By Orrin Konheim | Special to WJW
Jesse Milzman, 29, grew up in Bethesda in an interfaith family with a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. He converted to Judaism in 2018. Last year he obtained a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Maryland and now works as a research mathematician at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.
What does your job as a mathematician consist of?
I do a mix of things. I probably spend 40 percent of my time programming, scripting and analyzing data in various forms; 20 percent reading; 20 percent doing math and writing; and the rest is meetings, communications, planning. I enjoy the variety.
What kinds of experiments after you are running?
I am doing robotics experiments. We’re looking at distributed intelligence among multiple ground vehicles. I took the course on mathematical proof, and that settled it for me.
Is there a certain kind of mindset for what draws a mathematician?
Two big things that drew me into math, at least initially, were clarity and rigor. Contrary to popular opinion, math writing tries to be as clear as possible. Then, there’s the appeal of the rigor. Some people like writing an argument with as few holes as possible. Those people are often drawn to either math or philosophy. A mathematical proof is virtually airtight, and that can be very satisfying. I don’t think I trust the cliche that “math teaches you how to think” that I keep seeing in popular math writing. Math can teach a cautious and humble kind of thinking that has its place.
So tell me about your Jewish life. Do you identify as a Zionist?
When I have to think about global politics, my American identity is more relevant than my Zionism. I’ll always affirm that Israel is a legitimate nation-state, a crucial American ally, and a country that I have an affinity for. But I don’t follow Israeli elections particularly closely, for instance.
You mentioned that you had three Jewish great-grandmothers, Did they fall under stereotypes?
Yes in every way, and there were three of them, so we had very intense holidays. It’s all very ordinary stuff, though. One of my great-grandmothers, Florence, would always bring way too much food to gatherings. Usually Popeyes. At restaurants, she was the one sending meals back to the kitchen all the time when they got anyone’s order wrong. My other great, Fran, wouldn’t stop busying herself in her daughter’s kitchen during the holidays. I knew them in their 80s, 90s, and for Fran, into her 100s, right? They were very strong personalities. They grew up during the Depression, and were raising families during World War II. They had a lot of stories about D.C. in the 20th century.
As someone who grew up in an interfaith household, what do you think might be the ideal?
Being exposed to multiple traditions in a household can add value, but I also think that having kids caught between two incompatible religious perspectives without clear guidance on that matter can be challenging.
Do you mean like the people who say they grew up celebrating Christmas and Chanukah but not getting either experience?
I think so, yeah. Religion, to me, is an approach to fundamental questions of human existence, not just a preference in cuisine or liturgy. Regardless of their beliefs, I think the best parents can hope to do is give their children either a tradition or a toolbox that lets them approach those questions for themselves once they’ve grown into actual people.
You’ve talked about changing your observance level recently. Does this happen with a lot of converts?
No, in my experience, it is much less common in converts than Jews by birth. Most converts, when they decide to convert, convert hard. What makes my experience different is that I always thought of myself as a Jew, due to both the patrilineal descent and the tight-knit extended family practice of my childhood. I had more in common with baalei teshuvah [newly observant] than most converts I met, right?
So whatever stage of Judaism you’re in at this particular point, what are you looking forward to next?
Pesach. Pesach is always very clarifying for me. Seders always get me thinking. I usually have realizations during that week [like] little epiphanies. The twin themes of freedom and responsibility, freedom for responsibility, are always thought-provoking.