An Orthodox Jew Teaches Mathematics

Lawrence E. Levine

Department of Mathematical Sciences

Stevens Institute of Technology

Hoboken, NJ 07030

At the outset let me point out that I am an Orthodox Jew who goes in full regalia. What this means is that I wear a full beard, a yarmulke (skullcap), and my Tzitzis show. (See Numbers 15:37-41 for the biblical source for Tzitzis.) It is with this exterior that I have been teaching mathematics at Stevens Institute of Technology since 1968. Clearly there is no way that a student can mistake what I am. On the other hand, the number of Jews in the undergraduate school is rather small, at most 3 or 4% in any given year.

The question is how does my looking and being different affect my students. The answer is not simple. I still recall the first class I taught in the fall of 1968. It was an undergraduate course in probability, and I must say that when I came in to class I was somewhat apprehensive about how the students would react to my appearance. However, this anxiety quickly disappeared when a student walked into class wearing a yarmulke! After all, I wasn’t alone now. What is ironic is that in my almost 30 years at Stevens at most 5 undergraduates wearing yarmulkes have attended the school. It was just my good fortune that the first one was in the first course I taught.

I find that students are quite curious about me, but are also reluctant to ask. While most know about beards and yarmulkes, almost none know about Tzitzis, so I have gotten a few questions over the years about this. (When I get such a question, I figure that there are either no Jews in the class or *none of the Jews* in the class know what Tzitzis are.) Occasionally I do talk about something Jewish as an aside, and the students appear to be listening attentively.

In the past couple of years I have been using the WEB as an integral part of my teaching. I decided last year to add some Jewish links to my site. I also have a midi file that plays Jewish music when the site is accessed. Students like this and want to know what kind of music this is. My counters show that they do indeed look at the Jewish pages. In fact, one page I have that shows pictures of one of my son’s and his new bride seems to be a favorite. The site also has some music played by the Jewish band we had at the wedding.

Encouraged by this I have recently begun sharing more "Jewish" things with my students. For example, I recently brought in a shofar (ram’s horn) to class, spoke a little about its significance and then blew it. The approximately 90 students present actually clapped when I was finished.

However, it is in the area of advising that I think that my "differentness" counts most. Many students have come to me over the years with all sorts of school and/or personal problems. I think this is because the students know that I stand for something and that I am willing to stand up and be counted for my beliefs. They appreciate commitment despite the fact that it is to something with which they are completely unfamiliar. And, whether rightly or wrongly, they seem to think that a person with such commitment will be able to help them.

I think that all of us who teach are concerned with creating a good learning environment for our students. One of my concerns from time to time has been the fact that my appearance might encourage students to keep their distance. Fortunately, my personal experience runs contrary to this. As one student recently told me, "Professor, students are concerned with whether or not someone is a good teacher. You are known as such a teacher, and the students don’t care at all what you look like!"