A Brief History
On June 19, 1269, the King of France, Louis IX, ordered that any Jew found in any public place not wearing the obligatory yellow badge would be fined 10 livres of silver. (Note: The livre was the monetary unit in France before 1795 when they came up with the franc. The word stems from the Latin word for “pound” and the original livre in 781 CE was 1 pound of silver.) People of Jewish faith or lineage have suffered discrimination and worse for many centuries. Meanwhile, many Jewish scientists, composers, educators, and artists of all types among others have enriched mankind. For example, 3 of the 7 justices on the US Supreme Court are Jewish. (Some of the inventions of Jews; safety razor, printed circuit board, cell phone, transistor, computer mouse, defibrillator, Esperanto, video tape, the Corvette, and the cotton swab.) Here we list 10 of the greatest contributions of people of Jewish background to the United States and the World. Who else would you include? (Note: The arbitrary order listed does not denote relative value of the contribution.)
10. Julius Fromm, Latex Condom.
With the loosening of sexual inhibitions after the prudish Victorian age, people obviously needed protection against unwanted pregnancy and disease. Condoms then were made of natural “skin” substances (animal intestines) and of rubber. The rubber condoms were made by wrapping layers of rubber around a mold and then cooking it. Fromm invented a way to make the latex liquid and manufacture the condoms by dipping a mold into the liquid. His invention was made in 1916, and the thinner, cheaper condom was a big success throughout Europe. He also invented the condom vending machine in 1928, leading to the gas station bathroom graffiti, “Don’t buy this gum, it tastes like rubber!”
9. Ruth Handler, Barbie Doll.
Ranking close to the Teddy Bear in the hearts of American children, Barbie has kept girls company since 1959. Handler and her husband were co-founders of Mattel (with Harold Matson) and were manufacturing plastic items such as picture frames when Ruth got the inspiration for Barbie from their daughter, Barbara. The invention of Barbie has made millions of little girls happy and millions of parents wondering where their money went when Barbie “needed” all those accessories.
8. Morris Michtom, Teddy Bear.
Taking inspiration from a cartoon of President Teddy Roosevelt showing a little bear mercy while hunting, Morris and his wife Rose created the Teddy Bear and turned it into an American icon. Cracked fact: Their daughter appeared in 40+ episodes of the television show, Get Smart as a background character.
7. Benjamin Disraeli, British Statesman.
Although born a Sephardic Jew, Disraeli’s father had his family switch to Anglican when Ben was 12, obviously to blend in to British society. (Anglican is the state religion of the United Kingdom.) Disraeli went on to a distinguished career in British politics, serving as Prime Minister and as Chancellor of the Exchequer, as well as a Conservative member of Parliament.
6. Laszlo Biro, Ball Point Pen.
Just think, before 1944 when this Hungarian Jew invented the ball point pen, there were no copy machines and the use of carbon paper to make handwritten copies must have been horrendous with a fountain pen. Smudge free writing and many times less likely to cause a laundry disaster than a fountain pen. Thanks Laszlo!
5. Claude Levi-Strauss, Anthropology.
No, he did not invent blue jeans (probably wishes he did!). Claude is called the Father of Modern Anthropology for his work concerning structuralism and structural anthropology. He also studied mythology and applied his structuralist approach to that field. President of France (at the time) Nicolas Sarkozy called him “The greatest ethnologist of our time.” upon his death at age 100 in 2009. Born in Belgium, Levi-Strauss spent most of his life in France.
4. J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, Nuclear Physics.
Whether you think nuclear weapons are a good thing or not, Oppenheimer is considered the Father of the Atomic Bomb and Teller is considered the Father of the Hydrogen Bomb. Both were born into Jewish families and both worked in the United States, although Teller was born in Hungary. The fact that these scientists enabled the US to be the first to get nuclear weapons may well have prevented a catastrophe for the Western world had the Soviets or Chinese gotten such weapons first.
3. Sanford “Sandy” Koufax, Baseball.
Born Sanford Braun, Koufax played only 11 years of big league baseball, but what spectacular years they were. He pitched 4 no hitters, struck out 2396 batters and had a career ERA of 2.76. Along with Nolan Ryan, Koufax is one of only two pitchers in the Hall of Fame that struck out more batters than innings they pitched. Amazing fact: In Koufax’s last year (1966) he was 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA! His salary for that fantastic season; a career high $125,000. Koufax famously refused to pitch a World Series game on Yom Kippur, a Jewish holy day.
2. Sigmund Schlomo Freud, Psychoanalysis.
This Austrian Jew is the Father of Psychoanalysis and as such greatly influenced those psychiatrists that came after him. His research and thinking is some of the most influential and insightful delving into the human mind of all time. Cracked fact: Freud thought that the fear of castration among males is provoked by uncircumcised boys seeing boys that are circumcised and as such this constitutes the root of anti-Semitism. Additionally, Freud thought that belief in God is an “illusion” and basically exists to calm man’s fear of “nature” and death.
1. Albert Einstein, Science.
Among other things, Einstein is most famous for his Special and General Theories of Relativity, and for his equation, E= MC2². Often referred to as the smartest man in history, Einstein was in the United States when Hitler and the Nazis took power in Germany where Einstein had been working as a professor in Berlin. Einstein chose to stay in the US as he rightly figured going back to Germany was suicidal. Fun facts: No one knows what Einstein’s last words were because he spoke them in German and no German speaking person was present. Recently discovered correspondence indicates that Einstein was probably an atheist, although he never said so publicly.
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For more information, please see…
Slater, Elinor and Robert Slater. Great Jewish Men. Jonathan David Publisher, 2012.
Slater, Elinor and Robert Slater. Great Jewish Women. Jonathan David Publishers, 2015.