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Winners of The Norman E. Alexander Award for Excellence in Jewish Student Writing

Jewish American Heritage award
    

2016

Topic: Choose a significant advancement in science, medicine or technology by a living or deceased Jewish-American. How does this innovation impact lives and why is it meaningful to you?

Leonard Adleman

By Aaron Feldman, Milken Community Schools, Los Angeles

A pinch of DNA, weighing but 6 grams, contains over 80 times more information than the most complex computer. DNA is the building block of our existence, determining the proteins that express our genetics. So I was fascinated by Jewish scientist Leonard Adleman’s experiments using DNA rather than integrated circuits for computation. He wanted to use the base pairs of adenine-thymine and guanine- cytosine to represent the zeroes and ones used for data storage and calculation in computers. His first proof-of-concept experiment in 1994 proved successful. Using various sequences of DNA as encoded pathways, Leonard Adleman conquered the previously unsolved Hamiltonian Path computation problem. Adleman, "the father of biocomputing" had essentially created an entirely new field by blending molecular biology and computer engineering.

He harnessed nature’s code for life, which it has been perfecting for millions of years, to further our modern society’s technological capabilities. Biocomputing can perform calculations that are too large for current computers. Moreover, because DNA can replicate, biocomputers could actually "grow," providing increasing computational ability with each DNA replication.

Adleman’s work can also be expanded by using DNA as so-called "doctors in a cell." These molecular biocomputers could regulate certain cellular processes, preventing and treating diseases by releasing small quantities of drugs within the body.

Leonard Adleman’s work inspires me because of its novelty and huge potential. He explores the question of life, speculating that human beings are intelligent, adaptive biological computers. He merges seemingly disjoint fields, with bold, futuristic experiments. As Adleman points out, "biology and computer science—life and computation— are related. I am confident that at their interface great discoveries await those who seek them."

Incredibly, not only did Leonard Adleman invent biocomputing, but he has advanced chemistry, computer science, mathematics, and even AIDS research. He is a true Renaissance man who defines the modern era. Like Adleman, I too am interested in many subjects: computer science and biology, but also writing, history, and piano playing. I remember working on my computer one night, switching between developing a computer program and drafting a speech on organ donation while listening to the Rachmaninoff piano piece I was learning.

As I get older and college applications near, I have been told to focus on only a few of my interests. However, I am more than just a “science guy” or a writer. Adleman managed to succeed in many areas, and I too wish to continue learning and exploring my many deep interests. I can’t narrow myself down, because each of these topics is a part of what I love and who I am. Just like Adleman, who sits in his office for hours with nothing but blackboard and chalk, I love to think… and to only think in one way, about one topic, would not let me experience the world of learning and knowledge to my full capacity.

2015

Aaron Copland: The heart of America.

By Maetal Gerson of Los Angeles

Through art, we express the passion and freedom of the mind and soul. As a young child, I took the passionate idea to heart, banging on any piano keys I could find, calling my mom to stop the car when a particularly exquisite Palestrina Mass came on, and jumping up to conduct Beethoven’s Pastoral when I was three. For me, music spoke a language so beautiful I couldn’t help but respond. Those who have the ability to capture an essence in a brush of color, a dissonant chord, or a verse of poetry and who can sculpt that essence into something that is exquisite, are beloved. They are called Artists. One such Artist is the man, Aaron Copland. With the same passion as I, but with a specific spirit to express, Copland wrote the pieces that would, in his lifetime, label him the “father of the American sound.” The spirit he expressed was the heart of America.

To listen to Copland’s music is to peer through a kaleidoscope into America. He took tunes from the many different traditions and cultures within our nation and found a way to harmonize their dissonances to create a unifying message. Aaron Copland became famous just after the Post War years, when Americans were searching for a way to see themselves as a nation. As a young artist, Copland was already incorporating bits of Jazz, Latin, and even Klezmer music into his own works. All he had to do was to tie these tunes together to express America. Copland did not capture, but unleashed the wild rhythms of the West with his driving rhythms, and he returned time and time again to the simple and traditional Shaker melodies. In the process, he found the simple dignity and wild exuberance that was America. Above all, his music is honest at the core. It is this honesty that flows through the ears and into the hearts of all Americans who listen to Copland’s works. His universal strokes express a harmonized America.

I have not yet seen the America that is envisioned in Copland’s music. The America I hear today is far from harmonized. Even Copland did not experience the America he envisioned in his masterpieces. He was, in fact, blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Perhaps he wrote so deeply about his country because he understood its flaws. In the open chords and the wistful melodies, there is an unmistakable undertone and longing to be free.

Through his art, Copland reminds us that we live in a great land; one that is breathtakingly vast and that is infused to the very roots with unbridled freedom. The music dances through time, for within the deep tones lies the soul of America. This is a land of dissonances, of harmonies, and of resolutions. It is this promise of resolution that makes his music universal. The music dances through America. And it dances through me.

2014

Betty Friedan: The feminist and activist was a woman with a pen and a will to change the world.

By Gabriella “Gabi” Kamran of Los Angeles

I hear it in my Jewish Law classroom, my Girl Talk minyan, my school newsroom, my synagogue, my home. Feminism isn’t Jewish, they say, referencing mechitzas and tefillin and passage after passage of polygamy, rape, Eve and her fateful fruit. Each time, my heart sinks an inch as I am forced to repeat the words that have become so familiar, referencing Eshet Chayil, Queen Esther, Judge Devorah and Betty Friedan.

I tell them of the summer of 1970, when Friedan stood on the steps of the New York Public Library at the Women’s Strike for Equality and said, “Down through the generations in history, my ancestor prayed, ‘I thank Thee, Lord, I was not created a woman.’ From this day forward women all over the world will be able to say, ‘I thank Thee, Lord, I was created a woman.’” It was a natural confluence between two pillars of identity, the halves of spirituality that make up the whole Jewish woman. It was tikkun olam, tzedek tzedek tirdof, and betzelem Elohim meets freedom and justice for all. This was the common thread woven into every aspect of Friedan’s work, from “The Feminine Mystique” to the National Organization for Women, and it is a thread that continues into the tapestry of my own life.

I see Betty Friedan when I find my mom washing dishes in the kitchen at midnight while my dad watches “24” on the couch. I hear Betty Friedan when my grandfather tells my pregnant cousin that he’s sorry she’s having a baby girl. I feel Betty Friedan when I read the Torah alongside my male classmates and when I explore the depths of my self-worth. As I study Friedan and her accomplishments in my U.S. history textbook, a part of me leaps out and clings to the words on the page because in those words I see a reflection of myself: a woman with a pen and a will to change the world.

With words and a powerful voice, Friedan picked up fragments of our broken world, the fragments of women who had fallen from the earth, and pieced them together to make one united olam. But you can still see the cracks, the places where darkness peers through and rattles the gaps between the pieces of our planet, the male and the female. I have taken it upon myself to wield my pen like crazy glue and smooth the cracks to finish what Friedan started. Because Betty, you hoped that I would say, “I thank Thee, Lord, I was created a woman,” but here, today, I shout out loud, “I thank you, Betty, for you I am proud to be born a woman and a Jew.”

2013

Bess Myerson: The Walk of an American Jew

By Dafna Fliegelman of Suffern, New York

At one point in everyone’s life, a wish is made. A wish so distant from home and completely out of reach. A wish that more likely than not, won’t come true. But never the less we wish anyway; we dream on anyway. Because having high hopes is important and being let down makes us stronger in the end. Therefore we hold on to what helps us fall asleep at night and what makes us wake up in the morning with a smile on our faces. It is the dreams we pray will come true. And sometimes they really do. Bess Myerson is a prime example of how young desires can become reality.

Bess was born on July 16th 1924, to a strong Jewish family. She grew up in New York, in the Bronx. She lived in a multi-family dwelling with her parents, Louis and Bella, and two sisters Helen and Sylvia. Just after graduating Hunter College with a degree in music, her oldest sister Sylvia entered a photograph of Bess into the Miss American Pageant. Before long her, fame began to unravel like the red carpets she would soon be walking on. At first she was advised to change her name to give off a “less Jewish” appeal but Myerson refused. Being Jewish was always something she took pride in and never tried to hide the fact that she was a Jew. She felt proud to strand for something.

After winning over the judges with her charm and musical talent her fame truly began. But not all of it was so positive. Many sponsors for Miss America pulled out once they found out a Jewish woman had won. Many were shocked and angered by this, but Bess stayed strong and kept her head high, and her heals even higher. The year of 1945 was a wonderful year for our Miss America but also incredibly difficult. After being exposed to anti-Semitism and hatred first hand, Bess Myerson decided to take a stand. She began to speak for Anti-Defamation League (ADL) at schools and public services.

A few years later Bess Myerson had another fantastic breakthrough when she began appearing in television programs and became a pianist. No matter where Bess Myerson went in life, she always kept Judaism in her heart and on her mind. She became a well known spokes-figure for Israeli bonds. Bess Myerson never let the minds of other interfere with how she felt about herself. She stayed strong and chose the highroad. I admire her strength and ability to be her own person. She has power from within that she let shine through and she stayed true to her Jewish heritage. She is a wonderful Jewish American that I look up too. She had many roads that lead to great paths in her life, but even with all the sunlight on her way, she never forgot where she came from; which road led her to where she is.

Runers up


2013

Jonas Salk: The Face of Bravery


By Olivia Mittman of New York City

In 1952, fifty eight thousand cases of Polio were reported.  It was the most devastating of the polio epidemics that had struck the U.S.  Over three thousand people died and thousands more were left in a state of paralysis.  Fear had taken over the nation.  Years later, Jonas Salk would emerge with a life-saving solution.

Jonas Salk was born in 1914 to a humble family in New York City.  From a young age, he was a dedicated learner and was noticeably gifted.  Salk joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1947 and took on a project by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to research the different types of polio. Through his work, he saw an opportunity to develop a cure.  He eagerly assembled a team and began a fight to end the devastating disease. 

Salk took charge of the team and worked tirelessly to develop the vaccine.  By 1954, he had begun testing the vaccine on humans.  Some of the first people to receive the vaccine were members of his own family, including himself.  Salk risked his own life for the sake of others.  He courageously experimented on himself to spare others the possible dangers of the vaccine.

Jonas Salk truly embodied the morality of Judaism.  He cared about the well being of others and devoted his life to them.As a Jew, he encountered anti-Semitism and was denied many opportunities.Despite the prejudices he faced, Salk stayed true to his identity and never gave up on his aspirations.

true to his identity and never gave up on his aspirations.  

Salk demonstrated Pikuach Nefesh, a Hebrew term for the preservation of human life. Saving one’s life overrides any other religious law. When one is in danger, the other must do everything in their power to save him. If saving someone means breaking a law of the Torah, one is allowed to break that law. In the Talmud, we learn that one is permitted to kill an aggressor in order to save the victim. Similarly, polio can be considered the aggressor and the people its victims. Jonas Salk took it upon himself and risked his own life to end polio for the greater good.

        When I think of American Jewish heroes, Jonas Salk is the first person to come to mind. As a young high school student looking towards the future, Jonas Salk is an inspiration. The wisdom Jonas Salk possessed was God-given, but his bravery was his choice. I, and my peers can learn from his courage and choice.

 

 
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