This weekend I decorated a Christmas tree, which is quite special. We never had a tree at home because we are Jewish, and not having a tree is an important part of the Jewish identity. There is maybe room for Sinterklaas, but the baby Jesus has no place in Judaism, so Christmas is out of the question. So too is a Christmas tree.
I remember it feeling special at school. Having no tree, no Christmas lights, no family celebrations. And it was great to be special. My father, just like all Jewish doctors, worked the Christmas shift at the hospital and we stayed home in our pyjamas watching Gremlins. Cosy, without a tree. Some other Jewish families did gather together around the time of Christmas, but only because it was convenient because everyone was free and specifically NOT celebrating Christmas and, okay, maybe there was a small bowl of Christmas cookies on the table but they just happened to be on sale and it didn’t mean anything.
Such uptight behaviour is not solely a Jewish trait. Many minorities cling on to their culture; holding on to what belongs to it, what doesn’t belong to it. The most traditional Dutch people can be found in Canada; the most traditional Britons live in Zimbabwe. Dutch Moroccans are often more consciously Moroccan than the Moroccans in Morocco. Just because they make an effort; they want to retain their identity. That is the tragedy of the minority: the trivial elements, such as not having a tree, become vitally important. A tree is not just a tree; a tree stands for assimilation. And assimilation means that your great grandchildren no longer know they are Jewish, or what that means Assimilation means the handful of Jews who survived the war will be lost in the masses. We’ll trickle away and eventually disappear.
But still I wanted a tree. I think baubles are beautiful and I think you can still be Jewish with a tree. It feels a little uncomfortable. I cannot quite relax with it. After all, you never know what consequences such a tree might have.
On Sunday the Nobel Committee tried to phone Ralph Steinman to inform him he was to receive the highest scientific honor. But he didn’t pick up because two days prior to the call he had died of pancreatic cancer. An illness which he may have just fallen short of being able to overcome with his own discovery.
Dendritic cells was the name he gave to the strange shapes he saw in a mouse’s spleen in 1972. They proved to be the orchestrators of the body’s defense mechanism; the missing link between non-specific and specific immunity which had been sought for years. His results, however, received little recognition. Other laboratories were not able to reproduce them so he was not taken seriously and was even derided at conferences – skepticism is what they call it in science. He had to wait nearly ten years before others were able to reproduce his experiments such that they could see what he had seen a decade previously: cells which explained a large part of the functioning of the immune system and which would form the basis of a new generation of cancer drugs and, possibly, an HIV-vaccine.
I don’t know whether our generation is able to do that. Work single-handedly and single-mindedly on one problem. Not for one year, not for ten years, but for forty years. Be abused and ignored, carry on and eventually be proved right, just like Steinman. He risked his career as well as the real possibility that his discovery would remain forever unacknowledged and eventually be forgotten, but he did not have an identity crisis, he did not need a coach and did not consider a change of vocation; he just carried on. Forty years, one subject.
Steinmann also investigated whether dendritic cells could possibly help him with his pancreatic cancer. He mixed dendritic cells with his own tumor cells and injected them under his skin, but it didn’t work. At least not completely. He lived four years longer than the average patient with the same diagnosis. But then again, that could also be a coincidence. He was the only test person and there was no control group. The results of his of his experimental treatment of his own tumor have, so far, been received with skepticism. Typical.
(A dutch version of this column was published in the newspaper nrc.next in november 2011.)