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!
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • 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.