How Do You Say "E Equals MC Squared" in Yiddish? Thursday, December 6, 2007
Tel Aviv University rescues a lost world of science and scholarship
A page, in Yiddish, from Albert Einstein's instroduction to a 1927 book on the theory of relativity by Tuvia Shalit.
A page from Tuvia Shalit's 1927 book in the Yiddish language explaining the theory of relativity.
Yiddish has been called a language of “secrets,” spoken by grandparents of eastern and central European descent. It brings to mind nostalgia and sentimentality. But Yiddish, Tel Aviv University researchers revealed recently, was also used in a surprisingly cerebral way by 20th-century academics and scholars in the field of science including the father of the relativity theory himself, Albert Einstein.
A new collection of essays on this topic and translations of long-forgotten texts were presented recently at a symposium, “Science and Scholarship in Yiddish,” at Tel Aviv University. Among the texts was Jewish mathematician and physicist Tuvia Shalit’s 1927 book on the theory of relativity, for which Einstein wrote a short introduction.
The event celebrated the publishing of these texts in a special issue of Science in Context, a journal edited by Tel Aviv University’s Cohn Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas and published by Cambridge University Press.
Prof. Leo Corry, head of the Cohn Institute, says, "There has been skepticism about the combination of these two worlds of science and Yiddish. But the idea behind the journal is that science, while it embodies universal values and pursues universal truths, is always produced and transmitted in local, historically and culturally defined contexts. It is the task of the historian of science to identify and describe such contexts and to explain their development. The Yiddish culture offers a context for science that has never been properly investigated."
Scientists and scholars working in Yiddish emerged for only a brief period, beginning in the late 19th century and ending at the start of World War II. The movement was supported by university departments and flourished following the Russian Revolution, especially in countries such as the Ukraine and Belorussia. Some scholars imagined that Yiddish would one day become the official language used by Jewish scientists.
Tragically, the growth of language (spoken by about 11 million Jews), along with its scholarship, was brutally cut short by the Holocaust.
Today, Yiddish is seeing a revival, but the language continues to be sentimentalized, explains Prof. Hana Wirth-Nesher, the director of the Goldreich Family Institute for Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture, a co-sponsor of the symposium.
She says, “What makes this issue of Science in Context so special is that, by yoking the words 'Science' (in its broad sense of scholarship or wissenschaft) and 'Yiddish,' it challenges assumptions that are ingrained in collective memory of Yiddish, namely that it is essentially a folksy homespun language, a mamaloshn either steeped in pathos or inherently comic, and removed from the serious business of intellectual and scholarly endeavor. History tells us otherwise.”
Avraham Goldreich, who represented the Goldreich Family at the event, acknowledges that his childhood language, which he spoke in Galicia, Poland, has been seeing a revival in recent years.
“Yiddish is a good language. One word can explain everything,” says Goldreich.
The symposium was jointly sponsored by the Goldreich Family Institute and the Cohn Institute, both located at Tel Aviv University.