Wonder Upon Wonder

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published February 25, 2009, issue of March 06, 2009.
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Here are some reasons, even in these gloomy times, to feel good.

In Haifa, there’s a man named Hossam Haick. He’s all of 33 years old, and he is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Chemical Engineering at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Last September, he was honored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review, which named him one of 35 young scientists from around the world noteworthy “for achievements which have dramatic ramifications on the world as we know it.”

His distinctive achievement is the development of an electronic device based on nanometer-sized sensors that is essentially an artificial olfactory system which can detect cancer from the breath of the patient — an electronic nose. You exhale on the nose, and you learn whether you have cancer, even at a very early stage, before the tumor has actually formed. You’ll know the result within two or three minutes, and you’ll even know whether the cancer is in your lungs, colon or breast. (As lab work progresses, the goal is to add further discriminatory power.) Detected so early, the successful treatment rate from the detected cancers may be four or five times current rates.

The achievement would be worth noting on its own merits. But there are a couple of elements that make it still more enticing. First, Haick’s lab, the recipient of a $2.2 million grant from the European Union (the largest E.U. grant ever awarded an Israeli scientist) now employs 20 scientists and researchers from Germany, Singapore, China, India, Russia and, of course, Israel. The Israelis include Muslim and Christian Arabs, Russian immigrants and sabras. Science is an international language.

Second, Haick is himself a Catholic, born and raised in Nazareth. He could easily have stayed in the United States, where he did post-doctoral work at Caltech, but he chose to return to Israel because he believes that science has a kind of unifying power that can bring people from different religions and nationalities together in one place, working with each other and understanding each other.”

But before being carried away by what may be utopian possibilities, it is worth noting that Haick is one of only a handful of Israeli Arabs to hold a full-time senior position at an Israeli university. Utopia may be very far away; gains in equality of services and opportunity for Israeli Arabs are a more imminent goal, a function of political will.

Language: Having sung the praises of science as a transnational language, let me turn to as non-transnational a language as there is, a language that is not only not transnational but not even national. I refer here to Yiddish.

Science is glitzy; Yiddish is heymish, homespun. But the number of homes where it is spun has, of course, been declining. For almost all practical purposes, Yiddish has become a language for certain Haredi communities here and in Israel, no longer available as a lingua franca uniting Ashkenazic Jews across national linguistic boundaries let alone as the core of a folk culture.

For almost all practical purposes, but not quite all. These days, there is a mild — but fascinating — rebirth of Yiddish in New York with Yugntruf and in Los Angeles with Yiddishkayt, quite independent of Haredi Judaism.

Take Yugntruf. Yugntruf (“call to youth” in Yiddish) says it “cultivates the active use of the Yiddish language among today’s youth here and abroad by creating opportunities for Yiddish learning and immersion, and by providing resources and support for Yiddish speakers and families.” Estimates of the number of people involved in Yugntruf range from several hundred to about a thousand, hardly enough to call it a movement but more than enough to sustain a sense of camaraderie — or, more appropriately, khavershaft.

My hunch is that some part of the re-awakening reflects an effort to define a Jewish culture that does not revolve so centrally around Israel as Jewish institutions typically do. But whatever the motive, the phenomenon persists, with some young parents determined to speak only Yiddish to their children, dozens of families connecting at Yiddish salons and, come summer, Yiddish Voch, an annual week-long retreat in the Berkshires that draws some 150 people.

Who are these people?

The board chair, Meena-Lifshe Viswanath, is an undergraduate at MIT studying civil engineering.

There’s Leizer Burko, board secretary, whose B.A. at New York University was in Renaissance studies, where he was interested especially in Germanic philology; afterward he received an M.A. in Germanic studies (medieval Germanic languages) from the University of Minnesota, and now he’s working on his doctorate at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He knows Yiddish both from the YIVO Summer Program and from the Forverts, where he worked for three years as a typist and editorial assistant.

There’s Abby Miller, who learned to speak Yiddish in college at the University of Texas at Austin(!), interned at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., studied at the YIVO Yiddish program in 2002 and now teaches deaf students with special needs in Framingham, Mass.

And Jordan Kutzik, who studied Yiddish at Gratz College and at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University in Lithuania; he’s a sophomore at Rutgers, majoring in Spanish and linguistics with special interests in childhood bilingualism and Yiddish.

And then there’s Daneel Schaechter, currently in his senior year at New York’s Hunter College High School, who after a gap year in Israel hopes to attend the University of Pennsylvania, sing in their Jewish a capella group, The Shabbatones, and race on their cycling team.

Vunder iber vunder hot mit undz getrofn; wonder upon wonder has happened, is happening, to us. Un mir zaynen ale shvester, ale brider; we are all sisters and brothers. All.


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