A 13th-century illustration of Isaac Israeli from a Latin translation of his “Book of Fevers”
Itzhak ben Shlomo (c. 832-932) was born to a religious Jewish family in Egypt. He became renowned as the greatest physician in the country, and in 904 was hired by Prince Ziyadat Allah III. Several years later, he became court physician to Caliph Al-Mahdi Billah of the Fatimid Dynasty, based in Kairouan, Tunisia. Recognizing his immense wisdom, the Caliph made Itzhak (known in Arabic as “Abu Yaqub Ishaq ibn Suleiman al-Israili”, and in Europe as “Isaac Judaeus”) his leading advisor and tutor. Itzhak wrote numerous medical, astronomical, and mathematical treatises which transformed the scientific knowledge of the day. For instance, he is the first person in history to mention performing a tracheostomy. His works were widely distributed for centuries afterwards, and made up much of the medical curriculum of the Middle Ages. Itzhak was also a great philosopher, kabbalist, and mystic. He fused together Greek Neoplatonism with traditional Jewish mysticism, paving the way for the forthcoming explosion of Kabbalistic texts and Jewish mystical circles. His main disciple, Dunash ibn Tamim, wrote a profound commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the most ancient of Kabbalistic texts. In addition to inspiring many rabbis, he was studied and quoted by great non-Jewish scholars like Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon. Among his many other writings is a deeply philosophical commentary on Genesis. In his day, Isaac Judaeus was the world’s leading sage, doctor, and scientist, and Arabic texts of the time refer to him as “master of the seven sciences” and “more valuable than gems”.
We do not have to accept theories as certainties, no matter how widely accepted, for they are like blossoms that fade. Very soon science will be developed further and all of today’s new theories will be derided and scorned and the well-respected wisdom of our day will seem small-minded.
– Rav Kook, First Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel
Aletta Henriëtte Jacobs (1854-1929) was born in a small village in the Netherlands, the eighth of twelve children. Growing up, she often accompanied her doctor father to work and developed a passion for medicine. Unfortunately, medical school (as well as high school) was barred to women at the time. Undeterred, Jacobs studied on her own, and passed the exam to become a pharmacist. This made her quite famous, and in 1871 the Dutch Prime Minister personally granted her permission to attend the University of Groningen. Jacobs was the university’s first female student, and eight years later became the first female physician in the Netherlands. During a brief period of study in London, Jacobs joined a group of suffrage activists and became a noted feminist. She discovered the need for effective contraceptives for women, and back in Amsterdam, starting to work on a new type of diaphragm. Many credit her as a co-inventor of the device. Jacobs opened her own medical clinic, focused on serving the poor. She fought tirelessly to alleviate the terrible living conditions of Amsterdam’s impoverished neighbourhoods, campaigned for public housing, worker’s rights, and for an end to prostitution. By 1903, Jacobs left the field of medicine and devoted herself full time to women’s rights. She traveled around the world to speak about women’s issues, and inspired many along the way. She also wrote regularly for a Dutch newspaper. During World War I, she was a staunch peace activist, meeting with European leaders to stop the conflict. She even met with US President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 to try to convince him to mediate an end to the fighting. In 1919, Jacobs saw the fruits of her labour when the Netherlands finally granted women the right to vote. She continued her important work until the last days of her life. Jacobs is included in the official ‘Canon of Dutch History’, which is taught in all primary and secondary schools in the Netherlands.
Words of the Week
I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation… They have given religion to three quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind, more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.
– John Adams, 2nd President of the United States, in a letter to F.A Van der Kemp, 1809
On February 9th (her birthday), Aletta Jacobs was featured in a Google Doodle
Fania Nisanov (1924-2015) was born to an observant Bukharian-Jewish family in Kokand, Uzbekistan. Her father was the last in a long line of fabric dyers and merchants from the Emirate of Bukhara, the old Silk Road trading centre (and a UNESCO World Heritage site). One of eight surviving children, as a child she rose early each Friday morning to bake loaves of bread with her mother and sisters, which they then distributed to the poor in their community for the Sabbath. Unfortunately, the wealthy family was a target for criminals, and were robbed of all their possessions on multiple occasions. Despite these tough times, and the opposition from her family at a time when women were expected to stay at home, Nisanov pursued higher education and medical studies, becoming one of the first female doctors in the region. This made her part of an indispensable team that took care of the many ailing World War II veterans. Among those veterans was her future husband, David Polvanov, a high-ranking member of the Communist Party and a war hero that served in both European and Pacific battle zones. Ultimately, Nisanov became a pediatrician and worked diligently for some 40 years, treating children around the clock, never refusing a patient even when they arrived at her doorstep in the middle of the night. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nisanov immigrated to Israel with her family. There, she took care of her grandchildren and worked from home to help support the family. Among her many jobs was tying and knotting tzitzit (Jewish ritual fringes).The family would move once more to Canada, where Nisanov was a communal leader and elder in Toronto’s Bukharian community. She was frequently visited by travelers from Israel, Uzbekistan, and the US, who came in gratitude for her life-saving role in their lives. Famous for her wisdom, modesty, and sense of humour, she was never slowed down by a life-long disability, a battle with colon cancer, arthritis, and chronic pain. Even in her last days she would be seen with a smile on her face and a “Baruch Hashem” on her lips. Sadly, Fania Nisanov, our dear grandmother, passed away early yesterday morning.
Words of the Week
G-d transforms spirituality into physicality; the Jew must transform physical things into spiritual ones. – Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov