide. Unfortunately, Jacobson died of a sudden heart attack before it could happen. The Truman Library maintains a huge collection of documents and correspondence between Jacobson and Truman (available here), and there is now a play, called ‘Eddie’, based on their warm relationship.

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Words of the Week

Hitler had been murdering Jews right and left. I saw it, and I dream about it even to this day. The Jews needed some place where they could go. It is my attitude that the American government couldn’t stand idly by while the victims of Hitler’s madness are not allowed to build new lives.
– President Harry S. Truman

Jew of the Week: David Wolffsohn

The Man Who Created the Flag of Israel

David Wolffsohn (1856-1914) was born to a poor, religious Jewish family in the Lithuanian-Polish town of Darbenai (then part of Russia). His father was a Torah scholar and teacher, and Wolffsohn, too, was learning in yeshiva with the same goal in mind. In his teens, he was sent to live with relatives in Germany to avoid being conscripted to the Russian army. There, he met the rabbi, philosopher, and early Zionist leader Isaac Rülf, and became his devoted disciple. Meanwhile, Wolffsohn took up secular studies and went on to apprentice at a trading company. In 1877, he started his own flouring business, and was soon one of the most prominent Jewish businessmen in Europe. Henceforth, he dedicated his life to realizing that ancient dream of his people’s return to Israel. He played a key role within the Hovevei Zion movement, and in 1894 was a cofounder of the Society for the Promotion and Support of Jewish Agriculture in Syria and Palestine. When Herzl’s The Jewish State was published two years later, Wolffsohn immediately journeyed to Vienna to meet him. The two became very close and traveled the Holy Land together, setting the foundations for what would become the State of Israel. Not surprisingly, when the World Zionist Congress was founded, Herzl was made its president and Wolffsohn its vice-president. Upon Herzl’s death shortly after, Wolffsohn succeeded him. As president, he was instrumental in reinvigorating Jewish life in the Holy Land (among other things, it was under his tenure that the city of Tel-Aviv was founded). However, Wolffsohn is most famous for being the one who created the flag of modern Israel. Back in 1896, Herzl had written: “We have no flag, and we need one. If we desire to lead many men, we must raise a symbol above their heads. I would suggest a white flag, with seven golden stars…” Herzl’s proposal was good, but his flag gained little support. Wolffsohn responded to Herzl thus: “We have a flag—and it is blue and white. The talit with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this talit from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations…” Wolffsohn designed a simple flag with blue talit-like stripes and a star of David in the centre. The flag caught on quickly, and the rest is history.

Words of the Week

What is the meaning of human life, or, for that matter, of the life of any creature? To know an answer to this question means to be religious. You ask: Does it make any sense, then, to pose this question? I answer: The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy but hardly fit for life…
– Albert Einstein

The traditional design of the talit inspired the modern flag of Israel.