Five-foot giant of Torah and science my father, Matest Agrest (1915-2005).
The ninety years of Matest Agrest's life spanned almost the entire twentieth century and personified it in many ways. Two of his autobiographical essays are aptly entitled Expulsion and Second Expulsion. He experience his first expulsion at age one, when his family fled Mogilev in Byelorussia to Lokhvitsa in the Ukraine during World War I. His last expulsion was his forced escape to the United States from Sukhumi, Abkhazia, when that republic joined the war of independence with Georgia in 1992. He lived in the USA until his death in 2005.
Born to a family of Torah scholars, Matest received the best religious education available in the 1920s in the USSR--at the Lubavitch Yeshivah. An outstanding scholar, his role model was his placid maternal uncle Isaac Spokoynaya, who later became a rosh yeshivah in Jerusalem. Matest's father was also a rosh yeshivah. At the Yekaterinosclav (Dnepropetrovsk) Yeshivah, Matest's rosh yeshivah was Rabbi Levi Yitshak Schneerson, the father of the future Lubavitcher Rebbe, the brilliant Menahem Mendel. Although Matest visited the Schneerson home often, he never met Menahem Mendel because he was studying in Europe. The two knew about each other, though, and were interested in each other's ideas. The yeshivah students would say about Menahem Mendel, "If Russia had two more people as intelligent as young Schneerson, it would exceed America in development." (After Matest moved to America, he respected the Rebbe so much that he never requested a visit, not wishing to disturb him. Matest always cherished the dollar bill that one of the Rebbe's emissaries brought to him in Sukhumi. This dollar bill is now buried with my father at the Emanu-El cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina.)
When the Communists brutally closed down all the yeshivot, Matest was forced to study science and to hide his Jewish observance in order to save his life. His strong Torah background helped him survive the long soulless years of Soviet education. He never abandoned his secret study and practice of Judaism. This spiritual nourishment helped him become a world-class scientist and publish hundreds of scientific papers, among them a monograph on his theory of incomplete cylindrical functions and their applications published by the prestigious Springer-Verlag. (1)
To escape the constraints of his Soviet exile, Matest developed his own theory of the fusion of religion and science. In the perfection of the laws of physics he saw not denial but proof of G-d's presence. He saw the complementarity of the physical universe and G-d. It was not easy to live according to these principles. It led to multiple troubles. Matest and his wife Riva (who was also his coauthor and proofreader) paid a high price for their source of inspiration and energy.
Matest received so much confidence from his faith in G-d that he applied to work on the classified nuclear bomb research project. After numerous security checks and interviews, Matest was asked point blank if he lived by Jewish law and belief. Matest replied frankly that this was true. Because of his honesty and fearlessness, he was accepted into the top-secret project.
He was expelled from the project, however, in 1950, when my newborn brother was circumcised. This illegal act almost cost him not only his job but the lives of all eight members of our family. Inspired by Matest's integrity, the Nobel Prize laureates Andrei Sakharov and Igor Tamm heroically petitioned Stalin and saved both our lives and Matest's reputation.
In 1959 Matest was fired a second time after his controversial paper Paleocontact Hypothesis stormed the world. His hypothesis raised public interest in astronomy and led to increased funding of research projects and even to the creation of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The Soviets stole his book and then hypocritically translated it into dozens of languages, and sold it throughout the world. (2)
Our Family Underground
My father's parents had been murdered in 1941 during World War II in Byelorussia, but my mother's parents lived with us. They were from pious, learned families. The three generations lived together, practicing Jewish ritual observance behind closed doors and tightly drawn curtains late at night. Observing the Torah or teaching Hebrew was a state crime, but my parents and grandparents could not cut themselves off from their essence. Their subterfuge would have been easier in a large city rather than the small town of Sukhumi, where we were very visible. For us children, our "secret society" was attractive and exciting, permitting us to stay up late and participate in forbidden activity.
In particular, I cherish the memory of my father leading our Passover seder, fulfilling the commandment to "tell your children on that day" how G-d redeemed His people from slavery and brought them to spiritual freedom in the Land of Israel. I still hear my father's voice and words making me feel that I personally had been liberated.
We children helped with the many detailed secret preparations for Passover. As it was illegal to buy matsot, we baked our own. It was a magical experience for me as a three-year-old boy to perforate the round thinly rolled out sheets of special kosher dough with a wand--a wooden stick with a tiny axel attached to its end and a brass gear sitting on the axle. As I worked I imagined I was in a camp of refugees from Egyptian slavery rushing to make holes in the sheets of dough and bake them on the hot stones of the desert before the Egyptian taskmasters could overtake me.
Practicing Jewish law was a tremendous challenge all year round for my father. Saturday was an official working day, but he could not justify desecrating the Sabbath. Since writing is prohibited on the Sabbath, it took all the creativity of Matest Agrest, Head of the Mathematics Division, to come to work, generate the usual work flow, listen to the reports of associates, and discuss their results without writing anything. It was even more difficult to deal with the bosses. Years later, we found out that all his colleagues knew that he was keeping the Sabbath. They made bets and in vain tried to force Matest to write on Saturdays.
My wife Marina and I were always spiritually close to my parents, even when we lived thousands of miles apart. From 1992 to 2005, when we all lived together in the USA, we had the pleasure and privilege of working closely with my father on his ideas about his guiding principle of the complementarity of science and religion. When we were finally able to live openly by the commandments of the Torah, our bond become even stronger.
My father has left me with a lot of work to complete. Thanks to his lifelong self-sacrifice, creativity, and sheer strength of will, I am a link in the long chain of Jewish tradition. I am fortunate that my father was a strong proud Jew in good times and bad. Matest Agrest was truly a giant among men. May his memory be a blessing and an inspiration to us all.
Pesah Amnuel, "Enoch Who Flew to the Heavens," Vesti (Tel Aviv: 01 and 08 Sep 2005) in Russian.
(1) M.M. Agrest and M.Z. Maksimov, Die Gundlehren der Mathematichen Wissenchften in Einzeldarstellungen, Band 160 (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1971)332 pp.
(2) 2 Matest Agrest, "Astronauts of Yore" in On the Track of Discovery: Riddles of Outer Space (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1961) in English.
Mikhail Agrest, PhD
Mikhail M. Agrest received an MS in mathematics and mechanics from the Leningrad State University and a PhD in physics and mathematics from the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. He conducted research at the Institute for Analytical Instrumentation of the Academy of Sciences for almost twenty years. In 1992, he joined the physics and astronomy department of the College of Charleston in South Carolina. A member of the South Carolina Academy of Science, the North American Membrane Society, the American Association of Physics Teachers, and the South Carolina Science Council, Agrest is writing a biography of his father, Matest Agrest. http://www.cofc.edu/~agrestm. Agrestm@ cofc.edu
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|Article Type:||In memoriam|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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