The Apple Doesn't Fall Far From the Cedar Tree

Prof. Haim Cedar explains his field of genetic research by means of terms used by the Talmud researchers portrayed in the Academy Award-nominated film made by his son, Joseph Cedar: text and footnotes.

It’s life imitating art. A Haaretz reporter who comes to interview Prof. Howard (Haim) Cedar ends up playing a role similar to one in a film directed by the interviewee’s son: Like Noa − the Haaretz Magazine correspondent portrayed by actress Yuval Scharf in Joseph Cedar’s film “Footnote” − I too know absolutely nothing about my interviewee’s field of specialization. Like Scharf’s character, I too try to keep up with what the interviewee says and pray he won’t be irritated by the questions being asked by a reporter who is wasting his precious time.

My real-life interviewee is also asked about his relationship with his son. Whereas the father figure in “Footnote,” Prof. Eliezer Shkolnik, is dismissive when the reporter asks about him about his son’s work − the elder Cedar “deviates” from the script: He speaks admiringly about his filmmaker-son’s work.

Haim CedarEmil Salman

One doesn’t need to be a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities to see the resemblance between Prof. Cedar and the fictional Prof. Shkolnik, played by Shlomo Bar-Aba in “Footnote.” Eliezer Shkolnik is a meticulous Talmud researcher who walks to the National Library in

Jerusalem every day. Cedar, a leading biochemist and genetics researcher, rides his bike every day from his home in the German Colony to the Hebrew University Medical School at the Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Karem.

The phone call in which the elder Shkolnik receives word he has won the Israel Prize is the turning point that propels the plot of the film. Cedar has actually already won the Israel Prize. Unlike Shkolnik’s son in the film, Joseph Cedar has not followed in his father’s academic footsteps; however, both sons are open to different worlds and both seek the public’s affection.

Prof. Cedar denies any likeness to Shkolnik − “there’s no connection,” he says − and indeed, the comparison does him an injustice. Unlike the cinematic scholar, this professor does not engage in Sisyphean and esoteric research. His studies constitute a basis for the modern understanding of genetics and the fight against cancer. And in contrast to Shkolnik, Cedar’s work has won extensive scientific recognition: Together with his partner, Prof. Aharon Razin, he has been mentioned as a candidate for a Nobel Prize. In addition to the Israel Prize for biology, which he was awarded in 1999, he has also won the Wolf Prize in Medicine, the Canada Gairdner Award, and Israel’s Emet Prize in the field of Life Sciences.

Another important difference is that Cedar, like the younger scholar in “Footnote,” Uriel Shkolnik, invests great effort in bringing his research to the general public. In recent years he has been teaching a course in molecular biology for humanities students at Hebrew University. He is also currently participating in a university project designed to bring academia and the public closer, called “Professor in Slippers.” Furthermore, in his own home, Cedar hosts a not-for-credit course, entitled “Life’s Footnote.” In this lecture series he tries to explain his scientific work by means of terms used by the Talmud researchers in the film directed by his son: “text” and “footnotes.”

Cedar: “In every cell of our body there is a text, which has come from our parents. This is DNA, chemical material that is built of letters. The DNA is a language of four letters. Every three letters are a word, and the words create sentences, chapters and volumes. Every volume is a chromosome,” explains Cedar. “If you take a liver cell and you take a blood cell − both contain exactly the same text, but look different; their color is different and they behave differently. Thirty years ago we asked how the cell ‘knows’ what it must and must not ‘read’ from this text, and what the mechanism  is that tells it how to do this.”

Cedar and Razin subsequently discovered methylation, a kind of mechanism that marks the DNA and prevents activation of part of it. Specifically, methylation is a chemical process in which a methyl group (one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms) is absorbed into a certain part of the DNA and paralyzes its activity.

“Take, for example, the iris of the eye. A protein is produced there that determines its color,” Cedar explains. “Mine is brown. The genetic sentence that determines the color of the eye is located in all my cells, but everywhere except for in the iris it has been methylized – that is, a methyl group has been attached to the DNA, preventing the manifestation of the protein. In the iris, this ‘sentence’ has not undergone methylization. Methylization is not a change in the genetic text, but rather in what the text has on or around it. It is like the cantillation marks in a [biblical] text or footnotes.”

Cedar and Razin discovered this mechanism decades ago and worked for many years to convince the scientific community of the importance of their research. In fact, their findings have changed the field of genetics. Today, for example, studies are being done that focus on development of a cure for cancer based on methylization. It turns out that most of the changes in cancerous cells are not in the DNA, but rather in the methylization process. “There is very promising potential here,” says Cedar.

Outside the hall

Haim Cedar, who was born in the united States in 1943, immigrated to

Israel a month before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and ever since has been at Hebrew University. A few months ago he retired from teaching and has been focusing on his methylization research.

In the corridor leading to his Ein Karem office, among numerous refrigerators and piles of lab equipment, hang posters of his son’s films: “Time of Favor” (Ha-Hesder), “Campfire,” “Beaufort” and “Footnote.” Cedar has twice accompanied his son to the U.S for the Academy Awards ceremony − and twice remained outside the hall, which is what happened in February.

“Last time [when “Beaufort” was nominated for an Oscar, in 2008] I had the idea of talking to some doctors [to arrange a ticket]. I found one who had a patient who had once been president of the Film Academy. The patient was too ill and could not come to the ceremony, so we got one ticket and I gave it to my wife. This time, nothing we did helped. We put everyone to work. We talked to Nobel Prize winners I know, we tried Shimon Peres, [producer] Arnon Milchan − everyone. Usually, when you call people who have connections, they answer in accordance with what they think of themselves. They first say: ‘Give me a day or two, I’ll arrange it for you.’ After two days, there’s a call: ‘I’ll get it for you, but it will be a bit harder.’ A week later they say something along the lines of: ‘I can’t understand it, it’s impossible to get a ticket.”’

Joseph Cedar’s parents thus watched the recent Oscars ceremony at the Israeli Consulate in New York. “It was very tense, there were a lot of loving people there. I felt how Israel wanted him to get it. It was amazing,” says Prof. Cedar, who adds that he was not disappointed when it turned out his son’s film had lost to the Iranian film “A Separation.” “I thought about how of the 5,000 people who were in the auditorium, 80 percent leave disappointed. Now we will all benefit from this, because he has an incentive to make an even better film.”

Prof. Haim Cedar is slightly built and looks younger than his age. Perhaps this is connected to the fact that,

according to his calculations, he has in his lifetime bicycled the equivalent of six circumnavigations of the globe. He has covered most of this distance by riding to Ein

Karem from his home over the course of nearly 40 years. Indeed, Cedar is famous in the community of cyclists in Jerusalem. Some people say he rides his bike even in the rain and the snow, but he denies this: “I never leave with my bike if it is raining, but sometimes it starts to rain on the way.”

However, in the same breath, he says that if he has to go to the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, in most cases he prefers to go by bike − which takes about two hours.

 In summary, on the subject of art versus life, and father-son relations, Cedar says: “There’s no connection between the father and the son in ‘Footnote’ and the relationship between us. I think there’s something special in our relationship. Each of us talks to the other about his field, but at a basic level. So basic that what I do connects with what Joseph does. If you’re not thinking about methylization and he’s not thinking about how a character or how the filming will look − in the end there’s a connection. ‘Good’ isn’t the word for it: Ours is a very deep connection.”