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!
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "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:
  • 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.