Jewish Heritage Month: Geeky Jewish Women
Written by GeekGirlCon Manager of Editorial Services Winter Downs.
Whether acknowledged or not, Jewish people were instrumental in shaping 20th Century US culture and scientific advancement. As a person of Jewish heritage myself, I am always excited to find out that someone I admire is Jewish, but oftentimes I don’t know that information unless I specifically go looking. It seems that Jewishness is often subsumed into other ethnic identities–and of course there are the thousands of non-practicing Jews (like me) who feel some degree of connection to our Jewish heritage, but that might not be obvious in our day to day life.
Since May is Jewish Heritage Month, this seems like a good time to highlight Jewish people’s contributions to US culture
There have been many prominent Jews in areas of geeky interest–most notably in science and geeky literature (sci-fi, comic books, etc). Many pioneering Jewish scientists fled to the US before or during WWII, and their work laid the foundation for the profusion of work in the fields of theoretical physics and space exploration in the decades that followed. The most famous was of course Albert Einstein, but after he fled Germany in 1933 he worked alongside so many fellow Jews that he wrote, “In my whole life I have never felt so Jewish as now.”
Religion and science are often spoken of as incompatible, but many Jewish scientists do not see it as a contradiction. A good read on this topic is Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman’s op-ed in the Huffington Post about why his experience of Judaism is that “it embraces science quite easily.” Much of that boils down to the fact that the rabbinical tradition encourages questioning and re-interpretation. It’s no wonder that people steeped in that culture should come naturally to the scientific method.
Meanwhile, in the world of literature the science fiction pioneer Isaac Asimov began writing short stories in 1939, later going on to write I, Robot, the Foundation series, and many other major novels. His ideas about robots–including the Three Laws of Robotics–continue to influence writing on artificial intelligence to this day.
Many comics creators of the mid-20th century, such as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Will Eisner, were also Jewish, and Jewish themes found their way into their work. The X-Men, in particular, have been interpreted as standing in for many marginalized communities, including Jews. Sometimes it isn’t even subtext; the character of Magneto is a Holocaust survivor.
(Side note: in researching this article, I came across the book Up, Up, and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero, by Simcha Weinstein, which I am putting on my reading list for the title alone.)
But enough about these famous men. Let’s talk about some geeky Jewish women whose ideas and work have been significant!
Astronomer Vera Rubin was born 1928 in Pennsylvania. She is most known for her observation that galaxies were rotating at such a rate that, according to the understanding of scientists at the time, they should have flown apart. They were not flying apart–a fact that led Rubin to conclude that they must contain much more matter than could be observed, thus exerting a greater gravitational pull and keeping them together. This invisible matter became known as dark matter, and is believed to account for most of the matter in the universe.
Like many Jewish scientists, Rubin sees no contradiction between her vocation and her faith.
“In my own life, my science and my religion are separate. I’m Jewish, and so religion to me is a kind of moral code and a kind of history. I try to do my science in a moral way, and, I believe that, ideally, science should be looked upon as something that helps us understand our role in the universe.”
– Vera Rubin, in the National Catholic Register, upon accepting an appointment to the Pontifical Science Academy
Rubin is also noted for having been a champion of women in the sciences. After struggling for years to gain acceptance and credibility in scientific circles herself, she lobbied for more women in the National Academy of Sciences, on review panels, and in academic searches. She eventually grew frustrated and disillusioned with the fight, which, though female scientists were making headway, was much slower and more plagued with setbacks than she would have liked.
Speaking of female Jewish scientists, if like me you live on social media, you’ve probably seen the following graphic:
(Image shows photographs of three women, under the title “Actress Scientist.” The captions read, “Hedy Lamarr: Inventor of frequency hopping spread spectrum, a technology still used for bluetooth and Wi-Fi,” “Natalie Portman: Invented a simple method to demonstrate the enzymatic production of hydrogen from sugar,” and “Mayim Bialik: Earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience, specializing in obsessive-compulsive disorder in adolescents with Prader-Willi syndrome.”)
This is usually presented in a context of women’s empowerment (and sometimes the three are pictured alongside other female actors who’ve had notable scientific achievements), but what it doesn’t tell you is that all three are Jewish, or of Jewish heritage.
A star of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Hedy Lamarr herself was not Jewish; her mother came from the “Jewish haute bourgeoisie” but later converted to Catholicism. During WWII, Lamarr was told that her best contribution to the war effort would be to use her celebrity to sell war bonds, but she preferred to use her scientific knowledge instead.
Her original patent, a frequency-hopping technology to avoid torpedo jamming systems, was filed in 1942, but it was not adopted by the Navy until 1962. It’s a pattern for female inventors and scientists not to receive much recognition for their work, and Lamarr was not honored for her invention until 1997–55 years after the patent was originally filed.
Both Natalie Portman and Mayim Bialik are of extra geeky interest, thanks to their starring roles in geek favorites like Star Wars and Thor (Portman), and The Big Bang Theory (Bialik).
Portman is well-known enough to need no introduction, but what I did not know until recently is that she is both Israeli-born, and a Harvard-educated psychologist who has authored multiple papers in scientific journals.
Bialik is a real-life neuroscientist, and also plays one–the socially awkward Amy Farrah-Fowler–on TV. However I, and probably many other 90s teens, remember her best as Blossom.
Bialik is an observant Jew (meaning that she observes Jewish religious practices), who describes herself as “Modern Orthodox” and has made appearances in a series of educational YouTube videos about Judaism and the Torah. (Unfortunately, in a great case of Your Fave is Problematic, she is also a Zionist who supports Israeli expansionism.)
One thing I’m dissatisfied with, in writing this article, is how few Jewish people of color are well-known. Most Jewish people who are famous in the US are of Ashkenazi (Central and Eastern European) heritage. If I were starting my research again, I’d probably set out with that in mind and try to hunt down some lesser-known names.
Who’s your favorite notable geeky Jewish woman? Let us know in the comments–especially if they’re a woman of color or otherwise non-Ashkenazi!