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Interview of I. I. Rabi by Stephen White on 1980 February 11,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Family background and early childhood; religion; early interest in science; learning Copernican theory; Manual Training high school; Cornell University undergraduate (1915-1919); Student Army Training Corps (1917-1919); tutoring at City College; National Research Council Fellowship (1927), travel to Europe; met Linus Pauling, Arnold Sommerfeld, Edward Condon, Howard Percy Robertson, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Edwin Schrodinger, Hans Bethe, Rudolf Peierls, Otto Stern; Columbia University lecturer; physics research at Columbia University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1940- ).
I want to start by asking, you came over to this country as an infant, is that right?
I’m not sure how old I was. I was more than one year old because I could talk distinctly, at least people said I talked distinctly.
Something like two?
Somewheres of that sort, perhaps two, one or two. It was before 1900. I don’t really know.
You were born in July, 1898.
What was the reason for the immigration?
Oh, my father had no job.
As simple as that?
As simple as that, and so he managed to get a ticket, passage to come over. He was a very young man and he had no skills and no job.
No skills at all?
No skills at all.
There was no question of avoiding the conscription?
No, no, no, he’d been through that, that’s a remarkable story in itself, how my father avoided this, but he’d been through that, he wasn’t avoiding it. He’d been rejected and he came over because there was no way of making a living there. He came over and a year later he was able to send for my mother and myself.
What do you mean when you say he had no skills? That’s really unusual when you come right down to it. Had he been a farmer, or…
He was the last of nine sons and there was no money for education of any sort. He had no skills, he’d been apprenticed more or less to a farmer, something like that. I really don’t know just how he managed to acquire no skills, but there were no jobs, I mean, something that’s not unknown in this country. When he came, he had no skills, he could have been a manual laborer and so on, except it wasn’t in the cards, but he… simple jobs, he worked in a coal cellar, things of that sort, then he worked in a sweat shop, lifting and carrying, but later in the sweat shop, after a short time…
You mean textiles?
Was nothing technical in that, it was…
No, I said “textile.” Working in the garment industry.
Textile, yeah. They specialized to such an extent that what he did was to sew sleeves into a waist, a shirt waist, that had a Yiddish name, a “slievbamfer,” and that’s what it was, this was his job.
Let me ask you also about that, you never saw that town yourself until you were in your seventies.
Your native town, until you were in your seventies or so.
Yeah, until about seventy-five.
I remember you told me about this. You say he sent for you and your mother. You have a sister.
Oh, she was born here. Five years younger.
That’s the family, huh? Where did you live then? When you first remember, I mean.
Well, I first remember distinctly it was on Willit Street, I think number 97 Willit Street, which was a street between Houston Street and Rivington Street on the lower east side.
Not only Jewish, hut a specific kind of Jew, from Grecian Jews. That settled that way in neighborhoods at this time, mostly Grecian Jews, and we had a two room flat which had no toilet, the toilet was downstairs in back, one of those things that had on the lower east side. Land must have been very expensive or something. They had two houses on the same lot; they had a front house…
How tall was it?
Oh, five or six.
Yes, but this is raising it to higher distinction than it had… a front room, and a bedroom, an airless bedroom that had no window to the outside but to the hall, and the front room was, had the stove, it was the front room, the kitchen, the living room, it was everything, and the small bedroom, and the toilet was in the back, and there was another house in the rear, and this was on the first floor, practically on the street, and there we were. It was a very lively place, the streets… when I went through Harlem recently, I realized it was practically the same thing where I was, a lot of kids around on the street.
You couldn’t really live that much time indoors.
Well, yeah, it wasn’t much room. In this particular environment we had not only my father, my mother, myself and my sister, but two boarders. And I don’t remember if it was how we lived, I didn’t know as a kid, feeling sorry or anything, it was…
You were six people in a two room flat.
It was really a one room flat with no toilet and just, the small bedroom was an adjunct to it, it was hardly more than the bed.
Where did six people sleep?
God knows if I remember!
Somewhere. Did you feel you think you were poor? Well, looking back on it now, do you think you were poor? Did you go without meals?
We did have meals. Meat was something like lung.
What the British call “offal.”
The poverty really hit insomuch as my father was out of work. That there was no money coming in.
Small, I don’t know I don’t remember quite… and there was no money coming in, so one felt rather poor. I didn’t think of it this way, but poverty in that sense, everybody was, it was a condition in which people lived and that’s all there is to it, and I didn’t feel the sense of, you feel poor, I think, when you’re envious of somebody else, and I didn’t have any feeling of being envious. I didn’t feel so terribly deprived, I did have, somehow or other, at some point acquired (of course I was old) a tricycle and I had a little boat.
A little boat?
One of those little things you put on the pond, in the park, that sort of thing, there was always the sort of conversation that was fascinating to listen to, I could always read Yiddish, long before I could read English, when I went to school, and I read a lot, and that sort of thing just came, and conversation was always interesting, lively.
In Yiddish. Yiddish was my native language, although I don’t remember when I learned to speak English, I don’t remember at all, except for one incident I asked another boy, how do you say “sukima?” in English, and he said “sugar.” This is all I remember.
You must have learned in school…
No, no, no, not in school.
Oh, you knew it before you went to school?
Oh, long before, that’s right, that’s right, I know I learned to speak.
That’s odd, that’s in the community (inaudible). So the young people learned to speak English.
Oh yes, it’s very different from what you see. The Puerto Ricans now speak Spanish with one another. No, we spoke English to one another. It may have been with a strong accent, but it was not in the Yiddish accent so much, it was an east side accent.
But in the home it was nothing but Yiddish.
Home was nothing but Yiddish.
Did your parents speak English? Ultimately?
Ultimately, but not well.
Never well, no, no, because I said, not people of education and my mother had to… she made money for the whole family, she was the skillful one and…
Well, my grandfather, my paternal grandfather, had a special profession, had to be very holy to do it, but he made the silver collar decoration on the prayer shawl, on the talis, and a customer would come, and give some money, they would buy the silver, and they would leave it, and so on, and my mother did it, she did the weaving, she was the skillful one, and then they’d have some money, they’d buy bread. An extremely poor family because she was one of thirteen, as my father was.
Good lord. A lot of aunts and uncles.
A lot of aunts and uncles, except on my father’s side I didn’t see any of them because my father was the only one that emigrated.
That’s what I was about to ask. How about your mother’s side?
My mother’s side, there were a lot of very voluble people and so on, and my father was a rather silent man. A very fine person, a marvelous person. He was a character. And I think the fact that he was not voluble, that he had no skills, he was the only one that broke out of the system, had a business of his own, a grocery store and so on. He left the shop.
In a sense this is very interesting to me. My father must have been very much contemporary with yours, because I was born when he was in his late thirties.
Let’s see, my father wasn’t born about…
Let me put it this way, my brother’s your age, my oldest brother’s exactly your age. Yet in our family there was absolutely no Yiddish ever spoken. There were three languages spoken: German, Hungarian and English. But the language in the family was all English and Hungarian and German (inaudible)…
As you remember it!
That’s true, they had been different (inaudible).
They had been different than we are. When you came along…
The (inaudible) predominates (inaudible).
You would have a ten or fifteen year difference between you and your brother.
Fifteen years (inaudible). Maybe where they lived, they didn’t live in this concentrated…
Never when I was alive. Whether they did earlier or not…
And my father’s grocery store, they spoke Yiddish to his customers. Jewish neighborhood and so this was very natural. He’d have enough English to transact…
Well, it’s very funny because when I was young we lived in a - when I was very young — we lived in a largely Jewish area, not the way you describe, not a hundred percent Jewish, but largely Jewish, and yet — Yiddish was spoken — but my family never spoke it. My father refused; my mother and father thought there was something very degrading about speaking Yiddish, a degraded (inaudible).
Well, that, it all depends on where she came from.
Both came from Hungary. She came from Budapest.
Oh, I see, that’s different. My father came from a village, really, a small village and my mother in this town in which I lived when I was born, but it was a small town, and it was basically the peasants around spoke Polish. And that was the reason where people spoke Polish, the Jews spoke Yiddish.
Spoke Yiddish, yeah.
They couldn’t understand Polish, they could speak some… the Jews spoke Yiddish. And it’s a noble language of its kind, it’s very special, and I…
So Singer says.
Yeah, but it is, it has certain qualities, I don’t think it’s something you should do mathematics or science, but it’s something that does express the richness or the (inaudible) from both emotions and physical feelings, pains and so on, but the doctors have told me when they get a Yiddish speaking woman and they ask her what’s her trouble, she will tell you…
She’ll tell you.
Not just I feel badly but (inaudible) she will describe the pain - the language is full of adjectives which give you accurate descriptions of…
I want to ask you particularly, really what I most really want to talk to you about is religion in your childhood, as you told me your parents were extremely religious. I’m curious to know whether looking back on it now with the vantage point of seventy years or so they were religious by habit or they were religious by a really religious drive, or whether that’s a silly question in terms of today.
Oh, well, it’s an awfully good question, very hard for me to answer, especially, I’d been living in that sort of environment, everybody was religious in that sense, except the people who weren’t would be pointed out, and there was something, uh, something funny about them. But the language, and the expressions that… somehow God was, if not in every sentence, certainly in every paragraph, and one lived in the sight of that, and of course the family came from a region, the foothills of Carpathians, which is really Dracula country, so the stories I’ve heard as a kid were simply hair raising, things that happened to people, encounters with… with ghosts and all sorts of horrors (inaudible) at night…
(inaudible) do they happen by chance, or were they consequences of a religious short falling or something…
Well, it’s very hard to tell. I don’t know. These were recounted as, uh…
Not stories, events that happened to A, B and C.
…and, so that… (inaudible) family.
Do you reckon any aspect of punishment about them, that’s what I’m getting at.
Punishment, no (inaudible).
They would just happen, in other words… (inaudible) pure chance.
Well, I mean, a man, let’s say, someone’s been peddling or whatnot, going through the woods at night or the roads at night, encountering beings and this sort of thing. It’s a… miracles, my godfather was one of the rather famous, one of these rabbis, wonder working rabbi, and here’s my godfather, one of the places in this town where people would come, congregate at holidays, and…
You never (inaudible).
You never knew (inaudible)… family…
No, no, no.
Well, it’s a family recollection, and he was, I say, he was my godfather, so it must have…
…said, somebody, you know, sort of thing… I seem to have heard about the synagogue, which was one of those sixteenth century wooden synagogues, which was burned down, and some other synagogue, looked like (inaudible), this sort of thing, and then these people were the disciples of this or that rabbi, my father was a disciple of another rabbi, and you'd go to him whenever you had troubles.
That was the (inaudible).
That carried over.
The one thing that really did is so striking and hard for me to talk about in this sense, is bifurcation. I became a Pole at the age of twenty.
You lost your…
Uh, created by President Wilson.
In the division.
In spite of Russia.
Not, no, no, not Russia …
What was it?
It was Austria.
Was it Austria?
Yeah, it was Austria.
So my father did not come because of any religious persecution or anything else, he just couldn’t make a living, that’s all there is to it.
As easy as that.
Yeah, it was as easy as that, and they always spoke of the Emperor Franz Josef with a certain affection, so it’s quite different from those… no, so it was different in this respect. When you ask about religion, it was a living thing.
Like (inaudible) fishes swimming.
On the other hand, there were not scholars. My father was not a scholar. He knew his prayers and other things, was very interested, and his aim in life, which he never achieved, was in time to retire and spend his last years on the synagogue with… (inaudible)… was the habit there and they gather in the afternoon and talk about the sacred scriptures, interpretations, things of that sort.
Were there any scholars in your family?
As far as I know, not. Maybe my oldest uncle was, maybe in Europe they weren’t, because something happened to my paternal grandfather, I don’t know what it is, it may have been polio, he (inaudible) hunchback. He had owned an inn and then he had to retire, and he sold off his books, taking dowries for his daughters, whatever it was, and since my father was the youngest, the money was exhausted when he came along, and he had just, yeah, no education and …
… and he was apprenticed to a farmer or something, taught him to say his prayers (inaudible) something. So it was a period…
Well, what was the religion in the home, what was it, you’ve told me enough to say it was a very fundamental or a very, (inaudible)…
Well, you said all your prayers, and at times you went to the synagogue for every occasion, and the Jewish religion is so full of events and things that you do and don’t do…
…that you, uh…
It wasn’t a ritual I was thinking of, it was, what I’m really asking about, was it a literal interpretation of Genesis, for example, it was…
Oh yes, oh yes, whatever that was, yes, very little, and it’s a temptation with that that you, that it was flat, and that, it was a Leviathan around with his tail in his mouth, and a great holiday would happen on Judgment Day, (inaudible) a big feast. All the Jews (inaudible) have a great time over it, uh…
The earth was created in six days…
Yes, that was a general punishment, somehow or other, there was talk of the afterlife, certainly, but it wasn’t so very clear, it wasn’t preached about, but a great belief in the intercession. I know when I was very sick at one time my mother, her and the women in the neighborhood went out at midnight into park nearby to pray to Mother Rachel and I recovered. It was everything that goes with a religious upbringing without theological discussion, Theological discussion came later in my life when other people came along and we really argued, socialists particularly, socialism was a very important element today because the socialists took a very strong anti — it’s not communism, socialism -
…anti-religious position and went way out of the way, as I later learned, that it was done consciously, because how could they get any kind of reception except to be negative on this, and the violent feelings, anti, but the subject would be discussed, certainly, socialism was very important. Of course, in the working class families that is a very important thing, because they were terribly exploited… long hours, and when unions came along they made an enormous difference because these working class people like my father were continually under the thumb of the foreman, afraid of losing their jobs, loss of the job was a very serious matter. When you consider what they called crisis, which around 1907 was an era when the job was really something and people talk now on having jobs with careers and don't see no end. This was (inaudible) No, no people talk about this. Most people expect careers in jobs. I think the people who have this deep discontent are normally the Blacks. Not the Blacks but the liberals who told them. They (inaudible) as if everybody is going to be president of the United States even if you didn’t see how you’d get to be there (inaudible).
You bring up something [???]. Looking back let’s say between the ages of something like five and fifteen give or take, were there any distinguished people [???] neighborhood?
You were one certainly. I really don’t know. There may have been people around then. My father wouldn’t have known them and they’d have to be a very…
I mean your contemporaries.
Oh, friend kids? I don’t remember the kids. I had friends and so on. I was a very special kid, having started to read early in Yiddish, I knew a lot of bible stories, and I could entertain them, the other boys. I was really sort of protected because I was small for my age.
I know exactly what you are talking about. I went through exactly the same thing.
A little matched up so to speak.
They probably had a name for you.
That I don't remember. They must have had one.
I don’t remember that. I should. Maybe they didn’t have…
But that’s interesting because at that age the air was that of formal story telling.
You know what stars are (inaudible) in my case. You knew bible stories, I knew…
That was a digression in any case. You told me once that you had a kind of enlightening somewhere in your early years. There was a point that you could almost identify the events that led you to question the fundamentalism that you had in your environment.
Well, the truth is, of course, I did question it. I suppose every kid does because there are so many duties and prohibitions that it has to make him question it somewhat. But, of course, it varies in grade. I did, for example, ride on the streetcar on the Sabbath and you didn’t know what’s going to happen.
You expect nothing to happen, but…
Nothing did happen. But you expect the streetcar to overturn or something.
The great thing that happened, really, and I’ve often thought that if I did a book it would be Copernicus Comes to Brooklyn. Because after having read through the whole shelf of children’s books, from Alcott on over to Trobridge, I came to the science shelf and…
Still on the children’s shelf?
Still in the children’s section, and read astronomy. When I read the Copernicus system and the explanation of the phases of the moon, the seasons, and the movement of the planets it was so beautiful and so marvelous, so simple, instead of some idea that there is some special intervention every day for the sun to come up, that I came home with this great revelation - who needs God?
How old were you, then, roughly?
I imagine I must have been about eleven — ten or eleven.
They were strictly children’s books.
The children’s shelf.
They weren’t books for the eleven year old level.
I don’t know.
I don’t think so. I can’t imagine any books about Copernican astronomy for eleven year olds. Oh, maybe so…
Somehow, that hadn’t been taught in school. Nowadays, that would have been taught in school, somehow…
Except in Tennessee or a few other places…
I never took to biological questions or this sort of thing - made no impression on me. This and electricity, which I read and then began to do experiments with things.
At home, before I went to high school. I had a radio station with stuff I made myself.
Transmitter. I’ll show you a picture… There was an electric importing company. In fact, I even published a paper.
You must be jumping ahead in years.
No, I’m still before the age of fourteen or thirteen. Here is my place — (Showing a photograph.) Here is my tuner, which I had made. Earphones I didn’t make. Here’s a better picture. This is the transmitter, you see. Spark coil and the coupler. This is an earlier version, and this is a later version, very sophisticated — and inductance over here. Here’s the detector, earphones and this must be the condenser. There’s my license.
Now look, there’s a gap here. How did you learn enough, where did you learn enough, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, to put this thing together?
Books. And then there was something called the Electric Importing Company by Hugo Gernsback and I’d read about it and there were pictures and I made these things… Gee, another kid and I had a telegraph between several blocks. To cross a block, you know, you throw a stone across a street to the other roof and pull this thing way up so the police didn’t see it.
What was the first thing you made?
All sorts of things. I tried to make model airplanes. I remember how I read about electricity in this book. It was an old book.
Your house was lighted by gas?
Yes. This old book and the batteries were the crowfoot batteries that telegraphers used, and so on. Then I heard that you could buy a battery. And, I was a very shy kid but I managed to get a quarter and I sent another kid in to buy it. Out came this dry cell. I wasn’t sure it was, I couldn’t question it. But I got it home and I knew of a test. I had a compass, I looked at the needle. And a short made heat, and so on. But gradually I went up in this way, and… Photography…
You got into that, too? Those pictures, were those yours?
Yup! I can show you… (Looking for photographs) that’s my camera. I read somewhere or I had the model of a gentleman and I wore this high collar, stiff collar, two inch stiff collar every day.
You look to be about fifteen.
Let’s see, what would I be — could be about fourteen. I remember I got a few dollars and I went downtown to the Bowery and, you know, those stores where they sell cameras and all sorts of second-hand things. Pawnshop, really. And I saw this camera and he wanted twenty-five dollars. I said, “I’ll give you five.” I wasn’t a good bargainer, it was all I had. But, finally, I did get it.
Doesn’t look real.
No, no, it’s a real camera. I’d had fixed-focus cameras before. But this was a real camera with bellows and so on.
He asked twenty-five dollars, whether he got it or not.
We weren’t so poor, this time. My father had the store. No, we’d moved to Brooklyn.
Oh, when was this?
This is a very important thing. This was 1907. He wasn’t making much of a living in this place.
He was interested in running a shop?
A grocery store. On (inaudible) Street, which he bought, somehow, by borrowing money all around. He wasn’t making anything, so he decided to move to Brooklyn. He opened his store there and it was… To Brownsville, actually.
Just as urban as the lower Eastside.
Oh no, no. No, it was rural.
It was at that time?
Yea, chickens on the street. Not far away, goats. I would go to the farmer, half a mile away or so to buy milk. And there’s a wood hole. And all at once, the backyard, and this is my backyard (showing photograph). I had a two year stint at gardening. This all changed. From the age of nine, we abandoned the lower Eastside, the Yiddish-speaking environment was completely gone. It was so strange, this time, from the time we moved until we left. What had been rural later became… Well, the fields I roamed as a boy were populated, then, by 600,000 people.
He did this for business reasons. For better business prospects?
Talk about better business, you know what his business was? He got up at about 6:00, he would open the store and at 7:00 my mother would take over and he would take the streetcar to this same shop — he never left his job at any of these points — he worked in this sweat shop all day long. She ran the store. I would get up about the time she did and I would get dressed and I would, in the winter time, get the stove going because it was no steam heat. I’d make coffee for her, and then carry out the deliveries of groceries around the neighborhood. And he’d come back in the evening and the store would remain open to 10:00 or 11:00 because of competition across the street. There was another store. Families would congregate in our store and the conversation was very lively. I don’t know why it happened or how it came to us. My father had very little to say and my mother wasn’t very talkative although she was a brilliant woman in her way. This is how things were.
I want to get back to that at another time but I really want to talk to you, now, about religion, more about religion. I want to talk about something that carries through your life. First of all, as we now get to about eleven or twelve, you were never Bar Mitzvahed, you told me that. How did that happen?
Oh, well. At that time, I was thirteen, I was far advanced. I had read extensively and certainly knew about Copernicus and things of that sort, and I knew about electricity and so on. And the whole Jewish thing, as it appeared for me, began to look like superstition. Religion, all together. So to get up there and take all that trouble to read something in the synagogue, I just wasn't going to do it.
How’d your parents feel about it?
What could they do? They must have felt badly, but I wasn’t so concerned. I was more concerned about the truth, you know, revealed truth. I was a bastard of a kid not to worry about them. I look back now and I consider the sorrows I brought on them, it horrifies me. But, I wasn’t so self-righteous about it, I just couldn’t figure out how they would miss this, this is so beautiful. But, anyway, they had a party at my Bar Mitzvah and they brought in some people from around. They prevailed upon me to make a speech of some sort. So, I made a speech. And my speech was, “How the Electric Light Works.” (Laughter) Which I described in great detail, what I’d read. It was the carbon filament. And then there was something that I thought was very clever, getting the lead through from the filament. The expansion of the glass and the lead produced platinum. This was my Bar Mitzvah speech. But, at the time when I discovered Copernicus, that was the big revolution caused in the family and we sort of came to, without being explicit, that at home I would follow every precept. They didn’t inquire what I did outside. And that seemed to work until from then on.
At your Bar Mitzvah you kind of made an intersection. I mean, you made your speech about what you did outside.
It was what I had learned.
Was your father or your mother ever interested in your radio or your other…
No. I can’t say, I can’t tell. Because, at that point, the generation gap was so enormous that I didn’t know how to communicate it. They knew they had a different kind of kid because in addition to that I had very good grades in school and, uh, but in these specific things… but on the other hand, I had the full… we lived, at that time, in three rooms, in back of the store, there was a bedroom, the kitchen which was in a sense the living room, and the parlor.
No, the parlor was …
That’s your laboratory.
That’s my laboratory. It’s a… from there, there was no door but from there I could climb through the window into the garden, which I then made with flowerbeds and two years I read about gardening so I, oh gee, I had everything, flowerbed and corn and all sorts of things, and this is in, these are in, the living room, you see this is the parlor, the (inaudible).
Before I get to what I really want to talk about, your sister must have been (inaudible) around this time.
This (inaudible) about (inaudible) age, about, this, let’s see, (inaudible).
No, go ahead. You’re (inaudible) about that one.
I’m trying to figure the age out, they must have been about fourteen.
Your sister must have come into the picture about this time as a real person.
Yes and no — five year difference. At that age…
Really, it’s just, uh… (inaudible). So she really accepts sort of being around here and there, play no role.
You were kind of, what I’m really getting at, you were kind of a quiet rebel, uh, was she the same way, was she also…?
No, no, she was, she was regular, normal, not a hotshot in school, she did have a voice…
I want to ask you, I really want to talk to you about — really, because, I think you are probably fundamentally, a religious man.
I think so.
You’re not a ritualistic man. You would have…
I have great respect for ritual, there’s a greater psychological understanding of what you do and what you eat is a (inaudible).
What, uh, you know, also, you have a… I’m really asking questions, I’m making statements as questions. You have a Jewish identification.
And what is the nature of it, it’s not religious. Obviously it is. I mean this is what I’d like you to talk about, because I really don’t understand it, largely because I’m a hostile witness.
Well, of course, I had trouble with the Jewish identification after a certain point. I was raised in a thoroughly Jewish neighborhood until I went to high school which occurs at the age of…
Roughly (inaudible) ninth grade…
Yeah, it’s the grade plus five, roughly (inaudible), unless they skip grades.
I skipped grades, but it only brought me up to grade, because I was a sick kid.
Oh, I didn’t know that.
Yeah, I was a very sick kid and I really didn’t enter school until about the age of eight.
So you were self-taught.
In a way. Of course I could read Yiddish, and this or that sort and picked up things very quickly.
What was the sickness from?
I had all this uh, you could imagine, being in that neighborhood, in a slum, I had every imaginable disease.
Yeah, but not everybody had…
I suppose so, I don’t know. Anyway, I survived… whatever it was, well, I described all the conditions (inaudible) being sick, the crowded slum, the one room…
…and this sort of thing, so, if there was anything going around, I got it, and I survived, so I didn’t get to school till I was about eight, so that, so then I skipped up a grade, but then graduated at grade, now let’s see (inaudible) sixth and fourteen, uh, I guess that’s, uh, so I entered college at the age of sixteen, yeah, I was eighteen years old.
That’s about right.
So I, but… now I’ve forgotten your question.
I know, ah, we got drifting around, uh, I really want, you said you, what led you into this train of thought is you began to sense, I don’t know what the word is, you suffered for your Jewishness when you went to high school. (Inaudible)
Yeah. Well, uh before that. At the end of high school, in 1912, approximately, (inaudible). Now, I was there, in between I’d become a socialist by reading Jack London’s The Iron Heel, things of that sort. Enormously attracted to Marxian theory as expounded by Jack London and other books, (inaudible), things of that sort. So, there I was a socialist, a Universalist, the whole Jewish thing was combining religion, the opium of the people and this sort of thing.
How about a single tax?
No, I never…
…got into that…
I knew about it, but I never got into it. I was half-cured of my socialism by a wonderful teacher I had, a Mr. Howell, in grade school. I brought my lunch because my school was about seven or eight blocks away from home and I’d eat my lunch there, he had his lunch and spent a whole semester with him where he asked me questions about socialism, what do you do and so on, and I would answer him. He didn’t expound anything, he asked me questions. And I could see how big-hearted he was, because I must have been a pretty nasty and self-confident kid, snotty kid. And what (inaudible) do various things under socialism, and I would ask him very self-confidently, self-confidently, and by the end of the term, I had almost…
You talked yourself out of it?
I had almost talked myself out of it, and now, but this is the important thing, the democratic side, the egalitarian side of socialism, when I went to high school, and I went to manual training high school, and that was at the age of fourteen, (inaudible), no, twelve, (inaudible), nineteen, no (inaudible).
(inaudible) Yeah, fourteen is right.
I purposely went there instead of boys’ high, which was where bright kids went, the manual training, and there were very few Jews, very few. Later on, later on they became more Jewish and more black (inaudible). I looked around and saw my classmates and realized quickly that these people couldn’t run a country.
You were disenchanted with a dictatorship of the proletariat very early.
Yeah, I dropped it then and didn’t do anything about it. I did a lot of reading, I didn’t do anything, I also dropped most of my extracurricular things, and the radio and this sort of stuff and concentrated most on reading and what I still retained is this affection, this ideal, the socialist ideal, I haven’t lost it yet, but it has, the point is, it’s not for humans, but I can say this, for example, the Marxian theory of history, which really (inaudible) of history, was a tremendous help for me, I got the highest grade in history in all New York State in the Regents exam because I knew all the dates and so on.
You had a structure.
No, there was no problem, I understood politics and everything, starting with this (inaudible). It doesn’t mean I believed in it as such, but it was…
It’s a conceptual framework.
Well, yeah, it could even be correct, taking it something like thermodynamics, (inaudible) delivery, very, very slow, and it may never reach it. But it’s this sort of thing, so I was quite exceptional in that way, however, being small for my age, and shy, I never got known in school, my history teacher was astounded!
When the Regents results came out, he had his favorites he talked to in history, in the front row, some of them were football players, they were.
Knew all the dates?
No, they didn’t, he was trying to teach them. I knew everything, but never got called on! So he was so surprised, I said, “I knew all along that you couldn’t recognize genius.”
You said that to him?
Yeah, my senior year.
But, get back to religion. I want to know, first of all, do you think of yourself, you identify very specifically with Jewishness.
Well, this is a very important thing.
Well, that’s why I want to talk about it.
Yeah, part of it’s religion, part of it’s race.
Or nationality? Or culture? There are various shades of difference.
My name was Isadore Rabi. My Hebrew name is (inaudible). Sometimes the middle, Isaac. I, being in a Jewish neighborhood, I didn’t encounter anything which could be interpreted as anti-Semitism, anti-Jewishness. (Inaudible) Uh, but when I did encounter it, my name became Isadore I. (inaudible) sense, somehow or other, as is true, I think, of most Eastern Jews, however it was, there was a clannish feeling which existed, however you, that was one thing. On the other hand, the disabilities that came with it seemed unjust and so on. But unjust or not, I was not going to, basic loyalty. So part of my religious feeling is nothing higher than loyalty in a sense, of belonging to this special, special people, and if trouble came, I was not going to try to escape it, (inaudible) with it, no matter how I felt. So there was something of that sort, and I’m exaggerating the strength of this now, but this, I gave this incident of (inaudible) what it was, and maybe if I’d had some tempting offer which would call on renouncing (inaudible), I would have. But it then came I was never tempted to that extent and I’m certainly very glad it never did come (inaudible). I’ve seen the effects (inaudible) on people. Well anyway, uh, my religion was then no longer in any sense a formal or following the holidays. Uh, the effect on me when I was a kid, which was determinant, I was (inaudible) early part about Genesis, the whole idea, and the broad scope of it, this is something which stayed with me and is there now. It’s religious in this respect, that there is one God, whom we call a unifying principle, and, uh, that sort of stayed with me, and, uh, I could never really say I was an atheist. I, uh, and I did feel that the other religions in which I came in contact, I read a good deal about it as a kid, and (inaudible) Christian, the Muslim, Buddhist thing, seemed to me kind of trivial in comparison to this, the whole idea of the holy, holy thing had nothing in it, there’s something very basically democratic and so on which appeals to a kid who was raised in poor circumstances, and then the whole mystic feeling of something to explore, understand, challenge. I say it now, if I might sum it up, and I didn’t understand that my religious feeling is mostly for God the creator. God the administrator, or the judge, never really appealed to me and, uh…
So it’s a (inaudible) God.
Not, no, not necessarily. I wouldn’t limit God in that sense.
Which I don’t believe, for example, (inaudible)…
It’s an exploration. What?
(inaudible)… divine intercession, personal intercession.
Uh, no, that seemed to me a bit overdoing it. The original creation. Later on its expressed, well I’ve heard, you see I don’t even have a real Jewish education as some people have had with the Talmud and so on, but general idea was we gave you the basic law. The rest you have to work out.
It’s up to you and the difference between (inaudible) and that (inaudible) we gave you something more fundamental than that. Uh, say quantum mechanics, (inaudible) more fundamental things than that that come, that I do feel, the more you examine it, a kind of basic mystery of this.
Yeah, it is a hard thing, because I am as godless as a person can be, and yet for the last four years of my life I realized, you can define God in a fashion which I’ll have to… ah yes, let’s see, I quite agree. It becomes a rather thin and pallid God.
No, no, for me, it’s stronger determining, in other words I can say, as the question, what is the, an ultimate meaning you describe for the human race. The only thing which would give it a meaning is to explore the nature of God. (Inaudible)
Or the nature of the universe, because (inaudible)…
Well, what (inaudible)…
You’re equating the two.
Well, the universe is something I don’t know about in this sense. If you want to substitute the thing, but the universe I have to define, God is a much clearer term as it, uh, as it has a certain infinite variety behind it, (inaudible) encompassing, the universe is something we construct in three dimensions or four dimensions and so on, but God is something that may go beyond that, of course, also to the inside of you, which the universe doesn’t necessarily (inaudible), has to take (inaudible) particularly (inaudible) just…
It’s a hard thing (inaudible).
(inaudible) conception, so it’s really a feeling. Now I suppose Spinoza may have had some feeling of this sort and he derived ethics from it, things of that sort, never, I’ve never tried, except when I take it as the goal, the meaning, and this I really feel, that the human race is to this exploration, then, from that I know what to do. But it doesn’t get so off in democracy, and that all souls are equal for this sort of thing. Or what you have to do (inaudible) more in the sense, an example I’ve often used, if a priest came to the Archbishop of Paris when they were building, uh, Notre Dame, and said you spent all this effort on this and all these people starving, sick and so on, and, uh, what of it? Well, I, he had justification. Mine wouldn’t be so very different in a sense.
Well, oddly enough, that’s a question of foundation (inaudible) every week.
Well, this is exactly it!
(inaudible) large foundation.
Yeah, that’s it. In, in that sense. So that, uh, some religions, the Christian religion, would not put anything higher than the alleviation of suffering, from one side of it, and another side of it, uh, two sides, the building’s and the people’s. Uh, but, uh, I would start from this if I’m going to get personal ideas of God, why did he create Man so very different from the other creatures, what he could argue with him!
A cathedral is a very effective way of alleviating human suffering (inaudible). It takes your mind off it.
Takes your mind off it!
No, I mean it.
Yeah, yeah. So this, uh, in this, in this sense, this, that was really behind, that is behind my basic interest in science (inaudible), and I suppose in physics, it was more, as I’ve said to people, we do the same line of experiment (inaudible) why are you doing this rather than this, and I said, don’t you think this gets you nearer to God? They would understand.
Well, Einstein said something very much the same.
Freeman Dyson said something very much the same in that book.
Yeah, if Freeman would be, wouldn’t have all these trappings, the son of a bitch, and all this. I said to him at that dinner, you know, Miles Standish and Priscilla… [switch tape] When Johnny, when I heard this, and I went to see (inaudible), and sold his equipment by his bedside.
Oh really. Paraphernalia?
Paraphernalia, of course, the priests had been there and so on. (Inaudible)
And Clari’s such a wonderful person, and by his conversion of course doesn’t recognize his other divorce.
She was living in sin with him and the whole thing, and she had been so faithful and kind and considerate and everything.
Were they both Jewish, by the way?
I don't know about Clari, I never asked and so on. Somewhere I always think of Hungarians as Jewish, with some exceptions! Anyway, so…
(inaudible) was, however.
I was, uh, really shocked because, I mean, who he was, and I had been sitting with him at one time when Koussevitzky came down with his whole orchestra to play, uh… Boston Philharmonic… to play a birthday party, some special (inaudible) Weizmann. And among other things they played was some (inaudible) thing, I forget what it was. And I said to Johnny, this sort of thing moves me more deeply than anything else. And he said me too. So there he was, with us, and it made me feel that what it (inaudible), his attitudes, with respect to war, atomic weapons and similar sort of thing, and his general orientation of things, and it happened that somehow or other, that cancer had had an effect long before. That’s the way I explained to myself.
That this had happened to him because of the cancer, that is, the change, uh, and it didn’t make me doubt… made me (inaudible) in a way, since I had… Well I had great respect for his mind but a limited one. There’s no doubt in my mind, though, he was much cleverer than I. He didn’t cover the whole field there was some overlap (inaudible) some of my own. I used to sort of have fun with him over the (inaudible)… sort of exaggerate…
Well, (inaudible) don’t really want to talk about (inaudible).
That’s another thing, yeah. So that it was, uh, it was that. Now the other thing will come…
Just how did your religious feelings develop, and also, you said something just then that you heard Koussevitzky playing some Jewish musical pieces profoundly moving. Why?
This is nothing that I understand. I remember, just a few years ago, after the six day war, seven… whatever… six day war. And I was in, I was in Israel, after that, and I walked through the Jaffa gate into old Jerusalem, and I broke into tears. This was very, very deep, and I can, no explanation of this sort of thing that comes as deep as that, but it is what I talked before, there’s this whole feeling of identification. This is my people and I’m of them.
Poor thing, but my own, and this is it, I mean I’m not going to let them be anything else. I’m not going to change my name, I’m not going to have my nose altered or anything, it’s a… no, this uh, that’s my identity and I don’t really know… I don’t want to probe it. I feel they’re very important, there are certain things you don’t probe because they tend to become trivialized, and then you lose it. That there’s more, there’s more to things than you can understand, and when you put it in a rational basis you lose the boundaries.
Squeeze the juice out.
You squeeze the juice out of it, so that, uh, for example, I’ve never really tried to analyze my friends, motives and so on. I believe in sort of sovereign powers. I would analyze a person if I’m going to use him. Then it becomes… I’m not going to analyze in this sort of thing, and people who are addicted to psychoanalysis maybe do that all the time, but I think they miss the point. I just consciously won’t do it. But my wife and so on, maybe I should understand it better.
(inaudible) I deal with it in just this way.
What you’re saying is that you make a commitment one way or another to a person or to a group and (inaudible).
This is it.
That’s it, that’s right and…
You made it presumably for good reasons.
Whatever it may have been, but as I say, if it’s a friend of mine and he wants to go to hell, I’ll argue with him, but if he insists, I’ll help him. But this is it, I’m not going to, there are certain points beyond which I do not believe… unless there’s a revelation of some (inaudible) you understand, something new like quantum mechanics that you’re not going to try to force it into a mold, because what you’re really forcing very often is yourself when it comes to this sort of thing. Of course, if I were in another kind of business, if I were in the movie business, (inaudible), trying to get ahead, that sort, then you do that all the time… people talk about others, it’s a kind of jungle in a way and you have no… and they’re very unhappy afterwards.
Well, it attracts jungle people.
Maybe that’s it.
It’s a way of life. Highly competitive and very much governed by chance and it attracts this sort of people.
But the… (inaudible)… but when you’re through, they have a lot of personality but no person, you know.
They’ve all been psychoanalyzed too.
And (inaudible) psychoanalyzed, had to be!
You had to be. They’re all Jewish too.
Uh, yeah, and they’re all Jewish who failed.
As what, Jews?
Who sort of lost, lost their roots, that’s what happened to Oppenheimer, uh, failed in this sense. It’s a, it’s a very, very profound thing, this business of being Jewish, it, uh, there’s this mystique about it. I don’t know whether it lasts more than one generation or two, but… I have this friend of mine, Nathan Wilensky, boyhood friend, brilliant guy, tremendously gifted in all sorts of things, and he finally went to Columbia Law School, he was the head of the Law Review while at the same time working in a factory making shirts. He was making a lot of money in this way and, and being at the head of the class in law school and when he got out, job’s this downtown firm of Coleman and (inaudible), I remember, recognized Jewish friend, came down there, interview, and they said to him, what will your name be when you come to us? So he thought it was a lark and I sat down with him and we worked out something, and, “N. William Welling.”
Very good. Hell he was N. William Welling. And before that he was a great intellectual, read widely and so on, a pleasure to talk to him. And the man changed. He became a shyster lawyer (inaudible) all sorts of things. He just lost himself in this sense. He had a very pretty Irish mistress. As he said about Nathan, she was a smart kid. He doesn’t know what he is. He’d like to be the head of the Knights of Columbus and B’nai Brith! It’s not, uh…
Oh, you think Robert turned into a shyster physicist?
No, he didn’t turn into a shyster physicist, no he, uh… in a certain sense, I would say, relative to his ability, might be accused of being somewhat of a shyster. And more than so many people found that he didn’t ring true, and I don’t know how to describe it more than that, it’s a… (inaudible)
It certainly didn’t ring true to me at the end.
No, it didn’t ring true. This artificiality of his is something which is very attractive to me, I enjoy being with him and playing that game. I can play, I can play the game with… I… there was no field he could move… I didn’t have fun… but it was more in that… relation. I like it. Of course I always had a slight tinge of contempt for that because of that. Because I knew, I knew what was going on. He told Pauli once, that they shared (inaudible) in common. Pauli was half Jewish and he was half Jewish. And his mother and so on… and if he could go to this sort of thing that he’d, he’d somehow, in this case lost the center. I can see the reason you see because this whole thing, to come back to your earlier question of your evolution from this…
At a certain point I could wish I weren’t Jewish. And for as many of the reasons that actuated him, you’re an American, and just, uh, I think I’m, if I’m anything, I’m an American. May have, instead of coming two hundred years earlier, but it’s authentic, there’s no repetition. My experience is the American experience. So you have a feeling sometime, you’d like to be a part of the great (inaudible) of America. It’s very tempting, especially if you have this great respect and affection and, uh, very deeply patriotic feeling. You see if he had lacked (inaudible) of this, and, you see, you just can’t. You feel it won’t let you. I may be more American in this sense, in tune with what the meaning and tradition of this was with the view of history than certain more than 95%, easily but you can’t and you regret it in some way. And there always is the temptation… the Bible, the case of Jesus and his disciples, who more or less renounced him once or twice, you see, you have that, I can see that. And then you, a period of time passes and then a, later on, in my life, at a certain point, maybe it’s a part of growing up, it all changes, in the sense that, well just when I became reconciled that I won’t ever be five foot seven, to be very modest about it, and this is it, and this is, then of course it becomes, it became for me, and that’s why he never got it, a great source of sort of satisfaction and assurance. I think this was discovered by Rapp Brown when he said “black is beautiful.” I can sense a certain sense of what he meant, though I don’t see how the blacks can say it.
Well, is it, are you saying that at a certain age you way to yourself, look, I can’t get into this club, and thank god I’ve got a club of my own?
No, no, no, it’s not, it isn’t a club. I am in the club. (Inaudible) But I’m, in a certain sense, on the executive committee.
Say that again.
I’m in the club, but I’m a member of the executive committee, or whatever it was, the board of management of the club. It’s that sort of thing.
You know, now you escape me, you lose me. Now you’re making an image which I don’t get. What I said was that at a certain age you say that Americans will never accept you as an American, but thank god I have a group of my own.
No, no, no.
You corrected me and I said (inaudible) correct.
No, I said, I am… they won’t accept me but I don’t feel alienated. But I don’t feel alienated. I don’t feel envious anymore of this because I begin to realize this other thing is a source of strength.
Sounds like begging the question (inaudible).
It sounds like begging the question I don’t know quite how to put it. My father, for example, never felt anti-Semitism. Although God knows he must have run into it. At one point somebody nearly ruined him and (inaudible). But, and this is where they were in Europe with respect to the peasants. It was a condition of life in which he was. And this was like a dog barking at you. Uh, so he never felt it in the sense of being, uh, let’s say, as the German Jews did, maybe Oppenheimer did, that this was a superior culture.
The other, the German culture, or here that this was…
Yeah, the non-Jewish culture.
…the one which he couldn’t, uh, really participate in, but which he understood, and which he admired intensely. It’s different in the United States. My chance of being President is zero for more than one reason, and some of the other things. But it turned out, the things from which I was felt being barred were part of certain economic opportunities and so forth, which as circumstances are not quite much worthwhile, that this background of assurance that I had, of being Jewish was to some extent the same thing as if you were, uh, well I don’t know how the Earl of Oxford felt. You remember? Asquith was ennobled by the king, and chosen, he chose the Earl of Oxford. It turned out there was an Earl of Oxford! The family had gone down, they had no money, he was a working man.
So he bought it.
No, he couldn’t take it so he said, he couldn’t call him Earl of Oxford and Asquith. Earl of Oxford was the (inaudible) maybe, still there. Otherwise, I said, I don’t know how the Earl, the real Earl of Oxford felt! He didn’t have any money, but he was the Earl of Oxford! This, I give this as an analogy in a certain sense, I felt alright.
You’re the Earl of Oxford.
Not the Earl of Oxford. And, uh, and didn’t wish to be another Earl of Oxford.
An indifference to…
And didn’t wish to be Mr. Smith. Well, it’s a thing which is real, hard to communicate and, uh…
Do you think it’s any different now? You know, there are no Americans now. I mean there are white Anglo Saxon Protestants, but then there Polish Americans, Jewish Americans, blacks and Puerto Ricans, and Hispanics …
This has been invented since I was a boy.
Yeah, over the last twenty years.
Does it have any effect on a man’s feeling of Jewishness? Does it make him want a congery of special interests?
Well, I, I move amongst middle class Jews. When I’m outside I’m talking about the hospital, the people who run… (inaudible) Jewish (inaudible) and so on. They’re people of great substance very often. Middle class… middle class Jews. I don’t know how they feel. They certainly devote themselves to it.
The Jewish causes. And other things. The Jews are never exclusive.
No, no, no.
They, they devote themselves to it, give a lot of effort to it. In a sense, die for it, a guy might not be well, and he keeps on going to Israel, (inaudible) and so whatnot. I don’t know just what it is, I don't think they’re terribly religious at all, but they do it, and they like to be together. This is something I don’t share. I told you about my experience with the Stein club.
Oh, this was the last year of the war and we were in Cambridge, a man came to me, he wanted me to give a talk at a dinner to the Stein club. Compton had sent them to me. The Stein club turned out to be a group of MIT graduates, Jewish, and the Stein in it was Hale Steinson. And they formed for the purpose of helping other graduates and so on, MIT, I mean going to have to go back to 1945, this was in ‘44, and uh, I said, why don’t you join the other alumni? Oh, he said, we don’t feel happy with them, they drink a lot, some of our members have accents, and so on, and we don’t feel comfortable. (Inaudible) get on their own, but they did, but I went there. And there were Frankfurter’s sister, a lot of people, people who were, ran some of the big businesses around the neighborhood, this sort of thing. And they had lobster, everything wasn’t kosher, anything of that sort. They would say some things.
Some things, whatever it is, I don’t know. They were most comfortable in one another’s company. I, I never am, in that sense, I never would have made it in a Jewish environment. I don’t talk fast enough and this sort of thing. A friend of mine had a scheme for reviving the arms reduction thing, and I think it’s kind of subtle scheme, the idea being to get a group together of psychologists, psychiatrists, medical people, to discuss what is wrong with these heads of state and their staffs, that they know the seriousness of atomic warfare completely…
They pretend it isn’t…
It’s no lack of information, and yet they do all these things. And this thing is not to persuade them, but to try to see what’s wrong with them. Give it a name. A serious discussion of this sort. Now the trick was when the public begins to understand that the sanity of these men has been questioned by psychiatrists and so on that one of them would have them to think, I’m not crazy! Give them some backing in the public.
Make it respectable to be sane.
Make it respectable to be sane. And I thought this was a wonderful thing. (several inaudible words) because not, giving them information, for a sane world and so on, for thirty years, this has been going on. So this was my original idea, an entirely different thing. Wait, I must give you this. I don’t think you’ve seen it. Send this to the letters to the editor or something.
Yeah, but it’s a different point of view. No, this is on.
That’s alright, leave it on. It does not damage. As I say, tape is cheap. I want to go back, let me read this later, I want to go back to something you said, you said at some point…
Yeah, this is very serious, I’d like to have you tell me what you think.
Alright, I will, before I leave. When this half hour runs out we’ll go back.
Uh, you said that at some point in your life you’d never be (inaudible) or President of the United States, but at some point of your life, maybe in the late teens, 1920, you also must have felt you had about a zero chance of being a physics professor.
For the same reason.
Uh, possibly. Uh, there’s something happened to me in my early twenties, my early twenties. A revelation. I said there are a lot of people I don’t like, that I realized I’m a subtle prejudiced person, that when I come into some disagreeable company, or some, some company with whom I’ve had a disagreeable experience, it may be that they didn’t like me, personally, but not this insurmountable wall that was stopping me, being Jewish, but, uh, some people don’t like me, just that I’ve seen people I didn’t like, getting ahead. But it wasn’t this, this thing. It’s just personal, you know, don’t like me, and don’t like my accent, whatever. And after that I felt much better about everything. And the fact this has happened, when, just approach things with more confidence, and that made an enormous difference in my general self-regard, so there was — this wasn’t the real obstacle. I could fail, but for reasons other than being Jewish. No, that was a very important thing.
There’s a couple of paragraphs in Nietschze many many years ago about the man who had no friends. He went to a doctor, the doctor said you’ve got the worst breath I ever experienced in my life.
Cured the bad breath, still had no friends.
Yeah, yeah, this sort of thing!
Now, now I did find, though, something which, that I was not very good in the Jewish environment.
Where would you mean, what.
And I, uh, in a Jewish group.
Yeah, but what made a Jewish group, is what I’m trying to say. Certainly you spend a lot of time in Jewish groups but they’re physicists, you say, or they’re doctors.
In another way, no, I don’t spend, no, I don’t.
You mean a group that’s self-consciously Jewish? Whose cohesion is a Jewish cohesion?
Something of that sort, yeah.
Well, do you feel uncomfortable in any such group, Jewish or not?
Oh yes. Particularly, you see, I suppose if I analyze it, my positive qualities are Jewish. In an un-Jewish group, that’s good. It’s distinctive. In a Jewish group, they all have that, and some have a hell of a lot more than I have! And, and, not much, may not have much else to back it up. Certain (inaudible).
You have some Jewish qualities, there are others you don’t have.
No, you, I said something the other day that one of the sad things you learn as you grow older, I may have said it to you, that most of the stereotypes you learn are right. It’s a terrible discovery to make. It really is. It’s shattering. The Jewish stereotype, you don’t fit. You fit part of it…
… intellectual drive. There are other parts that you don’t particularly… avaricious, that’s the word I want, avaricious, probably, avaricious, the wrong word, you’re not really interested in the accumulation of money which is very much Jewish.
Yeah, that’s right up to a point, yes.
What do you mean, up to a point? You are of the Jewish tradition.
No, no, I’ve noticed, when they get quite rich…
When they get quite rich, they generally stop being Jewish.
Ten or twenty million dollars, uh, they then go into public life. Charities, things of that sort.
Well, you’re right, it’s accumulation of money on a smaller scale.
In the small scale, that’s right, they’re not, uh…
They’re not like Mellon.
Not like Mellon, no, no, (several inaudible words).
But there is the preoccupation with money…