Emmy Noether: The Jewish Mathematician Who Changed the World

Emmy Noether faced many challenges on her way to fulfill her passion for mathematics, as an educated and Jewish woman in Germany between the world wars.

Professor Emmy Noether (on the left) with mathematicians at Göttingen, Spring 1931 From the Emmy Noether Mathematical Institute

The Early Years

The mathematician Amalie Emmy Noether was born in 1882 in Erlangen, Germany, to a traditional Jewish family with a passion for mathematics. Her father, Max Noether, was a renowned professor of mathematics, and her younger brother also worked in the field. Noether originally chose to study teaching – a track open to educated women at the time – and specialized in teaching languages. After completing her studies, she decided to dedicate herself to the family business of mathematics.

But how could she study mathematics at university when women were forbidden to do so? Noether came up with a solution. As she was forbidden from registering herself for studies, she attended lectures of the mathematics department as an observer. Many of the lecturers who taught her were friends and colleagues of her father’s. They were very impressed by the younger Noether’s mathematical prowess, and eventually allowed her to sit in on examinations for the courses she took.

Noether completed her doctorate summa cum laude in 1907.

The Fight for Fulfillment

Noether did not make do with a mere certificate. She wanted to continue to study and teach in the field in which she excelled, but the only positions open to her were those of an unpaid teaching assistant. She couldn’t teach under her name, only under the name of other lecturers.

In 1915 she received an invitation from Felix Klein to join the mathematics department at Göttingen University, where the greatest mathematicians in Germany of the time gathered, at least until the Nazi rise to power. In Göttingen, Noether could teach, for no payment, under the name of the mathematician David Hillbert. Hillbert taught the first class of the course and Noether then taught the rest of the classes as a “teaching assistant”.

Her colleagues, Felix Klein and David Hillbert, tried to help her attain permission to teach at the university under her own name, and sent an application to the Ministry of Education requesting that Noether be given a position as an external lecturer. They expressed their concern that if Noether should not receive a permanent position, she will move to another university and Göttingen University will lose a talented mathematician. The response they received from the Ministry of Education proves that it was impossible for women of that time to teach under their own names and to receive a salary for their work. Talented mathematicians, such as Emmy Noether, were simply unable to advance in their profession and make a living from it.

Letter from the Ministry of Education. From the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

Berlin, July 20, 1917

With regard to accepting women to teaching positions, the regulations of Frankfurt University are identical to those of all the universities: women are not allowed to be appointed to positions of external lecturers. It is completely impossible to make an exception to the rule in one university. Therefore, your concern that Miss Noether will leave, move to Frankfurt and receive a position there is completely unfounded: she will not be given the right to teach there, just as she will not receive such a thing in Göttingen or in any other university. The Minister of Education has expressed this time and time again and emphasized that it supports its predecessor’s instructions, and therefore women will not be permitted to receive teaching positions in universities.

Therefore, there is no concern that you will lose Miss Noether as an external lecturer in Frankfurt University.

Two years later, in June 1919, Noether finally received permission to teach under her own name due to changes in legislation that were passed at the end of the First World War. She received the position of an external lecturer with low wages, without tenure, and without any social benefits.

Noether was glad she could remain and teach in Göttingen. The place was a magnet for the foremost minds of the period, with whom she could hold endless discussions on mathematical topics, express her creative mathematical thinking and continue to develop her work on the topic, which was her greatest desire.

March 12, 1918, a letter to Felix Klein, professor of mathematics in Göttingen on the topic of her research. From the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

Noether was a colorful and cheerful figure. She had round glasses perched on her nose and always dressed in loose comfortable clothes. She was very concerned for her sickly father and brothers. Perhaps she dreamed of love or of children of her own, but she never married and never started a family.

The time she taught in Göttingen, between the two world wars, was a period of flourishing for Noether. She was full of inspiration, generous in her ideas for research and advice for her students and colleagues and she cultivated a group of student-admirers known as “Noether’s children”.

The Nazi Rise to Power: Dismissal of the Jews from Göttingen

Emmy Noether’s letter of dismissal. From the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

Letter of the Prussian Minister for Science, Art and Adult Education, Berlin, September 2, 1933

The Prussian minister responsible for science, art and adult education,

On the basis of article 3 of “The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” from April 1933, I nullify your teaching permit in Göttingen University.

Signed, Stuckhart, on behalf of the minister


To the external lecturer Professor Ms. Dr. Emmy Noether in Göttingen.

True copy of the report from August 7, 1933.

For your information, please note and carry out.

The wages of Professor Emmy Noether must be ceased as of end of September 1933.

In Göttingen she encountered the work of Albert Einstein and worded the mathematical equations which stemmed from his general theory of relativity. According to “Noether’s theorem” which deals with the relationship between symmetry and the conservation laws of nature “each law of conservation represents symmetry of the nature at its foundation, and every symmetry in nature provides a law of conservation”. These formulae which Einstein himself was unable to phrase in mathematical language, have tremendous impact on modern physics to this very day.

Göttingen served as one of the foremost centers of mathematics in Germany, until the Nazi party rose to power. Like Noether, many of the researchers and teachers in the institution were Jewish. Noether continued to teach there until the publication of the new Nazi racial laws in 1933, which included the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” – a law which led to the dismissal of all the Jews from their positions.

A year after the Jews were dismissed from the institute, the Nazi Minister of Culture Bernhard Rust asked the non-Jewish mathematician David Hillbert (who unsuccessfully fought against the law) about the truth behind the rumor that the mathematic institute suffers greatly since the dismissal of the Jews and their supporters.

Hillbert replied that the institute did not suffer, it simply no longer exists.

Fulfilling the Dream

With the help of Albert Einstein, who had already reached America at that time (and was unable to return to Germany, where the Nazis had dismissed him from his position and burned his works), Noether receive a position in the Bryn Mawr Women’s College in Pennsylvania. She emigrated to America, and for the first time in her life, taught and earned respect, honor and full employment. She was invited to deliver weekly lectures at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, but as a woman could not be appointed for a teaching position at the university.

Noether taught in Bryn Mawr College for a year and a half. In 1935, she became ill and underwent a simple operation that went awry. She died a few days later at the age of 53.

Noether’s picture hangs in almost every room of the mathematics faculty of Bar Ilan University, in the research institute named after her. Students of mathematics throughout the world are familiar with her, but more people should know about the incredible contribution made by Amalie Emmy Noether, who paved a path for women in the world of mathematics and science, and changed the face of the world by giving names and formulae to the physical laws that perpetuate our world. Essentially, modern physics as a whole owes her a debt of gratitude.

Photograph of Amalie Emmy Noether. From the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

“Within the past few days a distinguished mathematician, Professor Emmy Noether, formerly connected with the University of Göttingen and for the past two years at Bryn Mawr College, died in her fifty-third year. In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”

(From the obituary for Professor Emmy Noether written by Albert Einstein in the New York Times, 1935)

Thanks to Chaya Herr from the Edelstein Collection for her help in writing the article.

That Time Seinfeld Did a Gig for the Maccabiah

This is how Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher and Billy Crystal found themselves telling jokes about Jews and sports in order to raise money for the 12th Maccabiah Games

Jerry Seinfeld fundraises. Photograph: Joe Seligman

One evening in 1985, Billy Crystal, Bill Maher and Jerry Seinfeld, along with other Jewish comedians, all got together. The purpose of this meeting: Fundraising for the American delegation to the Maccabiah. We are proud to present you photographs of that fundraising evening, which took place four years before ‘Seinfeld’ was first aired.

“During the 1980’s I worked as a television producer and producer of stand-up comedy events, and I was looking for new ways to raise money for the American delegation to the Maccabiah. Friends suggested I put on a stand-up comedy evening, and I decided to go for it,” Joe Seligman explains how one fine day, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Mahler and Billy Crystal found themselves telling jokes about Jews and sports to raise money for the 12th Maccabiah Games.

Seligman was active in ‘Maccabi’ for many years, and even participated in several Maccabiahs himself. In 1973, Seligman was a member of the American cricket team in the 9th Maccabiah, after he left a career as a baseball player. “I thought, how hard can it be to play cricket? It’s just English baseball. It turned out in the end that it’s definitely not English baseball,” he relates. He soon discovered that his first hurdle was to find other Jewish American players who were familiar with cricket, a mission which turned out to be much more complex than he had originally envisaged.

At the end of the day, most of the cricket players he located were former baseball players, and the American delegation struggled to play against more experienced teams such as India, England and South Africa – losing every game they played. Despite the dismal results, Seligman became hooked on Maccabiah, and has taken part in organizing the American delegation to each subsequent Maccabiah.

In 1985 he came up with the idea to put on a comedy evening to raise money for the 12th Maccabiah. Now, over thirty years after the event we are pleased to share the pictures from that evening.

The first evening was held in February 1985, at the Improv club in Los Angeles, (which is now a chain of stand-up comedy clubs, with branches in Chicago and New York as well). The event was emceed by the comedian Norm Crosby and the star of the Los Angeles Riders football team, Lyle Aldazo. On the stage appeared: Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher and Billy Crystal, all young and talented Jewish comedians, alongside such veterans as Shelley Berman and Dick Shawn. At the time, Jerry Seinfeld was a talented comedian who appeared in clubs and had made appearnces on the Tonight Show with Jonny Carson, but “Seinfeld” the sitcom would only go on the air four years later. Crystal and Maher were also well on their way to becoming major stars of the comedy scene.

The efforts were not in vain, and the evening was an overwhelming success: “There was room for 224 people in the club, and we sold 227 tickets – and there were those who managed to sneak in,” Seligman explains.  The American delegation was the largest delegation at the 12th Maccabiah, though it’s hard to say of the comedy fundraising event can be credited directly for that….

While we unfortunately, we do not have video footage of this memorable evening avialable, we can at least we can enjoy some photographs:

Billy Crystal takes part in the fundraising event. Photograph: Joe Seligman
Bill Maher in the service of the Maccabiah. Photograph: Joe Seligman
Billy Crystal, the club owner Bud Friedman and his wife Nancy. Photograph: Joe Seligman

The evening’s success led Seligman to initiate several more fundraising evenings for the subsequent Maccabiah games, which also featured big names.

The Yankee Talmud Gives a Different Spin on Purim of 1892

Purim is upon us! And it so happened that the 1892 American elections happened at around the same time. And so Gershon Rosenzweig, a Hebrew author and Jewish immigrant to the New World, wrote "Tractate America", to answer the question of who will win the election – the one with the most gold.

The large wave immigration of Eastern European Jewry to America began in 1881. For them, America was an unknown country, but was also “der goldener medinah”, a country which promised a safe haven, liberty and equal rights, regardless of religion.

The immigrant Jews saw America as a completely different diaspora than Europe. It was a place where they could continue to live as Jews while taking part in building a new and improved society; a far-cry from the intolerant and tyrannical regimes they left behind.

However, the utopic image of the new land was contrasted with a negative reality of America: an America whose citizens were low class immigrants, an America whose new lifestyle threatens Orthodox Jews, an America devoid of Torah and fear of God.

America, the capitalist country who truly did worship a golden calf.

Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe are received with open arms by their American brothers, late 19th century. From the book “In the Footsteps of Columbus: Jews in America”, The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot, 1987

In a world without internet and television, it was authors and journalists who painted the picture of America for the Eastern European Jews, people like famed Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem (Shalom Yaacov Rabinowitz) and Gershon son of Zalman Leib Rosenzweig who wrote a humorous Purim tractate about the improper characteristics and the ugly deeds and customs “which the Americans are not immune from”.

Rosenzweig was born in Bialystok in 1861. He studied and worked there as a teacher, and in 1888 left to build himself a new future in America. He lived in New York, where he worked in different professions: teaching, a worker in a shoe store and Yiddish journalism. Concurrently he worked “to bestow a Hebrew newspaper on the Jewish people in America”. His love for his beautiful new country did not blind him to its shortcomings, which he wrote about in his special parodic and cynical writing style.

In his own words, he was one of the Americans “who knows this country, and the livelihood and the rottenness [in Hebrew – מחיה וקלקלה a play on words found in the Grace After Meals] within it, and not those who live across the sea and see dreams in America”.

His most famous parody is “Tractate America”, a humorous “Talmudic tractate” in which he criticizes the materialism, spiritual poverty, greed and servitude to money which were also part of Jewish life in America. He wrote especially for Purim and the 1892 elections of that year.

Tractate America from the Yankai Talmud, Gershon Rosenzweig. New York, 1892. Signed by the author.

Rosenzweig wrote the tractate in Talmudic language, in the style of the Talmud with the commentary of “Rashi”. So, for example, one of Rosenzweig’s imaginary “sugyot” (Talmudic topics) asks: Why America?

And the ‘Talmud’ answers: “Because empty [in Hebrew – reikim] and reckless people came to it, and it is the place of an Ama Reika (lit. an empty nation – a stupid nation)”. And: “Because it cleanses [in Hebrew – memareket, a play on the word America] the sins of sinners who become pure in it and of unfit people who become pedigreed in it”.

The humorous Tractate America continues: “Ten statuses came first to America, and they are: murderers, thieves, reporters (of Jews to the secular authorities), ignitors of houses, printers of banknotes, sellers of souls, false witnesses, bankrupt people, people who were excommunicated and rebellious sons. And there are those who say even girls who were tempted”.

Rosenzweig also explains that Tractate America is part of the “Yankai” (Yankee) Talmud. Why Yankai? In the name of the Yankees – the residents of the north eastern states of the USA and “in the name of the citizens who absorbed [yank]) the Torah of America in their childhood“.

It’s All About the Gold

The first edition of Tractate America was published in New York in 1892, which was also an election year. The president elected in those elections was Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president – the only president in American history to be elected for two non-consecutive terms of office.

This was his second term of office. Cleveland was known as being arrow-straight, a warrior against corruption, and a sworn capitalist who supported reducing taxes and believed that federal government should limit its involvement in economic issues as much as possible.

Part of his election campaign revolved around the American currency policy. At the time, Cleveland fought for “the Gold Standard” – linking the currency to gold, which enabled any person to enter any bank and exchange his banknotes for gold. In the period which preceded Cleveland’s term of office, the dollar was linked not only to gold, but to silver as well, which was less stable.

This caused fluctuations of the economy, which continued, and even worsened, during Cleveland’s term of office. Through no fault of Cleveland’s, his second term of office is known for a series of economic disasters: a railway company collapsed, hundreds of banks closed, thousands of farmers and business owners went bankrupt, the stock exchange plunged, and the country fell into a deep economic crisis. The crisis was so deep-seated that it destroyed the Democratic Party and caused it to split.

So how is a president elected in America? Here are several related “sugyot” found in Tractate America, possibly even on the backdrop of that tumultuous election, and the “Gold Standard”:

How are Presidents elected in America?

Each and every president appointed in America, is appointed by casting lots. What are lots? Bribery.”

According to Rosenzweig’s humorous Talmud, no president is elected without bribing his voters and scattering his gold to “the politicians“.

He adds:

“It says in the Mishna, the gold buys the president and the judge and Rabbi Yankee says even the tyrant.”

This is followed by a scholarly discussion whose conclusion is: “From here we learn that anyone who has gold becomes pleasant, good and pure“.

Don’t believe it? Here is the “sugya” before you:

In humorous tractates and newspaper articles Rosenzweig continued to write satire about the difficulties experienced by the Easter European immigrants and their new lives in America… he is also known for “Tractate Lies” about April Fools’ Day pranks and “Tractate Camouflage” about Purim costumes.

Rosenzweig died in New York in 1914, but has never been forgotten. His works from the “New World” of the time are read and reread to this day by Hebrew readers who find them to still be as relevant ever.

Gershon Rosenzweig

“Letter Returned to Sender: The Jewish Council No Longer Exists”

59 envelopes attest to the destruction of dozens of Jewish communities throughout Poland. "It is important that the world know that the Poles collaborated with the Germans' cruel actions during the Holocaust and were fully aware of the horrors."

“I have a very important item which I must give to you,” said the voice on the other end of the telephone, “And I ask that you come to collect it personally, as soon as possible.” The name of the man who telephoned the archive department some six months ago is a familiar one in the Library: the engineer Yosef Weichert, son of Michael Weichert whose large, extensive archive has been preserved in the National Library for almost fifty years.

A surprise awaited us when we came to visit him in Tel Aviv: Mr. Weichert gave us an item which for various reasons had not been deposited with the rest of his father’s archive material, and had remained in the family’s possession. With great excitement he handed us an album with a faded cover and said: “The time has come to present you with this historical item. It is important that the world become aware of the story and remember and know that the Poles collaborated with the Germans’ cruel actions during the Holocaust and were fully aware of the horrors.”

Meticulously arranged in the album were 59 letter envelopes sent between September 1940 and May 1941 to the various branches of the Jewish Social Self-Help Organization (ZSS) from the central office in Krakow. All the letters sent by the chairman of the organization, Michael Weichert, were returned to him.

The Polish postal service returned them to his office, a while after they were sent, with various handwritten additions on the envelope: “Left the address”; “The Jews were deported” or “The Jewish council no longer exists”.

Without a doubt, the Polish postmen were fully aware of what had befallen the addressees whose letters were returned to the sender. Michael Weichert was horrified by the returned mail, knowing that each envelope bearing a Polish postman’s comment hinted to a community which no longer existed. In his eyes, the envelopes, some of which were also stamped with a Polish stamp: “Victory to the Germans on all fronts!” were also an expression of the collaboration and unrestrained affinity many Poles felt toward the Nazi’s actions.

On the above envelope: the logo of the “Jewish Social Self-Help Organization”, underneath it, a red stamp: “Victory to the Germans on all fronts!” Michael Weichert Archive, the National Library

Weichert decided to conceal the envelopes in a hiding place, together with other documentation from that time. After the war, he removed the envelopes from their hiding place, so his son who witnessed his actions told us, and added them to his archive. But who was Michael Weichert and what was the organization for which he sent these letters to dozens of communities throughout Poland?

Michael Weichert was born in 1890 in the city of Podhajce, Eastern Galicia. His natural affinity for the world of literature and theatre and his excellence in classical studies mapped this talented young man’s path, and he decided to dedicate his life to Jewish theatre.

After completing his studies, with excellence, in the law faculty of Vienna University, he travelled to Berlin and registered for studies at the Academy of Theatre Arts headed by the well-known director Max Reinhardt. When the First World War came to an end Weichert returned to Poland and settled in Warsaw, where in 1929 he opened a studio for young experimental theater which gradually developed into the “Young Jewish Theatre”. Despite Weichert’s great success as director of the theatre, he needed another job to supplement his meager income, and he worked in his profession as an attorney in the service of various Jewish charitable and social aid institutions.

Dr. Michael Weichert

When the Second World War broke out, Weichert found himself in the eye of the storm – he was the legal consultant of the umbrella organization which unified the Jewish self-help social aid organizations in Poland. His natural leadership abilities led to him being the person who decided to accept the Germans’ offer to continue to operate these organizations. The aid funds sent to the organization from the Joint Distribution Committee in America were the deciding factor in the Germans’ decision to permit the activity to continue, under their tight supervision. In May 1940 Weichert was transferred to Krakow, where he was appointed as chairman of the Jewish Social Self-Help Organization (in Polish: Zydowska Samopomoc Spoleczna – ZSS).

Weichert was joined by Marek Biberstein, the head of the Krakow Judenrat as co-director of the organization. Many people were disconcerted by the organization’s close connections with the German authorities, and an attempt was even made at the end of the War to accuse Weichert of collaboration with the Nazis. Weichert was deeply hurt by these accusations, and spent many years clearing his name and proving his innocence.

“The Jewish council in Leszno no longer exists”. An envelope returned by the Polish postal service in May 1941.

All of the ZSS’s foreign relations had to be conducted – by order of the authorities – through the German Red Cross, and the organization was under close supervision of the authorities. Even its management was approved directly by the authorities in September 1940. The organization had advisers for each of the four Generalgouvernement districts, as well as representatives on local aid committees. The ZSS distributed food to the Jews of the Generalgouvernement and directed other widespread aid activities – such as operation of centers for agricultural training for the members of the socialist youth movements, aid to Jews in the forced labor camps, and more.

Many towns had branches of the organization which were all subordinate to Weichert’s management. The management of the organization in Krakow, headed by Weichert, coordinated, initiated and supervised the social aid activities in all the towns under its authority, including of various organizations which were effectively subservient to it but were often given full freedom of action. During the three years of its activity, this organization dealt with some half a million people, half of the total number of Jews in the area it was responsible for. Despite the tremendous disparity between the needs of the public and the ability to help them, the self-help organization managed to provide portions of food to the soup kitchens, as well as to send packages of dry food, medicine and clothing to the poor. The Germans ordered the organization to shut down once they began the implementation of the ‘Final Solution’. Its activity ceased on July 29, 1942, and a Jewish self-help office was opened in its stead, which was subordinate to the Gestapo and closely supervised by it.

The many frictions between Weichert and the various Polish underground movements led to him being forced to hide from them and to his life being in two-fold danger –  not only from the fury of those who saw him as a Nazi collaborator, but also due to having been sentenced to death by the Germans themselves, who issued an arrest order against him. Weichert, managed to survive the Holocaust, along with his wife and son. They arrived in Israel in 1958, bringing with them a large and valuable archive of documentation which has unique significance for the history of the Holocaust, as well as, and perhaps primarily in Weichert’s eyes, material which told the story of the Jewish theatre in pre-Holocaust Poland, during the War and in the short-lived period of flourishing after the War.

Comments of the Polish postman who returned the envelopes to the sender. Michael Weichert Archive, the National Library

The envelopes of the letters sent back to Weichert from the various branches of the aid organization he managed are important testimony and a painful memory of those difficult days. It was the Polish postmen who informed him about the destruction of dozens of Jewish communities throughout Poland. This extraordinary documentation is now preserved in the National Library and is available to researchers and historians who undoubtedly, will continue to study this dark and terrible period of human history.