Aron Bernstein: In Memoriam (Dan Bernstein)
I want to thank Bob Redwine and the event coordinators for organizing this memorial and both the Department and MIT for honoring my father.
All of you here today know my father as a fellow academic but I have a few words to say about him as my father and family member. My sister Amy and myself we were academic brats.
Neither of us was interested in science or physics. Academia meant meeting people from around the world. Amy was born here in Boston so she is 100% a child of MIT.
I was born in Princeton. I was too young to remember much from back then but my first friends were the children of academics from India, Israel, and Mexico, who lived in the same garden apartments where we lived.
MIT is a world-renowned institution that attracts people from around the world. As you know my dad was always friendly and outgoing. Through my dad Amy and I met people from around the world and learned to appreciate and be curious about their cultures. This has stayed with me and meeting people from other countries and learning about their lives is one of my favorite things to do. A gift given to me from being part of the MIT family.
World renowned meant sabbaticals and for us that was a year in France. As a 10-year-old I went to London, Rome, Florence and skied in Switzerland. We traveled extensively in France and I grew to love French food such as French cheese and snails. I did not understand yet but I had the travel bug.
When I was in college my parents were divorced so my dad took his sabbatical in the western U.S. where Amy, my dad and I traveled from Ft. Collins in Colorado all the way to Taos and Santa Fe New Mexico and we went cross country skiing in all of those places.
In 1980 my dad managed to get himself invited to China and I had the chance to go with him. At that time few westerners had been in China. My dad was 49 and I turned 22 while on the trip.
One requirement from my dad was that I do an academic study of Japan. I was at UMass Amherst with no senior thesis, so I created one with my advisor. I did a lot of reading on the politics and economics of Japan in the post-WWII era.
This was no ordinary trip at the time. We started out by spending two weeks at the university in Sendai, Japan. There was a colleague there with us from RPI who was born in Korea and gave us lessons on the culture of Japan, Korea, and China. While they went to work every day I was hosted by the local university students from the English-speaking society. We had a grand time touring the city. I met families, saw how they lived and was taken to Japanese style whiskey bars.
We had two more weeks in Tokyo, Kyoto and some tours of the countryside. Part of Tokyo was my dad working for two days with the Tokyo University Physics Department. I was dispatched to get our Chinese visas at the Chinese embassy. I arrived and explained about picking up our visas. An English-speaking clerk helped me, took our passports and told me to return in three weeks. I had to explain we were in Tokyo for a short time and were going to China the next week. There was a long pause and the clerk ran to his supervisor in an office. He emerged, told me to come back after lunch and made me promise to never do this again. In 42 years I have never returned to the Chinese embassy in Japan.
On to China and Beijing. We were taken from the airport to an old-style hotel that was a compound. There we were treated to western style food. My dad and I looked at each other and instantly agreed that we had to leave the hotel if we wanted to see Beijing and we both had no interest in eating western style food while in China.
There was a Junior faculty person staying in the hotel and with a phrase book and sign language we started touring. Part of the tour was taking public transportation. People were very friendly and would offer my dad a seat by standing up and pushing him into their seat. Next was a big smile. In those days a police officer had control of the lights and when a bus approached an intersection the bus was given a green light. Everyone in the intersection had to scramble out of the way.
On other days we saw great sights, the forbidden city, Tiananmen Square and the great wall. When we arrived in Shanghai we just walked, when we opened a book or a map people stared over our shoulders to see the English text. Chinese people are not shy and don’t mind letting you know that they are staring at you. In Japan every time I looked no one was looking at me.
We went on to Hong Kong and the capitalist version of China. Another physics department hosted my dad and I was treated to a dim sum banquet. We got off an elevator in the middle of a high rise building and as far as one could see, the whole floor, was the restaurant. We went on to India, Germany and England. By the end of the trip I was transformed and I understood what the travel bug was.
Amy had what I call the make up trip to Asia. My dad and Susan took Amy with them on a trip to Japan and Taiwan.
If you grew up with my dad learning and leaving the world a better place were not optional. My dad never sought employment that would have made him wealthy. He always was a professor teaching, exploring ideas and was driven to participate in making the world a better place. This is why he was involved in so many political organizations.
He passed this on to his family and it is echoed in the generations that followed him. My sister is deeply involved in the Massachusetts health system. She is involved in providing long-term healthcare for people in need and finding ways for people to receive their care at home rather than in an institution. Amy is politically involved in getting out the vote efforts. She also has the travel bug.
I met my wife on my dad’s 53rd birthday. I first stopped to wish my dad happy birthday and spend some time together and then I went to a friend’s house where I was introduced to Efrat Levy. While I studied for my master’s degree here at MIT Efrat was getting her doctorate in Education at some rival institution across town. Now she is a Prof at Empire State College. We have three daughters together and all of us love to travel and we are all deeply political.
The wedding took place in June of 1986 two weeks after I graduated from MIT with a master’s degree in urban planning. That year was the only year I remember my father marching in graduation. If you remember seeing my dad march in his Ph.D. robes, I would guess it was in 1986.
My dad’s niece Connie is here today and I can say she is political while working at retirement.
My dad has three granddaughters. Dara the oldest lived in Israel for several years where she helped African refugees apply for asylum and went to East Jerusalem to sit in and stop settlers from taking Arab homes. Meirav is next. She traveled around the world after college and now works for charitable organizations. Recently she worked raising money for the organization that sued the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and helped to win the trial against them. The youngest Revital or Tali is also political, she lives in Chicago worked in the Chicago school system. She was active in the recent school strike and is now getting a masters in American History with a teaching certificate so she can teach middle and high schoolers the real history of this country.
I myself have worked for NY City and NY state government for 30 years and I am an adjunct college instructor. I am also involved in political organizations and work on local environmental issues.
My dad really wanted his granddaughters to be in the sciences, he always told them there were too few female scientists. But his love of physics was so natural that he really did not know how to persuade anyone to study physics and he did not understand why others did not want to do research in physics or any other field of science.
My dad was not religious in the slightest. If he was observant in any way it was towards MIT. This included dates. The only calendar that mattered was the MIT schedule. If a date was not on the MIT calendar it did not count for anything.
Time, my Dad’s version of time was relativity. Remembering exact times or dates, were not so important.
He practiced this on his family. One time one of his granddaughters arranged to come to Cambridge for dinner on a Friday night. My dad was making the dinner arrangements. On the Friday she calls and asks where they are meeting. His answer, “What, its Friday already?” He called another granddaughter to wish her happy birthday. It was the right date for a different one. One time he wrote me a postcard, dated from my birthday and never mentioned my birthday.
The only birthday he remembered was Susan’s. I think mostly because she was there whispering in his ear to remind him.
My dad’s favorite holiday was Thanksgiving. One year my wife discovered that cranberries will bounce if they are ripe. She brought a full package of cranberries and the two Professors before setting the table for dinner were experimenting to see how high the cranberries bounced. I am sure Susan is still finding them in odd corners of the house.
The only wish my dad did not get was to live to 100 like his dad. He was looking forward to more years of research, political work and time with Susan.
For many years I had the thought that the best resting place for my dad would be to be buried under his books in his office. Just take him to his office and tip over the book cases so the books cover him. MIT did not agree to my request for this.
If we are to honor my father’s memory I would ask all of you to do your research with joy and to pass on this love of research and teaching to your students. And don’t forget to do the political work that will leave this world a better place.