First edition | The Mathematicians Shiva

First Edition features new original works by Northern California Jewish writers. Appearing the first issue of each month, it includes a poem and an excerpt from a novel or short story.


by stuart rojstaczer


Chapter 1: Tonight It’s Just Us

“How’s your mother?” Yakov Epshtein asked. Yakov’s goatee was flecked with gray. Over the years his cheeks had ballooned and taken on a happy glow. His clothing choices for work had migrated from a cheap sagging suit, pressed white shirt, and thrift-store  tie circa 1984 to a polo shirt and jeans with tasseled loafers sans socks. He was waiting, perhaps, for the day that global warming would bring the ocean to the Great Plains. This miracle, if it took place, would be welcome to Yakov but not necessary. Life in America had been good.

I was in Yakov’s office, its well-worn vinyl floor covered with the grime of twenty years of use slightly mitigated by perfunctory cleaning. It was early afternoon eleven years ago, in the winter of 2001. The wind outside barely blew. The sky was crystal blue. Looking through the double-paned  glass, those  inexperienced with the Midwest might be fooled into thinking it was warm out- side, at least warm for January. Both Yakov and I knew better. “My mother is hanging in there,” I said. “You know her. She’s not going down until she’s ready.”

“A remarkable woman.” Yakov was from Russia. When a Russian mathematician mentioned my mother, this phrase “remarkable woman” would often follow. It was a phrase my father would use as well, but often in a sarcastic way.

Yakov had come to the United States in 1986 and taught at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. He was lucky to have eventually found this job. Many of my parents’ acquaintances who had emigrated from Russia in the 1970s and 1980s were doing things far afield from mathematics  in order to put food on the table. I, unlike Yakov, had come to the United States as a young child. My memories of the former Soviet Union were fuzzy at best. Given what I had heard about Russia from my parents and their friends, I knew that this fuzziness was not a bad thing.

I was giving a talk at Nebraska’s atmospheric sciences department, but when people in the math department heard I was coming, they filled up half of my appointment  schedule. I was used to this. It was never about me. It was about my mother. She was the stuff of legend.

She was five foot eight, a tall glass of water by European (and maybe even American) standards, who tended to tower over men, including my father, in her heels. She favored gray or burgundy suits tailored by a local dressmaker and owned well over two hundred pairs of shoes, an obsession that she said derived from her poverty during World War II. She would probably have been even taller  had  she  not  starved  during  the  war. My mother  never needed a microphone. When she spoke it was with the cadence of an oracle. She had been banned from teaching calculus at her university simply because she scared the hell out of freshmen.

When my mother was ten years old, she was living in an Arctic Circle work camp where her father, a Jewish Pole/Russian (every decade or so, control of his hometown  would change from one country to the other), was sentenced to hard labor for being a capitalist Enemy of the People. At school on the frozen tundra along the Barents Sea, my mother  showed a remarkable facility for mathematics. In Russia, math is not just a means to an end. It’s a glorious art. Suddenly, my mother’s family got a little bit of meat and flour in addition to their wrinkled potatoes and onions. Another Enemy of the People, a professor of mathematics, was told to tutor my mother three times a week. Like many, he never made it back home.

My mother, formerly a Pole, then a full-fledged citizen of the glorious USSR due to the Soviet annexation of her hometown after the war, was sent to Moscow for further study in 1945. These were heady times in Russian mathematics, and the most admired mathematician of all was her advisor, the great Kolmogorov. My mother began to publish papers when she was sixteen. She defected to the West in 1951, after giving a talk in East Berlin. My mother became a tenured professor at the University of Wisconsin at the age of twenty-two. At twenty-eight, she was offered a tenured professorship at Princeton, which somehow promised to ignore its rules on nepotism and hire my father as well. She turned them down. Like Kolmogorov and many of his acolytes, she believed that cold weather was required for the creative mind. New Jersey simply was too warm. Plus, according to her, Princeton was a haven for anti-Semites, and she’d already had her fill of that in Russia and Poland. She stayed in Wisconsin.

Stuart Rojstaczer has degrees from the University of Wisconsin, University of Illinois and Stanford University. For many years he was a professor of geophysics at Duke University. He has written for the New York Times and Washington Post, and his scientific research has been published in many journals, including Science and Nature. He lives in Palo Alto.


Works may be submitted to fiction editor Ilana DeBare at [email protected] or poetry editor Joan Gelfand at [email protected] Fiction excerpts may run up to 2,500 words, but only 800 words will appear in the print edition, with the rest appearing online. All prose and poetry published to date can be viewed at