Dr. Andrew Viterbi, Graduation Speaker; Presidential Chair and Professor of Electrical Engineering, University of Southern California, presented the Graduation address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Los Angeles Ceremonies on Monday, May 13, 2019 at Stephen Wise Temple:
President Rehfeld, Dean Holo, Distinguished Faculty, Graduates, and Families and Friends,
Congratulations, Graduates. You have completed rigorous and intensive educations and are on your way to become our future leaders as Rabbis, Cantors, Educators and Jewish Community executives.
For me it is a distinct honor to be invited to deliver the Commencement address. Having previously delivered three such addresses and received eight honorary degrees, why is this speech different from all other speeches and why now and why me? I’ll let you answer the last two questions, but for the first: it’s unique because all my previous ones were at scientific and engineering institutions, while this is a distinctly humanistic institution of learning. So, I’ve chosen a distinctly humanistic topic, the Search for Identity.
The topic of Jewish identity is currently of major concern to our community, and especially to the religious and societal leaderships which you all represent. The reasons are many, but the two dominant issues are (a), the increasing percentage of Jews who abstain from participating in any Jewish-related activities—(b), the relationship of American Jews to Israel, which is not only the source of our identity but also the home of the largest concentration of people who share our traditions.
I do not propose to tackle either subject. Scholars and thought leaders, such as those present here, are much more qualified than I to opine on these core issues. Furthermore, I believe that Jewish identity is a personal matter for each individual Jew. So, I consider myself qualified only to examine my own identity, or better identities. My childhood experience, as an immigrant to America from Italy, was central to the shaping of my Jewish as well as my American identity. Two circumstances made this process unusual and complicated. First, I immigrated at the age of four. And second, I came from a country where Jews were such a tiny minority, 40 thousand out of the forty million mostly Roman Catholics; one in a thousand.
What was paramount in my childish mind in the search for identity at that time was the shedding of my Italian roots in favor of recognition as an American, to become no different from my classmates and peers. I achieved this Americanization easily. At age four the child’s mind is uncluttered and the palate is so flexible that a new language can be quickly acquired with no trace of an accent. But this alone is not sufficient for full acceptance as a real American boy. What was needed to clinch this identity was a deep knowledge of baseball with all its intricacies and arcane rules. Paramount also was blind devotion to the home team and knowledge in real time of the batting average of every member of the team--and for extra credit that of every player in both leagues. While not the class expert in the latter, I held my own, inspired by the pennant-winning Red Sox of 1946.
Coming to terms with my Jewish identity was more complex, although success was never in doubt, given my parents’ backgrounds and principles as well as the tragic realities of the time. For my parents, Judaism was taken for granted, an unshakeable trait. This in spite of the fact that they were purely secular with little or no attraction to the religious practice and liturgy of our faith. While vestiges of anti-Semitism certainly existed, Jews in Italy were well regarded and often admired in those times as a consequence of their significant role in the unification of the nation, in spite of their small numbers. Their contemporaneous exit from behind the ghetto walls which had restricted them for centuries led to their unparalleled achievements in all fields: academic, professional, artistic and even political. Their full acceptance lasted seventy years, until a new anti-Semitism erupted in the 1930’s fomented by the Fascist rulers, culminating in the “Racial Laws” of 1938 which stripped Jews of their hard-earned Civil Rights.
But for me, born in 1935, the year of the start of the Italian Fascist campaign against the Jews, this was just the preamble to finding my Jewish identity. Arriving in New York on the eve of WWII with two thousand Italian Jewish immigrants and asylum seekers and, shortly after in Boston, with no more than a hundred or so, we tended to stay within our tiny sub-ethnic community. We were invisible, and even incredible, to the overwhelming majority of American Jews whose immigrant forebears had come from Eastern or Northern Europe. Our new hyphenated American neighbors received us with disbelief: “to the Jewish Americans we were Italians and to the Italian-Americans were Jews.” Such disinterest was hardly as hurtful as our official designation by both our past government and our present one. In 1940, the Italian Fascist government declared all Jews to be “enemies of the State”. Then in 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government labelled us “enemy aliens” with no credit for being Jews who had been discriminated against in our native country. Yet in the tragic scope of contemporary events these were no more than mere inconveniences.
Begrudgingly, one Synagogue admitted me, on special consideration, to its Sunday School for Hebrew and Judaism classes. But when it came time for my Bar Mitzvah in 1948, my parents chose the opportunity for their first, and only, family trip to Italy. We had scores of relatives to welcome us back and participate in a joyous occasion. Having only a superficial knowledge of Jewish history and virtually none of Hebrew, six weeks of tutoring was barely enough to convince the rabbi of Turin to let me proceed with the ceremony.
Even though my roots were shallow, I was well aware and strongly influenced by the momentous events, both the tragic and the hopeful which had enveloped our people: the European-wide anti-Semitic laws culminating in the murder of six million Jews in the Shoah; the struggle to extricate the survivors from DP Camps and bring them to freedom in the two countries which grudgingly and slowly admitted them—the U.S. and Palestine under British rule. And finally on the British colonial government’s departure in May 1948 (two months before my Bar Mitzvah) the wildly celebrated Declaration of Jewish Statehood in the face of the ongoing invasion by a half dozen Arab state armies threatening the extinction of the weakly armed 600,000 Jews. My fascination with that successful struggle for survival, followed by the defense against the murderous Fedayeen, the 1956 Sinai War and finally the Six Day War of 1967 stimulated my deep desire for recognition as a full member of our “Tribe.” It wasn’t until the Winter of 1967, six months after the unification of Jerusalem and nineteen years after the re-birth of Israel that I finally visited the Jewish nation. That first visit in 1967 led to scores of others in the subsequent half century leading to the formation of various close friendships with Technion faculty and their families.
In the meantime, I completed most of my education in Boston, moved with my parents to Pasadena, arriving at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to begin an engineering career just four months before the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. This event transformed JPL into NASA’s premier unmanned space exploration laboratory and launched my career in wireless digital communication, initially with satellites and later over terrestrial networks as well. More importantly, within weeks of my California arrival I met the love of my life, Erna Finci, leading to our marriage the next year and fifty-six blessed years together yielding three children and five grandchildren, all of whom have given us much Naches.
The California climate from the start was much warmer than the one I left in Boston, both in temperature and in human warmth. But what influenced me the most was the provenance and wartime experience of my beloved. Erna was a Survivor of the Holocaust. With her Sephardic family she fled several times to escape Nazi capture, from Yugoslavia to Italy and ultimately to safety in Switzerland.
On the Jewish identity topic, even though Erna’s family descended from rabbis, two having served as the Chief Rabbis of Bosnia, in her parents’ generation they had become secular and only slightly more observant than mine. Nevertheless, her frightening wartime experiences had ensured her identity and allegiance to Judaism. Early in our marriage we agreed that our children should have the advantage of a far better Jewish education than what we had been afforded. While members of Reform congregations in Glendale and Los Angeles, upon reaching La Jolla in the mid-seventies, we joined a newly relocated synagogue of another branch, primarily to assert our recently conferred Jewish right to residence in the previously restricted La Jolla. Over the years I became convinced that Jewish identity, whatever its source might be, could be best preserved by association with a synagogue. In return or as a punishment, they conveyed on me the office of President during a long-ago period of congregational unrest.
To conclude, I will summarize my life history which has been impacted by the continuing efforts to establish my identities. I owe a great deal to my parents, who I am convinced were motivated to uproot their lives in order to provide a safe and promising future for their only child. In America, they had to restart their lives in a far harsher social and economic environment than they had enjoyed in pre-persecution Italy.
As much as my parents’ American life was a continuing struggle, mine was favored by good fortune, aided by hard but interesting work. I was fortunate to attend the best of Boston’s public education, to earn scholarships to pursue two MIT degrees, and to arrive in California at the very start of the Space Age. Thus at JPL I was able to contribute to research in digital communication which also led to a Ph.D. from USC. Moving to a full-time academic role as an engineering professor at UCLA, I spent a decade during which I further developed my skills and reputation. After that I came to La Jolla at the very start of the Moore’s Law solid state revolution in electronics, which made our academic pipedreams into a reality. With partners, I helped found two startup wireless communication companies, both successful, the second far more so. The fulfillment of my American dream instilled in me gratitude and pride for the only nation where I could achieve so much starting with so little. Thus, my American identity was amply fulfilled.
What message of this life experience, forming my identity as an American and a Jew, can I offer to you? It is the following, we live in a nation which welcomed our people – albeit not enough of us at the most critical moment in our modern history – and we have achieved what our people could only have fantasized over the last two millennia of our wanderings. We have also been the witnesses to the achievement of our dream of the last two thousand years, to return to our ancestral homeland and create a Jewish state anew which can serve as a light unto the nations, as well as a haven for our people. The responsibility will now be yours, our community’s rabbis and professional leaders, to chart our future path. It will be incumbent on you to continue to shape our identity for the next generation. I urge you to draw on your own experiences and that of your forebears to keep our identity alive and persevere, and to take pride in Israel’s achievements in these short 71 years. For me, I believe in a people which has survived in exile for millennia despite suffering numerous and continuing attacks and indignities and rising above them to gain the respect of the world for its literature, arts, science and technology. This by itself is worthy of taking pride in our identity as Jews in 2019.
Thank you, once again, for this honor, and mazel tov to each of you on the hard work and accomplishments which brought you to the launch of your careers as our community’s newest leaders.