The Arty Semite

Misdiagnosing a Russian Jewish Mathematician

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
Artwork by Antonio Guzmán. Click for larger view.

The highly eccentric, reclusive 43-year-old Russian Jewish mathematician Grigori Perelman devised proofs for a number of important problems, most famously the Poincaré Conjecture, a longstanding topology puzzler, only to abandon mathematics just as fame and prizes exploded around him.

To write about this curious character, the publishers of a recent book, “Perfect Rigor: a Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century,” were fortunate to get the Russian Jewish journalist Masha Gessen, who has a strong track record as a gay rights advocate and whose books also focus on her Jewish background. Gessen’s “Two Babushkas: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace” is a telling account of how her family negotiated Soviet antisemitism, while “Blood Matters: From Inherited Illness to Designer Babies, How the World and I Found Ourselves in the Future of the Gene” describes issues relating to Gessen’s discovery that she has the genetic mutation which predisposes Ashkenazic Jewish women to breast cancer.

Reflecting Gessen’s expertise, “Perfect Rigor” includes informed statements about the Russian antisemitism of Perelman’s Leningrad boyhood:

For a Jewish adolescent who was exceptionally gifted in mathematics, there were only three available college strategies: choose a college other than Leningrad University, with less discriminatory admissions policies; bank on being one of only two Jews accepted in a given year; or become a member of the Soviet team at the International Mathematical Olympiad.

Yet despite her inarguable knowledge of minority oppression in Russia today, Gessen is at a loss to fully understand Perelman, who is so unworldly that he claims he never encountered antisemitism in Russia. Perelman is so like Prince Myshkin, the hero of Dostoyevsky’s “Idiot,” that he is closer to a Russian Jewish version of a “yurodivy” than to a typical modern mathematician. Instead of accepting this very Russian identity, Gessen fruitlessly consults the UK autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen (Sacha’s cousin), who cheerily diagnoses Perelman, whom he has never met, as a sufferer of Asperger syndrome.

As the bilingual, media-savvy Gessen (her brother is Keith (né Kostya) Gessen, editor of the literary journal “n+1”) surely understands, being turned into a celebrity, as Perelman was, by a belligerently muckraking 2006 New Yorker article would turn many people into recluses. Despite any Asperger’s aspersions, Perelman may just be a Yiddishe kop pressured past the point of endurance.

See an explanation of Perelman’s famous proof of the “Poincaré Conjecture” here, and author Masha Gessen on English-language Russian TV discussing same-sex marriage here.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Masha Gessen, Grigori Perelman, Mathematics

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.