E=mc2 Sounded Better in Yiddish

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

"Science and Scholarship in Yiddish" will be the topic of a symposium to be held today at Tel Aviv University.

"We picked a subject that people don't even know existed," Professor Leo Corry, head of the Cohn Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, which is jointly sponsoring the symposium together with the Goldreich Family Institute for Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture.

The symposium marks the publication of a special issue of the journal Science in Context, edited at the Cohn Institute in Tel Aviv and published by Cambridge University Press. The journal contains essays by leading scholars in a field that rescues from oblivion a variety of scientific works published in Yiddish.

Science in Yiddish is a vast and complex topic located at a unique crossroads between the history of science and the history of Jewish cultural life in Eastern Europe from late 19th century to the outbreak of World War II. But unlike Yiddish literature, Yiddish language and other phenomena of Jewish culture in Europe, the heritage of science and scholarship in Yiddish experienced neither an academic nor a public revival in recent decades.

Rabbinic relativity

A example of the phenomenon can found in a 1927 book by the Jewish mathematician and physicist Tuvya Shalit: "A rabbi was sitting in a train one Friday afternoon. The train breaks down and he's afraid he will desecrate the Sabbath. He starts praying 'God, please don't let me desecrate the Sabbath. Then, a miracle happens: Sabbath comes in to the right of the train, Sabbath comes in to the left of the train, but inside the train, it's still yesterday.' Over the years this joke made the rounds in Eastern European communities. But Shalit's book, to which Albert Einstein wrote a short introduction, presented it in his book as an example of Einstein's theory of relativity.

Shalit's book was one of a number of scientific works written in the last century by Jews who wanted to transform Yiddish into the language of science for Europe's Jews. Shalit's work, the reception of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis in the Argentinean journal Davke, the work of the social scientist Jacob Lestchinsky, and others are all presented in the special issue of Science in Context.

At home in Russia

Following the Russian revolution, university Yiddish departments flourished and were state- supported in Ukraine and Belorussia; research in history, philology, ethnography, demography and more were published in Yiddish.

But paradoxically, such research was meant to transform traditional Jewish identity into a secular, socialist, Jewish identity cut off from its religious and Hebrew roots.

The movement ended in the early 1930s when hard-line Sovietization of social, cultural, and scholarly organizations became the norm. Another chapter of science-building in Yiddish was epitomized by YIVO, founded in 1925 and headquartered in Vilna.

It functioned until the invasion of Lithuania by the German Army, and one of its key projects was the standardization of Yiddish scientific nomenclature.