Saturday, October 23, 2010
Cornell University. 1959-61.
The town of Ithaca is very hilly with Cornell University situated at the top of the hills. The town could be divided into two parts, college town, surrounding the campus, with lots of run-down apartment (student housing) and in my opinion firetraps and larger clap board houses running all the way down the hill to the downtown, which was predominantly built in the 1920’s style. Here and there particularly along the canyons were spacious stone or brick houses built probably at the turn of the 20th century. The major department store on State St. was Rothschild’s. Driving in the town was extremely hazardous, and vehicles required chains in the winter months.
Unlike our first attempt at living in Ithaca, this time we had applied for and received married student housing. Cornell quarters was a large area of small duplex huts left over from the US army. The huts were small, one bedroom and a small living area with kitchen. To us they were heaven since they gave us a sense of ownership, and being on our own, although there were times when we could hear the next-door couple quite clearly either arguing or have sex. We got to know a number of our neighbors, and I would walk into campus every morning with a student from Ghana, whom I suspect became one of their minister’s of agriculture. The whole area had a superintendent or janitor, a Mr. Bell, a kind, middle-aged man who offered after a few months to teach me how to drive an automobile (our first car). The quarters were very extensive and looked like the internment camps used for the Japanese during WWII.
Even though I had a fellowship, which covered part of my expenses at Cornell, we both needed to work to sustain ourselves. Mimi found a good job as a lab technician in the chemistry department with Dr. Harold Scheraga, who is considered one of the great protein chemists of his time. She was an assistant to some of his graduate students and post-docs studying the enzyme ribonuclease’s physical structure. I in the meantime found a part time job in the main library, cataloging books dealing with Jewish subjects. I was hired because I was able to read Hebrew. Later on I dealt with cataloging government documents. This latter job was very boring but it did bring in minimum wages.
I also worked for Dr. Marble in the poultry husbandry department, who was the contact with Ben Adam in Israel, recording weights of eggs and matching these to specific hens. I occasionally did some plowing for Dr. Baker, my advisor in the department of Poultry Husbandry. Dr. Baker was a very typical American, large and forceful. His specialty was marketing and he organized and ran the Cornell University Booth at the New York State Fair. We students were expected to man this booth and persuade the public to buy chicken hot dogs, which at that time was quite a novelty. We also had to participate in poultry judging. I also had to take a class in this, and I found it very difficult to feel up a hen or cockerel and judge its health and quality. In fact it was poultry judging which began to make me think twice as to whether I was in the right field. I could tell the difference between a skinny chicken and a fat one, but to judge by feathers and look the chicken in the eye and judge its health was beyond my abilities. Dr. Baker is still alive and in his retirement has opened a 30-acre farm of gardens and nursery stock, as well as a café near Ithaca. This is probably the same farm that I plowed as an undergraduate.
I got a very good education in Poultry Husbandry. I took a class in avian anatomy taught by a famous poultry geneticist, Robert Hutt. I knew the name of every bone, in the chicken and every hole in that bone by the time I finished the course. I still have somewhere the term paper I wrote (probably the first in my life) on the feather and its development. Mimi did the much-needed drawings for the paper. I actually found feather development and structure fascinating. Knowing all the bones and joints of the chicken has helped with carving at the table. Unfortunately Turkeys are not built the same way, and they still give me difficulty.
Another feature of Cornell avian life was the ornithology center. It was situated outside the campus in Sapsucker woods. It was a place to sit and watch the birds, and had wonderful exhibits. We have been back a few times since I graduated and we always head to this and to Cornell Gardens, an area of beautiful extensive gardens and green houses. One of the main attraction of Cornell campus, are the extensive flower gardens. The campus of Cornell is very beautiful, not so much the actual buildings of the campus, which in these days tended to be mock –Gothic, or built in the utilitarian style of the turn of the 20th century but for natural beauty. The campus, or at least part of it was within walking distance of Cornell Quarters, and since we did not have a car, and I do not remember a campus bus, we must have walked every day. The campus and surrounding area is full of canyons, waterfalls, and lakes formed by glacial movement. It is close to the Finger Lakes about 200 miles North of New York City. In fact Ithaca is at the head, the southern end, of one of the lakes, Lake Cayuga. Apart from the gulley’s, canyons and Water Falls on the campus there is a small lake which in our time had a small restaurant where one could have a snack or cup of tea. This was Beebe Lake and Noyes Lodge. This was not too far from the chemistry building and we would meet there for lunch, and remark on the other students who appeared too poor to even buy tea, and would bring their own tea bags. One could sit for hours looking at the lake, and the waterfalls. Noyes Lodge is no more and has been turned into a language resource center. Unfortunately a lot of that beauty has been spoiled by expansion and the crowding of buildings. I was at Cornell, perhaps 4 years ago, and although still beautiful, the campus was ruined by excessive over building. However one can still bathe in ButtermilK Falls and climb up to the upper park and surroundings.
Although the summers were idyllic, the winters in upstate New York were unbelievably cold. Ithaca was in the snow belt of upstate New York and it is no exaggeration to say that there was 3-4 feet or more of snow on the ground all winter long. We would have ice form in the corner of our little hut in Cornell Quarters. And to get to the school, we would wrap ourselves up with multiple layers of clothing and run from building to building until we arrived at the correct one. From Cornell quarters we would walk past the cattle barn, famous for its dairy and ice cream, through the Ag school, and eventually reach the chemistry building, frozen stiff. For the first year we had no car and no washing machine, so that we would lug a load of laundry in a basket or bag through the snow and bring it back damp from the Laundromat. In the spring this would be hung out to dry a very European idea.
Chemistry where Mimi worked was not in the Ag school and had just moved into a new building near the lake. This was an architectural experiment in which all the pipes, made of a transparent plastic were out in the open, and one could see the drainage from the sinks flow through them. It somehow reminded me of the Pompidou center in Paris.
We had quite an active social life. Through Mimi’s work we met Jan and her husband Ed who was a physics major. They were an interesting couple from some small town in Virginia. I think they thought us very exotic, having never met Jews before. However we would go out together, and we have maintained contact to this day. We went to our first Football game together Ed is I believe one of the inventors of the Star Wars Missile shield, proposed during the Reagan era. He has been very successful as a missile engineer, and Jan has been involved in various businesses. They now have retired to Maine.
I have mentioned previously my cousin Ralph. He was the son of my grandfather’s brother, thus really a first cousin to my mothers. He and his wife were very Irish, from Dublin, and had quite a number of Irish friends. They were a happy lot, often a little drunk, ( not Ralph and Muriel ) and to us a bit crazy. They lived in what was called College town, an area close to the gates of campus. They lived in an old wooden Victorian style ramshackle building that I was sure would catch fire one day. I never expected to see it still standing and looking as dangerous as it did 50 years ago but there it was a few years ago, still the same. We often went out to the only movie house in town, and to the few cafes on the main street. While we were in Ithaca their first child, Susan was born and we were the first baby sitters. Susan of course is now a mother of two children, and I see her quite often, she lives in the Washington DC area. Ralph was a graduate student in soil microbiology, and later went on to have an endowed chair in the department of engineering at Harvard.
After one year we bought our first car and I learned to drive. It was a white and red Buick, quite a monster by today’s standards. The body was a little rusted and apparently it ran on 5 out of 6 cylinders. It was very noisy and could be heard for miles. I was taught to drive by Mr. Bell the super at Cornell Quarters. Since there were so many parking lots nearby, it was not difficult to find an open space to practice driving. I got my driving license after one test. The car had automatic transmission, which made it easy, compared to later on when I drove a stick shift, while on sabbatical in England. I quickly got used to the roads of Ithaca, and later on I would occasionally drive to New York City and actually drive in the city and surroundings. One major characteristic of all the cars in Ithaca was their rustiness. Since there was so much salt on the roads, car rusted very quickly. My cousin Ralph who occasionally drove us around had a car with no bottom, that is one could almost pedal with ones feet it was so rusty, in particular on the passenger side.
Graduate School decision:
While I was still toying with the idea of going back to Israel and working for the Ministry of Agriculture, a Dr. Bornstein appeared on the horizon. He was visiting the department to deliver a seminar, and we invited him over for tea. During the course of conversation he inquired of my plans, and when I told him that after the bachelor’s degree, I planned on returning to Israel and applying for my “ old ‘ job back, he thought that this was not such a great idea, but rather since I had been quite successful with course work, that I should go on for the MS or MA in agriculture. This took me by surprise, since I had really never given it a thought, and really had no idea even how to begin to apply to graduate school. However my interest in poultry husbandry had also began to wane, and I was not sure that this was my future path. In fact I took an elementary course in microbiology from Dr. Van Denmark and found it quite interesting.
At this time I was taking a class in genetics from Dr. Everett, a plant geneticist. This was a very basic genetics course dealing with Mendelian genetics. One day I talked to him after class, and asked his advice. He suggested I write directly to top individuals in the field of genetics, and gave me a list, among whom were Nobel Prize winners as well as future Nobel Laureates. These included Hermann Muller of Indiana University, and Joshua Lederberg of Stanford, as well as professors at Berkeley, Michigan, and the Rockefeller. I sent in my applications to these various laboratories and schools, as well as to Purdue University Poultry Husbandry as a back up. These were the day before the GRE was required, and admission depended on grades and letters of reference. If I remember correctly the application had to be in by December, but admission letters with offers were sent out in Mid-April. Before the time, probably in March I received a letter from Purdue, offering me a full fellowship in the Department of Poultry Husbandry with a request for an immediate answer. This threw me into a tizzy, since I did not want to say yes, before I had heard from the other schools. I wrote to the other schools, telling them the situation. I got a long letter back from Hermann Muller explaining that I should not give into Purdue’s pressure. He could not tell me whether the answer from IU would be positive but that Purdue was behaving in an unethical fashion (I did not know at that time of the rivalry between Purdue and IU). On the basis of this letter I decided to wait, and I must have responded to Purdue somewhat ambiguously.
Sure enough in Mid April I got an offer both from Indiana and Stanford of a full fellowship (NIH training grant). I may have also received a positive response from Berkeley and Michigan but without support. Mimi and I debated the relative pros and cons of both places, and after having spent two years in “ cold” Ithaca we opted for warm Stanford and California. How different my scientific career might have been if we had gone to IU. There I would have been in the lab of Hermann Muller and studied classical drosophila genetics. I have been told that he was rather a difficult person, so I do not know whether I could have stuck it out. Josh Lederberg wrote that he did not have any room in his laboratory, but that he had passed my file on to a new colleague, Charles Yanofsky, and that I would work in his laboratory. This turned out to be one of the major laboratories in the country deciphering the genetic code. Of course if I had studied at IU I probably would not be in Bloomington today. How ironic! Life is full of such accidental happenings. In fact this sequence of events, the visit by Bornstein, the talk to Everett, and the letter from Herman Muller basically put me on a different career pathway, and changed my life. We had given up the idea of returning to Israel for the time being, and eventually moved to Palo Alto and Stanford, California, which later on influenced all of Mimi’s family. Almost the whole family, including Mimi’s Uncle from New York and family moved to California. Thus we started a Western migration.
Monday, October 4, 2010
New York: 1958
We arrived in New York towards the end of August 1958. We had $10 in our pocket (perhaps it was a little more or less), and our plans were to take the bus directly to Ithaca, New York, where I had been accepted to Cornell University. However it was the week before school began, and the type of housing available shocked us. We really had no idea what to expect. We had not registered for student housing, and looked at old decrepit clapboard houses, with an offer to rent provisional on cleaning snow, or accommodation some times in a basement with no windows. Most would have cost us more than any salary Mimi could earn. Having just arrived from white, gleaming Haifa, everything seemed gloomy and grey. Actually Ithaca itself is in a very beautiful area, but the town looked very run down. Since I was considered a “foreign student”, from Israel, an Israeli student, David Prihar took us around and from him we got an idea of the expenses incurred in attending Cornell. I could call these years of our life the years of naivety. Certainly this was not the America we had imagined. I think our impressions of the USA were formed by movies of the 1950’s and not the reality of the country. It was obvious that it was going to be too difficult to move to Ithaca, at this time and go to school. I could not afford the tuition, and thus we opted back to New York City to live with Rutta and Salo (Mimi’s parents) who had just moved into an apartment in the Bronx.
We also learned from David of the presence of another “ Israeli” student, actually from Ireland but with a connection to Israel, Ralph Mitchell. Since my mothers’ maiden name was Mitchell and I had heard vaguely of family living in Dublin and Belfast, I was anxious to contact this Ralph. I called and asked whether he had any connection to the Glasgow Mitchells, and he said “ yes, he had visited his uncle many years ago”. This was probably my grandfather or more likely my mother’s Uncle Robert, who also had some Irish connection, having lived in Belfast for a few years. From my Aunt Betty’s writings I have learned recently that my great grandmother, and thus Ralph’s grandmother had died in Belfast after an IRA attack on a nearby barracks. Thus Ralph was my mother’s first cousin, and we had found a new relative in the USA. Interestingly Ralph was studying for the Ph.D. in microbiology. If I had not been so set on studying Poultry Husbandry, I might have met and discussed the future of microbiology and this science with him. As it was, we agreed to get together sometime during the year with him and his wife Muriel in New York City. I also found out that he had been in Habonim in Dublin and that we had quite a number of mutual acquaintances. He had also spent a year at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel before coming to Cornell.
Mimi’s father had been living with his brother Paul and family. Rutta had arrived without knowing that we would be coming and they had found a nice apartment on 190th Street and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Thus we moved into the apartment and slept in the living room. We paid Rutta and Salo a nominal sum (I can not remember how much) for room and board. Mimi’s Uncle Paul had been living in the USA since some time in the mid 30’s. He and his wife Dushka had two daughters, Claudette and Madeleine. Madeleine was approximately Mimi’s age, and she helped me with enrolling in classes at CCNY, which is where I started studying. I do not remember meeting “ Claudie”. She and her father had a terrible row. Apparently he wanted her to lead a “ social” life of dance, mix with a certain set, wear makeup, all of which she refused to do. She was interested in more intellectual pursuits, even having the idea of immigrating to Israel. This Paul was very much against. She thus left home and lived with a man, Dick (I do not know whether they were married or not) and had two children under very primitive conditions, some say in the “woods” of Connecticut. Claudie ended up having many children, Dick a drug addict, and as can be expected, many problems later on. Mimi’s uncle Paul was a very domineering person. He was a physician in the Veteran’s hospital, always dressed formally with a bow tie and jacket, and insisted in everyone behaving like him, being “ American”. In fact at one time he did not approve of my dress (open shirt, no tie) and made some caustic remarks about dressing like a kibutznick. This was a time when the USA was much more formal than now. Dushka on the other hand was a very submissive and kindly person, and I don’t know how she stood all these years of marriage with Paul. More about them and the family in another chapter. We had quite a number of “ Reifer” relatives in New York, whom we would occasionally visit. Thus we had a new family.
What about my education? This was the reason for coming to the States! Had we made a mistake? Living in the Bronx was certainly not my dream of the US. In fact it was not all that better than living in Glasgow. Actually having revisited Glasgow recently living in the Bronx was probably a little better at that time. This area of the Bronx, 190th and Grand Concourse was considered an upscale Jewish middle-class neighborhood. The major landmark was Alexander’s department store on the Grand Concourse, which was a busy shopping street. The neighborhood was quite safe. We had advice from Salo and also from Mimi’s uncle Paul, as to the course to take for the future and it was decided that the best plan was for me to attend evening school at CCNY to take basic courses, so that when we did go back to Cornell the following year it would be easier to get credit (I still was not familiar with this whole idea of credits). I thus enrolled in courses in freshman physics, chemistry, geology, and a few other electives. I took a psychology course, of which all I remember was the lecturer standing on the desk to make a point. I do not recall having learned very much, although I did finish with A’s. However in the geology class we made many field trips to the New Jersey Palisades to study the different strata, I enjoyed the field trips, the course was well taught, and the geology course was the most interesting. I also did learn some basic physics, mechanics, not anything too difficult no quantum mechanisms or high powered physics.. However it did give me a semester of credit later on at Cornell and speeded up my eventual graduation. Mimi meanwhile found a job as a lab technician with the cosmetic company, Revlon, working in an analytical chemistry lab. She earned enough to support both of us through this period. The lab was situated in Harlem, and she had to travel by subway to get there. This was quite unpleasant in the winter when it was dark, and we often worried about safety. In fact after Haifa, New York seemed to us quite dangerous, with drunks, pickpockets and other petty crime. The upper Bronx was not bad, but the area of CCNY around 125th street was undergoing change and was quite seedy and run down.
I went down to the HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) office in Manhattan and they were successful in finding me a job. In fact they found me a series of jobs, none of which lasted very long. First as a bookkeeper in the fruit market. This job lasted approximately one day, since the owner could not read my handwriting, which tends to be small and messy, and I had no idea how to balance the books. I then worked in a small workshop that made tools for sculptors and artists, certainly a job with very limited potential, and then later on after this job fizzled (not through any fault of mine) packaging neon lights for a wholesaler. These jobs paid very little and were quite far from the Bronx. In fact these were in the predominantly Ukrainian section of lower Manhattan, below 14th Street, what at that time was a poor neighborhood, but today has been gentrified and full of skyscrapers and high -rise apartments. Exasperated with the situation of poor paying lousy jobs, I began to look in the New York Times Classified section. I found a job advertised for a person with mathematical experience. In fact it asked for a degree in mathematics.
Although I did not have degree in mathematics, I had sat the London University Matriculation (High School) external exams. Mimi tutored me in this. I did not do very well in mathematics, however I just mentioned London University to the person doing the interviewing, and I was hired on the spot. No one asked to see my credentials and I did not lie. I think Howie my new boss just assumed I had a degree in mathematics, or it really did not matter since no one else had a degree in math. The company was called Arbitron, a TV and radio rating company. Small electronic gadgets were placed in individuals TV sets, and we in the office on 53rd Street received a transmission indicating what channels people were watching at any specific time. This was recorded and then we calculated what percentage of a population (in a specific city) was watching that program. The extent of the mathematics was calculating percentages on a Monroe calculator! It was a great job, it paid well and my work colleagues were terrific.
“Arbitron or ARB was founded as American Research Bureau by Jim Seiler in 1949 and became bi-coastal by merging with L.A. based Coffin, Cooper and Clay in the early 1950s. ARB's initial business was the collection of television broadcast ratings exclusively. The company changed its name to Arbitron in the mid 1960s. The name came from the Arbitron System that was one of ARB's products; a central statistical computer with leased lines to viewers' homes to monitor their activity. Deployed in New York, it gave instant ratings data on what people were watching.” A reporting board would light up to indicate what home was watching what broadcast. We would record this and thus calculate the results. This information was then sold to the networks and advertisers for large (enormous) sums of money. In fact it give me some idea of how much money changed hands in the advertising and TV industry.
It was interesting to note how fickle the public could be. Wagon Train was one of the most popular programs. Anytime President Eisenhower addresses the nation there would be massive switching of channels. Westerns always won out. In these days there were no more than 6-7 channels available, the three major networks and a few local N.Y. channels.
The group of co-workers at ARB was really terrific. There was Howard, the boss, a rather portly 30 something, then the work crew of Harvey (BS in history), Robert (part time Opera singer and actor), Thelma (ex beauty queen of somewhere in NY), and Victor, of whom I do not remember very much, other than that he had a great sense of humor. We all worked in the same office on 3rd Avenue and 53rd street.
Robert was quite a character. He loved women, particularly women with black stockings. He would stand by the window, looking out over 3rd Avenue, and as soon as a woman passed by with black stockings he would run down the stairs, catch up with her, and somehow (or so it seemed) arrange a subsequent date, if her face matched her legs. It was a sort of fetish that all of us laughed at. We really did not believe his stories. He claimed the best place to pick up young women was the New York Metropolitan Museum (or MoMa). The technique was to approach the victim, who had to be wearing black stockings, and enter into conversation on the painting being viewed, and then enchant his way into bed or at least a date. These were the days before the sexual revolution although I do not think he had any inhibitions. He was quite a charmer, was good-looking, very Italian and had great style.
Two years later while at Cornell University, we became acquainted with a couple of fairly attractive female, Israeli students. They were planning a weekend in New York City. Bihla, the older of the two wore black sheer nylons, which were in fashion in these days. After the weekend in the city, she told us that she had surprisingly met an acquaintance of ours at the Met. She in fact confirmed the stories we had heard from Robert, she was wearing black stockings and he had picked her up as described by getting into an “ art” conversation. I don’t know what happened after that, other than my name came up in conversation, and regards got back to me. I met Robert many years later, after having completed my Ph.D. and attending a meeting in New York, and found a rather down and out ex-actor, most of the charm having gone, and carrying a broken arm, as the result of being thrown out of the window by an another actor who found him in flagrante with his wife. He was still performing in summer stock in Upstate New York. I would really have like to have spent more time with this guy; it would have been very interesting to hear his life story.
I was to return to ARB again during my years at Cornell for summer employment. My time spent there was very enjoyable, not because of the work, but because of the company. Howard asked me many times to stay on and not return to Ithaca, that I could have a permanent job. If I had done so, and moved up in the company as others did I could have retired as a millionaire at the age of 40. ! I never really gave it a second thought, since our idea was still to return to Israel, after obtaining my BS in agriculture ( still thinking chickens). I was still very much an idealist, and both Mimi and I agreed that this was our aim. Also the idea of living in New City did not appeal to Mimi. We did not consider ourselves permanent immigrants to the US; this was just a temporary situation, a first step in my education. I really have no idea what happened to other members of the group at ARB. I know that Harvey, the history major retired early, since I contacted him on my visit to New York. ARB is still in existence, but not nearly as successful as it rival Neilson, and recently it has run afoul of the State of New York Legal System.
I do not want to give the impression that life in New York was gloomy, far from it. We enjoyed the lovely countryside at weekends going out with Rutta and Salo; we explored the area north of New York City, the Hudson River, and Bear Park Mt. I loved going to the Cloisters just north of Manhattan. We went for walks in the Bronx zoo and botanical gardens, one of the best in the world. We went to concerts at Carnegie Hall (Van Cliburn was the rage), to the Metropolitan opera, to the museums. Our social life was not bad either. We had family in the city, Mimi’s cousins, we made friends with other students, met with an old friend from Glasgow/Israel, Tommy Berman whom I have mentioned before, and spent a few weeks on the island of Nantucket that first summer, a place we loved to return to. We also met Ralph Mitchell and wife Muriel, by listening for someone with an Irish accent on Columbus Circle one Sunday afternoon. We immediately became friends, a friendship that has lasted all our lives. This is an interesting story in itself. We had no idea what Ralph and his wife looked like. We arranged to meet in Columbus circle on a Saturday afternoon, not realizing how busy it would be with people going to the movies or just walking around. My wife had the bright idea of each one of us seperately following all the couples of suitable age and listening for an Irish accent, which we knew they had after our telephone conversations. After about 30 minutes of this she recognized the accent, stopped and asked a couple if they were Ralph and Muriel and of course they were. Looking back it seems ridiculous, looking for someone with an Irish accent in New York. There are probably more Irishmen in the city than in Ireland itself.
I joined the international student organization at CCNY. Immediately we were befriended by a couple of students, one I remember Albert; the other I cannot remember his name. Both were left wing Jewish students who identified with the Soviet Union rather than with United States. We went to a few parties with them and a few meetings. I felt very out of place with this group, as did Mimi. Although from a socialist background, we did not identify with communism or feel sympathy for their cause. However through them we met other students from Nigeria, Ghana and other African countries. It was an interesting period. Dances were held at the international center and one did not know with whom you would end up dancing with. Mimi ended up dancing with someone with tribal markings on his face. She thought they were paint and only in the light did she see they were scarified markings. She was quite shocked. I think both of us were rather insular, never having been exposed to such exotic people. At the time we left Israel, Africans were rather rare. This was before the immigration of Ethiopian Jews.
Politics did not interest us too much. This was the height of the cold war and everyone worried about an atomic bomb attack. I remember on New Years Eve we went to see the movie “on the beach” about an atomic war, with just a few survivors in Australia. It was a depressing film and why we went to see it at New Year is beyond me now.
During this period I became a resident of New York State, since I worked and paid taxes in the State. On the advice of Tommy I applied for a fellowship for Jewish boys in farming, and since my intention was to join the Poultry Husbandry Department at Cornell, I certainly qualified for the fellowship. I had received a deferment of a year from Cornell. Thus after one year in New York City we set of again for Cornell University. By this time I had applied for student housing and that was obtained, in Cornell Quarters, old army duplex huts, reminiscent of my days in the kibbutz and army in Israel. I had a fellowship, low tuition because of residency, and we had saved somme money.Thus in the summer of 1959 we arrived at Cornell University