Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Italy in 1909, and still goes to work every day at the European Brain Institute. If you didn’t catch that: she is 103 years old. That makes her the only Nobel Prize winner in history to live 100 years. She won the prize together with fellow Jew Stanley Cohen for discovering Nerve Growth Factor, the main protein involved in neurological development. Levi-Montalcini went to medical school in the 1930s, but was barred from being a physician by Mussolini’s race laws that prevented Jews from holding academic professions. So she set up a laboratory in her home and studied the nerves of chickens. This was the basis for many of her future discoveries. Wherever her family fled during the war, Levi-Montalcini set up mobile labs; at one point even running a genetics lab from her bedroom! After the war she continued her research and taught at Washington University for 30 years. She has won the National Medal of Science, and was knighted, too. In 2001, Levi-Montalcini was appointed a senator for life and is the eldest member of Italy’s Upper House. Her advice for living a long and healthy life: “minimal sleep, limited food intake, and always keeping the brain active and interested.”
UPDATE: Sadly, Rita Levi-Montalcini passed away in December of 2012, seven months after this post was originally published.
Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman Kramer (1720-1797) was born in a small village in what is now Belarus. Known popularly as the Vilna Gaon – the Genius from Vilnius – it is said he committed the entire Torah to memory by age 5, and by age 11 the entire Talmud. It wasn’t long before he was one of European Jewry’s greatest legal authorities. A prolific writer, he penned commentaries on the Tanakh, Talmud, Mishnah and many other works (a large number of them Kabbalistic). Dedicating every moment of his life to Torah learning, he generally studied secular subjects only while in the bathroom (where study of Torah is forbidden). It was there that he became an expert in astronomy and Euclidean geometry, later instructing his disciples to write a mathematical treatise called Ayil Meshulash. The Vilna Gaon led a simple, saintly, ascetic lifestyle, sleeping just 2 hours a day, usually in 4 half-hour segments. For much of his life he was a travelling nomad, though his aim was always to settle in Israel. Himself unable to accomplish this goal, at least three groups of his students and their families did succeed in making Aliyah, bringing over 500 people to Tzfat and Jerusalem long before the Zionist movement. The Vilna Gaon passed away on Tishrei 19, the 5th day of Sukkot.
Psalm of the Day on the day of Gilad Schalit’s release from captivity. Incredibly, the psalm explicitly mentions Gilad’s name, as well as freedom from captivity, the holiday of Sukkot, and Tuesday. Schalit was freed on Tuesday, during the holiday of Sukkot!
Words of the Week
“On Simchat Torah the Torah scrolls wish to dance, so we become their feet.” – Chassidic saying