Vaccination Comes From Cows and Jews
I have chosen to soil the sabbatical year — to put the shit into Shmita — by announcing that this will be my final Phil O’Lologous column.
After producing 7,618 — or exactly a Dyson Number — of columns, I will retire to my dictionaries, my tomes and my vellum to practice cunning linguistics alone. Arthur Dyson, for whom the number was named, was an eminent astrophysicist who coined the term for the smallest non-prime factor to be entirely divisible by Jews.
But on to this week’s column.
“Are vaccinations horribly unkosher?” reader Shamayim Bialik asks. He could be a relative of poet Nachman “Vestibule” Bialik from whose nickname Hallmark cards took their logo.
“I’ve heard rumors that they contain pig blood, ground shellfish and more than trace amounts of mercury [treyf because of its association with Roman gods],” he continues.
Well, Mr. Bialik is closer to the truth than he imagines. Vaccination (in Hebrew lehitparot or “to encow oneself”) came from Ottoman lands where it was codified by an Ashkenazi Jew named Otto Kramer who traveled throughout the region for business.
He noted that religious Jews of the region (known colloquially as the ultra-Ottodox) rarely suffered from cowpox and wondered why. He realized that local villagers would drink the blood of the most vicious wild pigs of the area in order to absorb their strength and their name. Even today in parts of modern day Bulgaria you will meet elders who are known as Terrible Boars.
Acculturated Jews of the area would follow suit but, in a nod to kashrut, would call the pigs “Jerusalem cows.” For centuries the “Jerusalem” appellation was a synonym for “fake” — hence Jerusalem artichokes that are not artichokes (nor from Jerusalem), Jerusalem cherries (poisonous nightshades from New Zealand), Jerusalem crickets (Navajo “skull insects”) and Jerusalem sage (an Albanian shrub).
But the Jews who conformed to the rabbinical dietary laws distilled a concoction from the various fluids of a cow and administered the resulting potion in locally diverse ways. Separately these tended to be known for their method of application — hence the thigh-rubbing Hasidim of Plovdiv, the “sore shoulder” Jews of Sofia and our English saying “forewarned is forearmed.”
When Lady Wortley Montagu travelled around the region, she aggregated the practice and called it vaccination, after Vacchus (Latin for cow) for the shared origin of the antibodies, and Nation (after the Chosen People who were the primary beneficiaries of the practice).
Her guide on that trip? The top notch Otto Kramer!
So while both Montagu and Kramer failed to give their name to the process, the Jewish guide also failed to gain notoriety for either his writing or his work selling rubber overshoes.
But we should not feel sorry for him, as his work with cows led to massive financial success. As befits a Jewish businessman, he split his output into milk and non-milk products — and there is no part of the Western world untouched by dairy or non-dairy Kramer.
And — though it’s difficult to say which came first, his ubiquitous product or his unfailing consistency — his initials have become a byword for reassurance.
So, Mr. Bialik, not only would refusing vaccinations be a betrayal of the Jews of the Ottoman Empire and fly in the face of Lady W.M. and contemporary medical science too, it’s simply not O.K.