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'I want them to know that I'm Jewish'


What does it mean to be Jewish?
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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In a way it should have occurred to me, but it didn’t, so it’s in answer to a very specific question that you asked, about my being Jewish. The question is, of course, what does that mean, and why am I prepared to answer this question now, after really having talked for so long? It’s because that is going to be the subject of my next play, so therefore it isn’t as if it were something past. On the contrary, it is exactly what preoccupies me, and I have written about it in three different ways. I wrote an entire chapter in this autobiography in a very peculiar way, by entitling it the search... The Quest for Alfred E Newman. Most people don’t even know who Alfred E Newman was, except, sort of, Americans who knew about this magazine, Mad magazine, which was published for about 30 or 40 years, and it’s now stopped, and always had a face on it. He was called Alfred E Newman, and the question is, who was he? And so that’s how I wrote about it there. Then I wrote an entire novel, which is called Menachem's Seed, so I used as Jewish a name as I could find, and I’ll just show you what that looks like, because that’s also important.

So this is my real Jewish novel, and yet... So these are the hard back and the... and it’s interesting that the covers seem to have nothing to do with it. The cover, which is a very sophisticated one, was a Leonardo De Vinci drawing, in... in Queen Elizabeth... in the Queen’s collection. One of his famous anatomical drawings, which is called Coition, and is really his view of the anatomy of the penis and the vagina, and instead of using this for the paperback, Penguin used in this instance a famous Dutch painting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, because this story... I mean the novel... the first sentence: What he doesn’t know about the Queen of Sheba isn’t worth knowing. That's Menachem Dvir she asks in a low voice, white beard and glasses, it does look like a biblical scholar. No, le Guru whispered back. Unlike a subject of their conversation, the Frenchman was one of the few participants without a nametag. He didn't need one. Everybody at the Pugwash Conference knew who le Guru was. That’s one of the Russians, Dvir is the other one. 

So it starts, but it is in fact dedicated to an Israeli who is now dead, and you see there to Shalhevet Freier, and he was the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, and a number of other things, in Israel, and was the Israeli representative at many of the Pugwash Conferences. And it is really my novel about Pugwash, in a way, but also about the rapprochement at... rapprochement is wrong, but the beginning conversations between Palestinians and... and Israelis, so I wrote it here. And... and what I describe here is really how many of the European secular Jews, secular Jews, refugees, either denied their Jewishness or did not volunteer it, but they never flaunted it. During that time when they came there was tremendous insecurity. I even had it, even though I did not suffer, in the context of having escaped a concentration camp, but only the Nazi events, and was able to get out a few months later, so it was not yet at the height of the... of the worst murders. But, nevertheless, I didn’t volunteer it, I did not deny it. I have friends of mine from Europe, who to this day do not... will... will not mention it. They will not say they’re not Jewish, but the subject is taboo, they will not discuss it.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: The Quest for Alfred E Newman, Mad magazine, Menachem's Seed, Pugwash, Coition, Alfred E Newman, Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, Leonardo da Vinci, Shalhevet Freier, Menachem Dvir

Duration: 4 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008