There's the following dialogue in Oppenheimer between the title character and Isidor Isaac Rabi when they meet on a train after Rabi attended Oppenheimer's lecture earlier:

RABI: We’re a couple of New York Jews, how do you know Dutch?

OPPI: Well, I thought I’d better learn it when I got here this semester.

RABI: You learned enough Dutch in six weeks to give a lecture on quantum mechanics?

OPPI: I like to challenge myself.

RABI: Quantum physics wasn’t challenging enough. Shvitzer.

OPPI: Shvitzer?

RABI: Show-off. Dutch in six weeks, but you never learned Yiddish.

OPPI: They don’t speak it so much my side of the park.

RABI: Screw you.

with both of them grinning at this point.

Question: What does "They don’t speak (Yiddish) so much my side of the park" mean? Which park? Which side is which?


1 Answer 1


What does "They don’t speak (Yiddish) so much my side of the park" mean? Which park? Which side is which?

Park is probably Central Park.

Oppenheimer’s family is well-off financially, from Riverside Drive, part of a rich neighborhood in the Upper West Side borough of Manhattan in New York City, and with the similarly affluent Upper East Side to its East, they straddle Central Park between them. His family is noted as being non-observant Jews, typical of the affluent Jews that populated those boroughs.

Isidor Isaac Rabi by comparison was born into a traditional Polish-Jew family in Poland, who later settled in the Lower East Side - traditionally an immigrant, working class neighborhood, with slums, and with a large population of traditional Jew immigrants who would have been more conversant in Yiddish.

Although both men were Jewish they were, ahem, poles apart, and that had more to do with class - (along with Strauss), they were from very different backgrounds.

Oppenheimer’s opponent in the movie, Strauss, noticed this too, and as he was a self-made man, he was rather put off by Oppenheimer’s affluent background.

The Jewish community in the US in the early 20th century was not a monolith, but comprised both assimilationist middle-class refugees and working-class, more observant Yiddish speakers.

Oppenheimer’s well-off, Upper East Side family, in contrast, were “assimilationist,” ... Part of an earlier wave of Jewish immigrants from Germany, “they wanted to be seen as respectable,” and did that by downplaying their Jewishness.

Oppenheimer was more comfortable with Sanskrit than Hebrew

Oppenheimer’s friend Isaac Isadore Rabi lamented that his interests strayed from his own tradition. Hearing he was reading Hindu scripture, he wondered “why not the Talmud?”

Although Rabi and Oppenheimer were friends, Strauss was not, and he took offence at what he perceived as Oppenheimer's lack of Jewish-ness:

“They were oil and water. They had bad chemistry,” ... “Strauss was offended by Oppenheimer’s behavior, and then he thinks in the back of his mind, ‘This is a brash young man who doesn’t take his Jewish ancestry seriously,’

Simply put, Rabi, Strauss, and Oppenheimer shared interests in science and to a lesser degree-faith, but Oppenheimer was set apart from the others by his perceived lack of observance of that faith, and importantly by class.

Oppenheimer's side of the 'park' is the affluent neighborhoods to the north (ish) that do not speak Yiddish and do not observe Jewish traditions, Rabi's side of the 'park' is the comparatively poor south (geographically), where they do speak Yiddish, and do observe the Jewish traditions. (Strauss is even more South and is one who worked his way up as opposed to Oppenheimer's being born into money)

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    Don't read the bio that Oppenheimer movie was based on - read this much better one. It explains the nuances of jewishness in Northern Europe and USA in 1800s.
    – Trunk
    Feb 22 at 21:58
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    @Trunk I'm curious, why not read both? Why actively recommend folks to NOT read American Prometheus?
    – uhoh
    Feb 23 at 7:34
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    I don't think many people will read 2 bios of anyone with each running to 600+ pages. Especially when there's a lot of science in it and many people won't have a lead-in to that. (It's not like reading say Dallek's 2 volumes on LBJ and then reading Caro's 4 (5?!) volumes on the same man: political bios' issues are more relatable for a general reader.) So it's best to read the better bio - which is IMHO Inside The Centre. To my mind both the physics and purely biographical strands are better presented and interwoven. The jewish context is also very thorough - and Oppie's jewishness mattered.
    – Trunk
    Feb 23 at 14:32
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    @Trunk well I can't lecture (much) on quantum physics and I can't speak Dutch, but I've got a few years left in me so I think I'll be able to read two books. :-) Thanks for the clarification! I will try to get my hands on both of them.
    – uhoh
    Feb 23 at 14:48
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    @Giacomo1968 Inside The Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer - precise title. New paperback edition only available now.
    – Trunk
    Feb 24 at 16:59

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