Tag Archives: Yiddish

Jew of the Week: Elia Levita

The First Yiddish Novel and Hebrew Dictionary

Cover Page of a 1541 Edition of ‘Bovo-Bukh’

Eliyahu “Bachur” haLevi (1469-1549) was born near Nuremberg, the youngest of nine children. When the Jews were expelled from the region, his family settled in Venice. Throughout these years, Eliyahu spent most of his time in the study of Torah, Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and Hebrew grammar. In 1504, he settled in Padua and took on a job as a teacher of Jewish studies. He wrote a textbook of Hebrew grammar for his students, and the book quickly spread far and wide. It became especially popular among Christian scholars, many of whom were then trying to learn Hebrew in order to understand the Bible in its original language. Meanwhile, inspired by other Renaissance authors, Eliyahu wrote a romance novel in Yiddish, the Bovo-Bukh, history’s first Yiddish novel. Hugely popular, it has been continuously published until this day, going through some 40 editions over the past five centuries. It was also translated to other languages, including German and Russian. The book’s title is the origin of the well-known Yiddish phrase, bube mayse, an “old wives’ tale”. Eliyahu wrote two satires in Italian as well. By the time he resettled in Rome in 1514, he was quite famous, and became close with Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo. The two made a deal in which Eliyahu and his family could live in the Cardinal’s palace, in exchange for Eliyahu teaching him Hebrew and Jewish mysticism. (At that time, Jewish mysticism was very popular in Europe, and had many famous non-Jewish students, too, including Michelangelo and Pico della Mirandola.) Eliyahu lived with the Cardinal for the next 13 years. During this time, he composed several more textbooks on the Hebrew language, including one of the first Hebrew dictionaries. He also translated various Jewish texts, mainly Kabbalistic ones, into Latin. Rome was sacked in 1527, so Eliyahu had to relocate again. King Francis I offered him to become a professor of Hebrew at the University of Paris, but Eliyahu declined because at that time Jews were banned from living in Paris and he refused to live in a city where his brethren were not welcome. Eliyahu would return to Venice and passed away there. Today is his yahrzeit. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron is one of his descendants.

Words of the Week

To have a second language is to have a second soul.
– Charlemagne

Jews of the Week: Mildred Cohn and Gerty Cori

Great Women in Biochemistry 

Mildred Cohn (1913-2009) was born in New York to Jewish-Russian immigrants. Her father was a rabbi and Cohn grew up in a religious, Yiddish-speaking home, though one which also prioritized secular education and the arts. Cohn graduated high school by the age of 14 and got her Bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at 18, followed by her Master’s from Columbia University. Unable to afford any further schooling, Cohn got a job researching for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which would later become NASA. She was the only woman among seventy men, and was told she shouldn’t expect any promotions. Two years later, she had enough money to return to school, pursuing her PhD at Columbia under recent Nobel Prize-winner Harold Urey. Cohn focused her work on carbon and oxygen isotopes. From there, she moved on to Washington University to do research on metabolism using sulfur isotopes. Later, she switched to using nuclear magnetic resonance and made a huge breakthrough in 1958 when she was able to visualize ATP, the central energy molecule that powers human cells and essentially all living things. Cohn discovered much of what we know about ATP and how it works. All in all, she wrote 160 scientific papers and won numerous awards, including the National Medal of Science (awarded to her by President Reagan). She was the first female editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry and the first female president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. In 2009 she was inducted in the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Cohn was married to renowned Jewish physicist Henry Primakoff. Many of her ATP discoveries came while she was working at the lab of another great Jewish scientist, Gerty Cori.

Gerty Theresa Radnitz Cori (1896-1957) was born in Prague. Her father was a chemist who had invented a new way of refining sugar. At 16, Cori decided to become a doctor, but found that she was missing nearly all the prerequisites. So, in one year she took eighteen years-worth of courses in Latin, science, and math. Cori passed her entrance exam and was among the first women ever to be admitted to Prague’s medical school. After graduating, she worked at a children’s hospital and also did research on blood disorders, the thyroid gland, and the body’s ability to regular temperature. Due to persistent food shortages and rising anti-Semitism after World War I, Cori and her husband (also a doctor and scientist) left Prague and moved to New York. The couple did research together at what is now the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, focusing on glucose metabolism. Cori published 11 papers of her own, and another 50 together with her husband. By 1929, the Coris had figured out how the body metabolized glucose in the absence of oxygen, a process now known as the Cori Cycle. For this, they won a Nobel Prize in 1947. This made Cori the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize (and only the third woman overall), as well as the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine. In 1931, the couple took over a lab at Washington University (with Cori being paid one-tenth her husband’s salary). Here they made many more vital scientific discoveries, and mentored a new generation of scientists—six of which went on to win Nobel Prizes of their own. For this reason, their lab was deemed a National Historic Landmark in 2004. Like Mildred Cohn, Gerty Cori won countless awards and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. There are craters on the Moon and on Venus named after her, as well as a commemorative US stamp. After battling the disease for a decade, Cori succumbed to bone cancer, likely caused by her extensive work with X-rays.

Words of the Week

In the next world, they will not ask me: “Why were you not Moses?” They will ask me: “Why were you not Zusha?”
– Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli (1718-1800)

Jew of the Week: Kirk Douglas

In Memory of Hollywood’s Biggest Star

Kirk Douglas

Issur Danielovitch (1916-2020) was born in New York to a traditional Yiddish-speaking family of Jewish-Russian immigrants. Growing up in poverty, young Issur worked hard delivering newspapers and selling snacks to mill workers to help make a living. He studied at the local religious cheder, and was such a good student that everyone wanted him to become a rabbi. This frightened him, so he ended up moving to public school where he first got to act in plays. At this point, he went by the name Izzy Demsky (a last name he adopted from his uncle), and only changed his name to Kirk Douglas when he enlisted in the US Navy in 1941. Not long before that he graduated from St. Lawrence University, having convinced the dean to allow him to study for free since he had no money for tuition. While he tried to make it as an actor, Douglas also worked as a gardener, janitor, and professional wrestler. He eventually made it to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and received a scholarship there, too. Douglas served in the navy for three years working in anti-submarine combat and was honourably discharged after being injured. After the war, he got his first acting job doing commercials and soap operas over the radio. A friend got him his first film role in 1946, after which he was instantly recognized as a “natural film actor”. He got his first Oscar nomination just three years later. Douglas was Hollywood’s biggest star through the 1950s and 60s, and took the lead in classic films like Spartacus (at that point the most expensive film ever made), The Bad and the Beautiful, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Ace in the Hole (ranked among the greatest movies of all time). His portrayal of Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life was especially praised. (He actually stayed in character throughout the weeks of filming, even when off-set!) He also played Israeli Hershel Vilnofsky in Victory at Entebbe, the first film about the famous rescue operation. All in all, Douglas starred in nearly 100 films, acted on Broadway, and made appearances in numerous TV shows. He also wrote 11 books, had his own film production company, and directed a number of films, too. Outside of Hollywood, Douglas was a noted philanthropist. He was an American goodwill ambassador for decades, donated some $50 million over his life to schools, hospitals, synagogues, and charities, and promised to leave most of his remaining $80 million net worth to charity as well. After a helicopter crash in 1991, he sought new meaning in life and rediscovered Judaism. He would write in his autobiography that while he once “tried to forget” that he was Jewish (though he never broke a Yom Kippur fast), he later realized “that you don’t have to be a rabbi to be a Jew.” Douglas became more observant, and had a second bar mitzvah at the age of 83. He studied Torah weekly with Rabbi David Wolpe. Douglas was also actively engaged with Aish HaTorah of Los Angeles, and helped support the Aish World Center across from the Western Wall in Jerusalem (the building’s Kirk Douglas Theater is named after him, as is Jerusalem’s Douglas Garden). Among his many awards are the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the French Legion of Honour, the National Medal of Arts, the King David Award, two Golden Globes and, of course, an Oscar for lifetime achievement. Sadly, Kirk Douglas passed away earlier today, aged 103. He is remembered as a film genius (who memorized not only his own lines, but seemingly every word of the entire script), a dedicated philanthropist, and one of the greatest actors of all time.

Words of the Week

The Torah is the greatest screenplay ever written.
– Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, with Aish founder Rabbi Noah Weinberg on his left.