Tag Archives: Polyglot

Jew of the Week: Sir Sassoon Eskell

Father of Iraq

Sassoon Eskell (1860-1932) was born in Baghdad to a wealthy and illustrious Mizrachi Jewish family. At the time, some 40% of Baghdad’s population was Jewish. Eskell’s father was a rabbi, and at one point served as the chief rabbi of India’s large Baghdadi community. Eskell studied law and economics in Istanbul, London, and Vienna. He spoke nine languages fluently, and became the official translator (dragoman) for the Ottoman government in Baghdad. When the Ottomans drafted a constitution and established a new Turkish Parliament in 1908, Eskell was elected as Baghdad’s deputy representative. He also served as the under-secretary of state for trade and agriculture, and represented the Ottomans on multiple international delegations. At the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Eskell was among the key figures that pushed for Iraqi independence. He was one of two Iraqi representatives that negotiated with Winston Churchill in creating the new state and choosing its first king. Eskell went on to be Iraq’s first finance minister, and continued in this role through the next five governments. He was the primary advisor to the Iraqi king and prime minister, and was described as “by far the ablest man” on Iraq’s governing council. Eskell was elected to the first Iraqi parliament in 1925, and continued to serve on it until his death. He is often referred to as the “Father of Iraqi Parliament”. Among his many significant achievements was making sure that Iraq’s oil was sold to the British for gold, not pounds sterling. While this was unusual at the time, the British pound soon lost most of its value and was no longer backed by gold. Sassoon thus ensured Iraq’s wealth was not diminished, and that it would continue to profit from its oil sales. These funds were critical in ensuring the success and viability of the nascent state. Eskell was also a major philanthropist and gave countless sums to charity. Much of his wealth went to the Jewish National Fund to support the re-establishment of Israel. The village of Kfar Yehezkel in Israel is named after him. Among his many other awards and honours, Eskell was knighted by King George V. Several years ago, the Iraqi government demolished his historic 100-year old home in a controversial move that made way for a new development.

Words of the Week

Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.
– Alexander Hamilton

Jew of the Week: Sarah Aaronsohn

Israel’s Joan of Arc

Sarah Aaronsohn

Sarah Aaronsohn (1890-1917) was born in Zikhron Yaakov to a Romanian-Jewish family which had settled in the Land of Israel during the First Aliyah to co-found a moshav. The moshav was later financed and supported by Edmond James de Rothschild (who renamed it Zikhron Yaakov after his father). Aaronsohn studied languages, and could speak Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish, French, Arabic, and English. She married a wealthy Jewish-Bulgarian businessman and lived with him briefly in Istanbul. When the marriage unraveled, Aaronsohn returned to Israel. During her journey, she personally witnessed the horrors of the Armenian Genocide, and was deeply affected by what she saw. This inspired her to work against the Ottoman Turks, both to stop what was happening to the Armenians, and to prevent the same happening to Jews, as was rumoured at the time. Aaronsohn and her siblings started the NILI spy ring to supply important information to the British. (NILI stood for the Biblical words Netzach Israel Lo Ishaker, “the God of Israel does not lie”, from I Samuel 15:29.) Their spy ring grew to include 40 operatives, making it the largest British spy network in the Middle East during World War I. The information they provided was so vital that General Allenby later admitted he would not have been able to liberate the Holy Land without it. And without Allenby’s conquest, there would probably not have been a State of Israel (at least not so soon). Aaronsohn was also in charge of taking care of the Jews expelled from Haifa and Tel-Aviv by the Ottomans. At one point she worked with Lawrence of Arabia, and many believe the “S.A” to whom he dedicated his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is Sarah Aaronsohn. Unfortunately, the Ottomans caught one of Aaronsohn’s carrier pigeons to the British and arrested her shortly after. She was gruesomely tortured for days, refusing to give any information and insisting that she was the sole spy, thus saving the lives of many others. While being transferred to a different torture chamber, she asked to stop at home to change her tattered and blood-soaked clothes. Aaronsohn managed to get a gun and shoot herself in the head. She survived the blast, and suffered for another four days before succumbing to her injuries. In her suicide note, she wrote that she hoped the blood of martyrs like her would one day be avenged, and that her work would speed up the establishment of a Jewish state. History has shown that it certainly did. Aaronsohn was hailed as a new “Joan of Arc”, and is one of Israel’s great heroines.

The Spiritual Purpose of Jewish Exile and Wandering

Words of the Week

Before the Endlessness of God, the highest saint and the lowliest commoner are equal.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (c. 1730-1788)

Jews of the Week: Edmund Landau and Lev Landau

Two Math Wizards

Edmund Landau

Edmund Georg Hermann Landau (1877-1938) was born in Berlin. As a young boy, he was recognized as a math prodigy, and earned his Ph.D from the University of Berlin by 22. He immediately received a teaching position at the university, where he taught for the next ten years. Meanwhile, Landau married the daughter of Nobel Prize winner (and past Jew of the WeekPaul Ehrlich. In 1812, Landau presented four complex math problems at the International Congress of Mathematicians. The problems remain unsolved to this day. After over a decade teaching at the University of Göttingen, Landau joined the new Hebrew University. He was a co-founder of its math department, and played a key role in the construction of its Mathematics Institute. He taught himself Hebrew so that he could present a novel math lecture at the University’s grand opening in 1925. Two years later, Landau and his family made aliyah. He taught at the Hebrew University for several years before returning to Göttingen. After being removed from his position by the Nazis, Landau settled back in Berlin and occasionally traveled outside Germany to teach. He died four years later. Landau is renowned for his work on distribution of prime numbers, and on what is now called Landau Prime Ideal Theorem. It was once said that “no one was ever more passionately devoted to mathematics than Landau.”

Lev Landau

Edmund Landau is not to be confused with another Jewish math prodigy, Lev Davidovich Landau (1908-1968). Born in Azerbaijan (then part of Russia), Lev Landau started university at 13, published his first paper at 18, and got his PhD in math by 26. He received a scholarship from the Soviet government as well as the Rockefeller Foundation to travel and study abroad. He was soon fluent in German, French, Danish, and English. Much of his time was spent working in the lab of Nobel Prize winner (and past Jew of the WeekNiels Bohr. After returning to the Soviet Union, Landau was put at the head of the physics department at Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology. He taught at the University of Kharkiv, and at the same time worked with his student Evgeny Lifshitz on a ten-volume textbook. The Course of Theoretical Physics is still one of the most popular graduate physics textbooks used today. In 1938, Landau was arrested for comparing Stalin to the Nazis. After the intervention of other physicists, he was freed. Ironically, he won the Stalin Prize in 1949 and again in 1953, for his work on building the first Soviet nuclear bomb. Landau is famous for, among many other things, his theory of superconductivity, theory of Fermi liquid, for plasma physics, quantum electrodynamics, and most of all for his theory of superfluidity, which won him a Nobel Prize in 1962. Unfortunately, he couldn’t personally collect the prize because he was in a severe car accident and spent two months in a coma. He ultimately died from his injuries in 1968. Several years before this, his students established the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics near Moscow. It is still one of the most prestigious physics labs in Russia. Landau was featured in the latest Google Doodle. There is a crater on the moon named after him.

The Torah: A Comprehensive Overview

Words of the Week

Both religion and science require a belief in God. For believers, God is in the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations… To the former He is the foundation, to the latter, the crown of the edifice of every generalized world view.
– Max Planck

Google Doodle for January 22, 2019, the birthday of Lev Landau.