Everyone in the city knew the huge old Hebrew. His hair was long and
disheveled like the mane of a lion. His beard was yellow with age, like
He walked about in a gaberdine, his shoes worn down at the heels. Perhaps
the only way he differed from other Hebrews was that his huge wide-open
eyes did not look down (as they say all Hebrews do) but somewhere up.
The years passed, generations succeeded generations, borne by the racket
of the carriage, travellers hurried past anxious queues, boys ran along,
laughing. But the old Hebrew, solemn and unconcerned, passed everyone
too along the street, with his gaze fixed up. Truly, he was seeing that
which no one else could.
The only person in the city whom the old Hebrew favored with attention
was a mathematics teacher from one of the high schools. Every time he
noticed the teacher, he stopped and looked attentively, long after he
spotted him. Perhaps the mathematics teacher realized the old Hebrew
was a genuine mathematician, but perhaps not. The teacher was small and
dissipated with the appearance of a monkey, who knew nothing to see and
to want except mathematics. But the teacher so frequently misplaced the
sponge-eraser--in his pocket instead of his handkerchief--and he so often
showed up to the lessons without his frock coat, that the mockery of the
students became too much, and the teacher was finally forced to leave
high school teaching.
Afterwards, he completely returned to his studies and only left his
residence to eat at the cookhouse. He lived in his own place, reserved
for him in his father's big house, filled top to bottom with tenants.
But most of them paid nothing, because they were poor and indigent.
The house was dirty and multistoried. Dirtier than anything in the house
was the teacher's two room basement apartment. It was entirely covered
with books, and with papers covered with writing, and with a thick layer
of dust covering everything, so much so that if the dust were to be all
kicked up at once, it would be possible to choke.
But this thought never entered into his head, nor that of an old tomcat,
the other inhabitant of the apartment. The teacher would sit motionlessly
at his table and write calculations. The cat would sleep without stirring,
rolled up in a tangle on the iron-latticed window sill.
The cat only woke up for meals, when the time approached to meet the
teacher at the cookhouse. Old and shabby, it would meet him two streets
down. By long experience, the cat knew a half-portion of the thirty
kopeck meal was intended for it, wrapped in paper and revealed to it
when it returned home. Looking forward to its enjoyment, the cat strode
along the streets in front of its owner, its tail raised, its back arched,
all wispy in patchy fur.
One day the door to the teacher's apartment was opened and the old Hebrew
Without hurry, he took from his waistcoat a thick dirty notebook, filled
with his mathematics, all written in Hebrew.
The mathematician took the notebook, turning it occasionally in his hands,
and asked several questions. Although the old Hebrew knew Russian very
badly and understood very little, the mathematician was able to understand
that the text of the notebook was something mathematical. He was interested
in finding a translator to study the sense of the manuscript. The result
of this study would be unusual.
After a month, the Hebrew was invited to the department of the mathematics
faculty at the local university.
In the session hall, the mathematicians of all the university and all the
city convened. The old Hebrew, unconcerned as ever with his upward gaze,
gave answers through a translator.
"There is no doubt," said the chairman to the Hebrew," that you indeed
discovered the greatest advance in all the world: you discovered the
differential calculus.... But unfortunately for you, Newton already
discovered it two centuries ago. Nevertheless, your method is completely
independent, distinct from Newton and Leibniz."
This was translated. The Hebrew asked in a hoarse voice:
"Is his work written in Hebrew?"
"No, only in Latin," they answered him.
The old Hebrew arrived after several days to the mathematician and with
difficulty explained that he wished to learn mathematics and Latin.
Amongst the many tenants of the teacher were found a student of languages
and a student of mathematics, who agreed to teach the Hebrew at the
apartment: one for Latin and one for the basics of higher mathematics.
Every day, the old Hebrew came with textbooks, took lessons, and left
his sessions for home. There, in a dirty part of the city, he climbed
up a dark, smelly staircase amidtst the many mangy children to his garret,
endowed to him by the Hebrew Association. In the damp, fungus-ridden hovel,
he squatted by the only window, studying the assignment.
Now during leisure hours, to the greater amusement of little boys, he
often strode side-by-side with the other oddball of the city, the little
monkey-faced teacher. Silently they walked and silently they parted.
Their only farewell was pressing their hands to each other.
Three years passed. The old Hebrew could already read Newton in the
original. He read it once, twice, three times. There was no doubt.
Indeed, the old Hebrew had discovered the differential calculus. And
indeed, it had already been discovered two centuries previously by the
greatest genius of the earth. He closed his book. Everything was
complete. Everything was proven.
He looked at the sky with a stiff glance and he saw what no else saw:
the greatest genius on earth, who could gift the world with a great new
discovery, was only suitable as a butt for children's humor.
One day they found the corpse of the old Hebrew in his hovel. He was
found lying in a stiff pose, bent over on his hands and elbows. His
thick locks were the color of yellowed ivory. A hair was scattered
across his face and arm. His eyes were looking at the opened book, as
if, after death, they were still reading it.
[Author's note: This tale is based on a true story, told to the author by
M Yu Goldstein. The Hebrew was from the Pasternak family. The author
himself remembers this person. There is an authentic Hebrew manuscript
belonging to somebody in Odessa.]