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Authors: Stuart Rojstaczer

The Mathematician’s Shiva

BOOK: The Mathematician’s Shiva
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Praise for
The Mathematician’s Shiva

“Full of warmth, pathos, history, and humor, not to mention a cast of delightfully quirky characters, and a math lesson or two; all together, a winning equation! When Rojstaczer writes about mathematics, you’d think he was writing about poetry.”

—Jonathan Evison, author of
West of Here
and
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving

“Here is the rare book that invites us into the romance of pure mathematics and the very human company of those who spend their decades unknotting the abstractions that describe our reality.”—Lore Segal, author of
Shakespeare’s Kitchen

“This funny, moving, perceptive look at one man’s relationship to his eccentric mother and the legacy of her genius succeeds to the
nth
degree. Rojstaczer is a wise, warm-hearted, and wonderful new writer.”—Eric Puchner, author of
Model Home

“Stuart Rojstaczer has written a mathematician’s history of the family, full of challenging equations, emotional calculus, and unexpected conclusions.
The Mathematician’s Shiva
is intricate, intelligent, and funny, a pleasure to read.”—Roxana Robinson, author of
Sparta

“At last! The long hoped for proof that a group of people even crazier than Yiddish-speakers can, in fact, exist.”

—Michael Wex, author of
Born to Kvetch

“High math, Eastern European history, and American culture converge in this hugely entertaining debut. . . . [A] multilayered story of family, genius, and loss.”—
Publishers Weekly

PENGUIN BOOKS

The Mathematician’s Shiva

Stuart Rojstaczer
was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For many years, he was a professor of geophysics at Duke University. He has written for
the
New York Times
and
Washington Post
, and his scientific research has been published in many journals, including
Science
and
Nature
. He lives with his wife in Northern California. This is his first published novel.

PENGUIN BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, New York 10014

USA | Canada | UK | Ireland | Australia | New Zealand | India | South Africa | China

penguin.com

A Penguin Random House Company

First published in Penguin Books 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Stuart Rojstaczer

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

eBook ISBN 978-0-698-15220-5

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

CONTENTS

Praise for Stuart Rojstaczer

About the Author

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph

PART 1: THE FAMILY

CHAPTER 1: Tonight It’s Just Us

CHAPTER 2: Early Training

CHAPTER 3: Without Yozl Pandrik

CHAPTER 4: From
A Lifetime in Mathematics
by Rachela Karnokovitch: The Bear

CHAPTER 5: Impossible Problems

CHAPTER 6: When Someone Famous Dies

CHAPTER 7: From
A Lifetime in Mathematics
by Rachela Karnokovitch: Hunger

CHAPTER 8: The Ballerina

CHAPTER 9: In My Room

CHAPTER 10: The Younger Generation

CHAPTER 11: The Ballerina, Part 2

CHAPTER 12: A Confession

PART 2: THE MATHEMATICIANS

CHAPTER 13: The Gathering

CHAPTER 14: Laying Down the Law

CHAPTER 15: The Women

CHAPTER 16: The Prisoner

CHAPTER 17: A Russian Funeral

CHAPTER 18: From Generation to Generation

CHAPTER 19: From
A Lifetime in Mathematics
by Rachela Karnokovitch: The Flesh of a Bear

PART 3: SITTING SHIVA

CHAPTER 20: The Story Hour

CHAPTER 21: From
A Lifetime in Mathematics
by Rachela Karnokovitch: Turbulence

CHAPTER 22: The Truth, Sort Of, Comes Out

CHAPTER 23: The Ski Trip

CHAPTER 24: Kabbalove

CHAPTER 25: On the Mend

CHAPTER 26: A Meeting of the Minds

CHAPTER 27: In the Wee Hours of the Morn

CHAPTER 28: Desperate Measures

CHAPTER 29: Mama’s Boy

CHAPTER 30: The Governor

CHAPTER 31: The Listening Session

CHAPTER 32: The Truth Really Does Come Out

CHAPTER 33: The Last Lunch

CHAPTER 34: The Great Realignment

CHAPTER 35: Tuscaloosa

CHAPTER 36: The Return

CHAPTER 37: From
A Lifetime in Mathematics
by Rachela Karnokovitch: Untitled

NOTE TO THE READER

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

In memory of my father, who was a wonderful storyteller, my mother, who believed fervently in the beauty of life, and my brother, who was my guide to all things American

First you must know your mental capacities and your natural talents: you will find this out when you study all mathematical sciences. . . .

—Maimonides

It’s always the same story full of confusions, nuisances, pressures, willy-nilly journeys, annoyances, disputes, kinks in well-made plans, jolts, itches, and bewilderment.

—Mendele

PART 1
THE FAMILY
CHAPTER 1
Tonight It’s Just Us

“H
ow’s your mother?” Yakov Epshtein asked. Yakov’s goatee was flecked with gray. Over the years his cheeks had ballooned and taken on a happy glow. His clothing choices for work had migrated from a cheap sagging suit, pressed white shirt, and thrift-store tie circa 1984 to a polo shirt and jeans with tasseled loafers sans socks. He was waiting, perhaps, for the day that global warming would bring the ocean to the Great Plains. This miracle, if it took place, would be welcome to Yakov but not necessary. Life in America had been good.

I was in Yakov’s office, its well-worn vinyl floor covered with the grime of twenty years of use slightly mitigated by perfunctory cleaning. It was early afternoon eleven years ago, in the winter of 2001. The wind outside barely blew. The sky was crystal blue. Looking through the double-paned glass, those inexperienced with the Midwest might be fooled into thinking it was warm outside, at least warm for January. Both Yakov and I knew better. “My mother is hanging in there,” I said. “You know her. She’s not going down until she’s ready.”

“A remarkable woman.” Yakov was from Russia. When a Russian mathematician mentioned my mother, this phrase “remarkable woman” would often follow. It was a phrase my father would use as well, but often in a sarcastic way.

Yakov had come to the United States in 1986 and taught at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. He was lucky to have eventually found this job. Many of my parents’ acquaintances who had emigrated from Russia in the 1970s and 1980s were doing things far afield from mathematics in order to put food on the table. I, unlike Yakov, had come to the United States as a young child. My memories of the former Soviet Union were fuzzy at best. Given what I had heard about Russia from my parents and their friends, I knew that this fuzziness was not a bad thing.

I was giving a talk at Nebraska’s atmospheric sciences department, but when people in the math department heard I was coming, they filled up half of my appointment schedule. I was used to this. It was never about me. It was about my mother. She was the stuff of legend.

She was five foot eight, a tall glass of water by European (and maybe even American) standards, who tended to tower over men, including my father, in her heels. She favored gray or burgundy suits tailored by a local dressmaker and owned well over two hundred pairs of shoes, an obsession that she said derived from her poverty during World War II. She would probably have been even taller had she not starved during the war. My mother never needed a microphone. When she spoke it was with the cadence of an oracle. She had been banned from teaching calculus at her university simply because she scared the hell out of freshmen.

When my mother was ten years old, she was living in an Arctic Circle work camp where her father, a Jewish Pole/Russian (every decade or so, control of his hometown would change from one country to the other), was sentenced to hard labor for being a capitalist Enemy of the People. At school on the frozen tundra along the Barents Sea, my mother showed a remarkable facility for mathematics. In Russia, math is not just a means to an end. It’s a glorious art. Suddenly, my mother’s family got a little bit of meat and flour in addition to their wrinkled potatoes and onions. Another Enemy of the People, a professor of mathematics, was told to tutor my mother three times a week. Like many, he never made it back home.

My mother, formerly a Pole, then a full-fledged citizen of the glorious USSR due to the Soviet annexation of her hometown after the war, was sent to Moscow for further study in 1945. These were heady times in Russian mathematics, and the most admired mathematician of all was her advisor, the great Kolmogorov. My mother began to publish papers when she was sixteen. She defected to the West in 1951, after giving a talk in East Berlin. My mother became a tenured professor at the University of Wisconsin at the age of twenty-two. At twenty-eight, she was offered a tenured professorship at Princeton, which somehow promised to ignore its rules on nepotism and hire my father as well. She turned them down. Like Kolmogorov and many of his acolytes, she believed that cold weather was required for the creative mind. New Jersey simply was too warm. Plus, according to her, Princeton was a haven for anti-Semites, and she’d already had her fill of that in Russia and Poland. She stayed in Wisconsin.

In 1999, after sixty-nine years without a single major health issue, my mother was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Her doctor told her to expect to live three to six months. “Nonsense,” she said. “I have a good year of things to do.”

A year and a half later, she was down to eighty-five pounds. As I walked out of Yakov’s office, I got the call on my cell phone. “I’m going to die today,” she said.

“I’m in Nebraska. I have a talk at three.”

“Forget the talk.”

I asked Yakov to give me a ride to the Lincoln airport. There was a rumor that my mother was working on a solution to a heretofore unsolved, century-old, vexing mathematical problem that she was cheating death to finish. I didn’t know how this rumor started. It couldn’t possibly have been true. But every mathematician I had talked to for the last two years, including Yakov, had mentioned it. I could sense the excitement in their voices. A once-in-a-century problem finally solved. The worldwide mathematical community would be in a rare upbeat mood, maybe even completely euphoric, for a year at least. “She must have finished today,” Yakov said about the rumored proof. “A remarkable woman.”

My mother lived alone. Fifteen years earlier, she had come home for lunch, found my father screwing an undergraduate on the leather couch, and threw him out. She called me on the phone at the time. If she possessed any sense of loss or grief, it wasn’t present in her voice. “He was fucking someone on my furniture. And she wasn’t even that good-looking,” she said. My father’s side of the story was a bit different. They never formally divorced. Such legalities were either beneath them or beyond them. On the day of my own wedding, my father looked more bewildered than anything else. My mother cried.

The closest I could get to Madison on quick notice was Chicago, a town that is physiographically as dreadfully boring as Lincoln but makes up for it by housing several million more people. When you grow up in the Midwest, every mound and depression become a cause for celebration. The long winters and tedium of the landscape can lead you to drink a ridiculous amount of alcohol. On that front, my family fit right in. I rented a boxy American sedan and headed out on the interstate, where I got another call.

“Where are you?”

“On the border.”

“Drive faster.”

“I’m going ninety-five, Mother.”

“I didn’t ask how fast you were driving. Drive faster.”

“Who’s with you?”

“No one.”

“I thought Cynthia was with you.”

“She left. She couldn’t stand the stress. I went to the bathroom. I was shitting blood. She walked out.”

“She walked out?”

“Yes, she walked out. What was I supposed to do? Bring her back in the house? I didn’t want that painted doll around anyway.”

“I’ll drive faster.”

“That’s what I told you.” Once during a chemotherapy session, my mother had said that if I didn’t speak to my father after she died, she would rise out of the grave to slap me. “He’s your father. He’s a bastard sometimes. But he is your father.” With most people threats like this would be considered idle. But with my mother perhaps anything was possible.

I whizzed by car after car at a speed that should have caused a cop or two to pull me over, and became half convinced that this was a day I was immune to such quotidian barriers. I thought about my family. It was small by any standard, shrunken to a handful by Hitler, Stalin, and divorce. There was my father, with whom I had issues. What son doesn’t? There was my mother, whose most notable feature was a towering intellect. Then there was Cynthia, who had heedlessly walked out on a dying relative because she couldn’t take the stress. That was my aunt. There was also a cousin, Bruce, but he had left the madhouse of Madison long ago for a different kind of insanity. He produced television shows in Los Angeles. His credits could often be found at the end of Grammy Awards and Barbra Streisand/Beyoncé/The-New-Singing-Sensation specials. There was also my uncle, my mother’s kid brother and Cynthia’s husband, who, under circumstances far more dire than my mother’s, had miraculously survived the war. He owned a liquor distributorship in town. Finally, there was an ex-wife and child for me, but our relationship was nil and had been so for more than twenty-five years.

My mother lived in the same house she had bought with my father back in 1954, a bungalow near the zoo and walking distance to the synagogue. Yes, my mother was very religious. She rarely missed Sabbath morning prayers. Many mathematicians found this unbelievable.

Some people fondly or not so fondly remember roosters waking them up in the morning. For me it was the barking sea lions of the zoo whose sounds readily crashed through my second-story windows in both summer and winter. After I left, my bedroom gradually filled with journals and books, overflow from my mother’s office at the university. Then there was my mother’s opus on bookshelves as well, her family history. We are not a tidy family. The acrid air produced by the yellowing paper of those volumes kept all but my mother and the occasional dedicated visiting scholar out of my old room. When I visited, I slept on the living room couch.

We moved my mother’s bed downstairs into the sunroom off the kitchen when she got sick. It just made things more convenient. Everything she needed was within thirty steps. She even had an electric kettle for tea next to her bed and a spigot that a kind and handy neighbor had jury-rigged into the room.

When I walked into the house, I saw her propped up in her bed, almost completely hidden by a thick, ivory-white down comforter. It was something she had never needed or had when she was healthy. She was now so thin that I barely recognized her. Her long blond hair, which had never grayed, was not in her signature schoolgirl/Valkyrie—take your pick—braids, but fell raggedly over her shoulders.

For a year after she was diagnosed, I would come every other week for her chemotherapy sessions. As the months wore on, though, my work at the University of Alabama piled up. I tried to achieve balance, but I’m not good at multitasking. Neither are my mother and father. My research program lost a huge chunk of funding. I had to let a postdoc go. OK, I am not my mother in terms of intellect or achievement, but who is? Everyone, even self-acknowledged minor scientists like me, needs a little sunlight to shine on their ego. My visits to Madison went down to once a month.

When my mother noticed me, she turned her head slightly, her eyelids opening as if from a long deep sleep. “My Sashaleh,” she said.

I walked up to her and touched her cheek. Her skin felt smooth and paper thin. “A woman shouldn’t die alone. It isn’t natural,” she said. “I don’t want to be in pain. I want morphine. That’s it. Morphine if I need it.” I called up the hospital. The ambulance came and two men in stiff orange shirts with typical barrel-like Wisconsin bodies hauled her out. How much beer, schnapps, and pizza must one drink and eat on a daily basis to maintain such a size?

They carried her carefully along the ice-covered sidewalk and then, out of habit I guess, drove the sixty seconds to the hospital as if they were NASCAR drivers. When my mother was wheeled around the cold hospital halls—barely lit, with the kind of fluorescent lighting that makes even the healthy look sick—she seemed both lost and terrified, an emotional state that I had never before witnessed in her.

“I haven’t been here since the oven blew up.” We were at St. Mary’s, walking distance to our house.

“That was, what, forty years ago?”

“Forty-two. The idiots called me into the room and told me you had a broken leg. Burns on your face, and they told me you needed a cast.”

“They mixed up the files.”

“This is a good place to be, actually. At the university hospital they might try to keep me going for a few days. Here, they don’t know what they are doing. If they tried to save my life, they might just kill me outright instead.”

“You sure you don’t want to keep going?”

“No. I’m done. I suppose this is better than at home,” she said and looked at the morphine drip. “I could have used this yesterday, too. I hurt like hell. Did you give them the papers?”

“They’re on file.”

“Show the nurse the papers. These idiots cannot be trusted to do anything right. I don’t want some tube down me. Who are you calling?” she asked as I dialed on my cell.

“Father.”

“He won’t come. He hates hospitals.” In the war, my father, who was, and I mean this as a compliment, the best liar I have ever met, faked his way into being an orderly in a hospital. The job, far from the front, likely saved his life. But he had no idea how to minister to the sick, and he probably killed more than one or two men because of his incompetence.

“I don’t need to say good-bye to her,” my father said on the phone. “I already did.”

“I’m not asking you to come for her. I’m asking you to come for me.”

“That’s different, I suppose.” He came, but it took an hour. As always, he was impeccably dressed. A well-pressed dark suit. A starched white shirt. A blue-and-black bow tie. A blue pocket square. His face freshly shaved. His dyed hair combed over his still visible shiny bald spot. My father was a charming anachronism. My mother and I and a few dozen undergraduate women were probably the only people in this country who ever saw my father in anything less than formal attire.

My uncle Shlomo, who had been at a liquor convention in Detroit, apparently drove at something approaching the speed of sound on I-94—he didn’t need encouragement like me in that regard—as soon as he heard and arrived almost at the same minute as my father. Cynthia, though, was still suffering from stress. Bruce was taking a red-eye from LA. So was Anna, more or less our family’s adopted daughter, and reminder, as if my parents needed any, of the hell of Russia and the heaven of the United States. But neither Bruce nor Anna would see my mother alive, I knew. My uncle gave his sister a hug that rattled the bed and kissed her softly on her cheeks and lips. “You really want to die today?” he asked.

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