Quintessentially Yiddish: Bryn Terfel as Tevye in the Grange Park Opera production of "Fiddler On The Roof" (photo: Robert Workman)
Hidden away somewhere between Winchester and Basingstoke in blissfully rural surroundings lies a semi-ruined mansion with a delightful theatre attached. This is Grange Park, where each summer they stage operas as the composer intended, rather than using some outlandish directorial concept, as most of the big-name opera houses do these days.
This year the season started with Fiddler on the Roof, admittedly a musical rather than an opera, but performed with great panache and boasting Britain’s great operatic bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in the principal role of Tevye. Suddenly we were transported to the lost world of the shtetl in Tsarist Russia, where a Hasidic Jewish community lives a hardscrabble existence balanced precariously between joy and disaster, like “a fiddler on the roof”. And there is Tevye, a big-hearted paterfamilias with five daughters he needs to marry off, ready to argue and debate with suitors, and with himself. “On the one hand, on the other hand” — the two sides to any argument — are central to Tevye’s life, and to Judaism, which even in its more fundamentalist interpretations legitimises debate. How different from the type of religious fundamentalism where discussion is discouraged and independent thought can lead to rejection or even death.
As I sat submerged in this quintessentially Yiddish story with its feistiness and rational debate, I recalled the intellectual ferment and excitement of my early academic career in America, where the problem of finding and classifying all the basic building blocks of symmetry was under concerted attack. Half the people propelling this forward were Jewish, and I remember witty Yiddish expressions being bandied around during the perpetual search for gaps, the nailing down of loose boards and the huge effort to build a roof over everything so that we knew the essential details were complete.
It took years more to cover a potential gap in the roof, and to rearrange the interior so that future generations would be able to find their way around this massive Rabelaisian world of proofs and refutations, to understand the highly condensed work of the many minds whose efforts frequently overlapped one another. Some 10,000 technical pages in mathematics journals had to be reassessed, pruned and reconstituted. Yet it was already clear to most experts that the building was essentially complete and without leaks.
What got the whole enterprise spinning was a theorem by Richard Brauer, who left Germany in 1933 after Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws had forced him out of his academic position in Königsberg. After spending time at Toronto and various universities in North America, Brauer ended up at Harvard where he provided a tool to help classify all the basic building blocks of symmetry, showing that only a limited number could share the same cross-section. So if you could find all possible cross-sections, you could hope to find all symmetry “atoms”. Yet there was a small problem. Did all atoms of symmetry, except the simplest ones, have such cross-sections?