Truth not yet, and truth gone by

When I was 13, I was beginning to learn about the complexities of truth. Two cousins told me about two documents. This knowledge helped me to understand that even official documents were produced by fallible people, and that humans' best efforts don't always succeed. One document was false, despite every effort to make it true. The other was true, despite every evidence that it was false.

My mother's cousin Bob (Robert Tiemann), worked for the Education Office of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, when space was just a gleam in its eye. Was the general public aware, in the days before Sputnik, of the failed efforts by the United States to launch an Earth satellite? For each such launch - all of them failures - a press release had to be ready in the event that it succeeded.

The press releases listed such launch details as satellite weight and orbit descriptions - all of it irrelevant after the shot failed.

Once the US had a satellite up (Explorer I, in January 1958), Bob brought me a press release prepared for one of the failed shots, carefully stamped "embargoed, do not print until released." I was impressed, my eighth-grade science teacher was impressed, and I think I learned a lot from that failure. Failed launches hadn't cost lives, yet, and there was hardly a better example for a space-struck adolescent of "try, try again."

Through 32 years of teaching, I've preached to every class: "If everything you try works, it mainly proves that you haven't been trying enough things." You can't know your limits unless you try.

My brother and I were among the beneficiaries of the fact that the launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik (Oct. 4, 1957) succeeded before the US got a satellite up. The result was a burst of education funding generally, and of science education in particular, that lasted until we completed our PhDs. Education funding has been more problematic in recent years. In my last decade of teaching computer science, most of my graduate students were from overseas.

Bob's brother, Arthur Tiemann, worked for the World Bank. I think it was also in 1957 that he worked for some weeks in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of then-newly independent Malaya (subsequently part of modern-day Malaysia).

Arthur kept kosher, unlike many of my relatives, and wasn't sure how he'd have to restrict his diet in Kuala Lumpur.

Shortly after his arrival, he asked the appropriate government official, "Are there any Jews in Kuala Lumpur?" "No," was the reply. "Are you sure?" "Yes," said the minister, "we just finished a census, and had a box for Jews to check. No one checked that box."

Arthur doubted that any survey could be that complete.

He kept his eyes open. A few days later he was buying postcards to send home and looked at the greeting cards in the shop. There were cards for the Christian holidays, for the Muslim holiday Eid, and a few cards for Rosh Hashanah - the Jewish New Year.

"Who buys those?" Arthur asked the shopkeeper. "Diplomats" was the reply, and then, "Oh, yes, and one family from the yard-goods market."

Arthur walked several blocks to the yard-goods market.

In the fifth or sixth little shop, he observed, on the shelf behind the counter, a Jewish prayer book. Yes, the family was Jewish. Communication was not as easy as it might have been: Arthur spoke English and Yiddish, the language based on Medieval German spoken by the north European, or Ashkenazic, Jews. The man in Kuala Lumpur - I think his name was Mr. Elias - spoke not Yiddish but Ladino, the Spanish-based language of the Mediterranean, or Sephardic, Jews.

Once a translator was found, Elias explained: His family had been expelled from Spain and settled in Persia in the 1400s. Many years later, a branch of the family came as traders to Singapore. They had prospered in Singapore, and now he had brought his wife and young children to Kuala Lumpur to see if it was reasonable to extend the family business there.

If Malaya was a good place to live and work, Elias said, enough Jews would move from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur to establish a small Jewish community.

Before leaving Singapore, he added, he had learned to butcher chickens in the kosher manner. He could provide Arthur with kosher chicken and some other kosher cooking during Arthur's stay in Malaysia.

Before he left Kuala Lumpur, Arthur remarked to Elias how glad he was that the census had been wrong. "No," the shopkeeper said, "The census is exactly right. I have looked carefully, There are no other Jews in Kuala Lumpur.

"We arrived one week after the census was taken."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Truth not yet, and truth gone by
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today