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Thursday, November 08, 2012

"They take students like you there."

The touching essay I quote from below is by Eddie Frenkel, a noted Berkeley mathematician. I recommend the whole thing. Eddie and I used play in the regular Junior Fellows basketball game at Harvard's Malkin Athletic Center (MAC), where Spike Lee and Obama also played. I don't recall ever playing with Obama, but I do remember Spike, who was teaching a film class on campus. Spike is no baller, despite being such a big Knicks fan. For some reason I came up with the nickname "Kazakhstani Kid" for Eddie, which he never appreciated. During all the years I knew Eddie we never talked about anti-semitism. I did, however, hear such stories from Bob Nozick (from his Princeton years) and Stephen Greenblatt (Yale). They were, of course, from an earlier generation.

Perceptively, Nozick once asked me if I thought Asian-Americans were discriminated against by elite universities like Harvard. Perhaps he was aware of the 1990 investigation of Harvard by the Department of Education (our conversation would have been in the early 90s); I certainly was not. See also The bar is different.

New Criterion: ... It was 1984, my senior year at high school. I had to decide which university to apply to. Moscow had many schools, but there was only one place to study pure math: Moscow State University, known by its Russian abbreviation MGU, Moskovskiy Gosudarstvenny Universitet. Its famous Mekh-Mat, the Department of Mechanics and Mathematics, was the flagship mathematics program of the USSR. Since I wanted to study pure math, I had no choice but to apply there.

Unlike the U.S., there are entrance exams to colleges in Russia. At Mekh-Mat there were four: written math, oral math, an essay on literature, and oral physics. I had, by then, progressed far beyond high school math, so it looked like I would sail through these exams.

But I was too optimistic. ...

“What’s your name?” she said by way of greeting.

“Eduard Frenkel.” (I used the Russian version of “Edward’’ in those days.)

“And you want to apply to MGU?”


“Which Department?”


“I see.” She lowered her eyes and asked:

“And what’s your nationality?”

I said, “Russian.”

“Really? And what are your parents’ nationalities?”

“Well. . . . My mother is Russian.”

“And your father?”

“My father is Jewish.”


“Do you know that Jews are not accepted to Moscow University?”

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is that you shouldn’t even bother to apply. Don’t waste your time. They won’t let you in.” ...

But Eddie tried anyway, to no avail.

... We walked out of the room and entered the elevator. The doors closed. It was just the two of us. The examiner was clearly in a good mood. He said:

“You did very well. A really impressive performance. I was wondering: did you go to a special math school?”

I grew up in a small town, we didn’t have special math schools.

“Really? Perhaps, your parents are mathematicians?”

No, they are engineers.

“Interesting. . . . It’s the first time I’ve seen such a strong student who did not go to a special math school.”

I couldn’t believe what he was saying. This man had just failed me after an unfairly administered, discriminatory, grueling five-hour exam. For all I knew, he had killed my dream of becoming a mathematician. A sixteen-year-old student, whose only fault was that he came from a Jewish family. And now this guy is giving me compliments and expecting me to open up to him?!

But what could I do? Yell at him, punch him in the face? I was just standing there, silent, stunned. He continued:

“Let me give you some advice. Apply to the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas. They have an Applied Mathematics program, which is quite good. They take students like you there.”

The elevator doors opened and a minute later he handed me my thick application folder, with a bunch of my school trophies and prizes oddly sticking out of it.

“Good luck to you,” he said, but I was too exhausted to respond. My only wish was to get the hell out of there!

And then I was outside, on the giant staircase of the immense MGU building. I was breathing fresh summer air again and hearing the sounds of the big city coming from a distance. It was getting dark, and there was almost no one around. I immediately spotted my parents who had been waiting anxiously for me on the steps this whole time. By the look on my face, and the big folder I was holding in my hands, they knew right away what had happened inside.
A reader sent me this list of deceptively simple "Jewish problems" used in oral exams at Moscow State University (MGU):

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