A recent essay by college professor Alan Rubinstein in the online magazine Mosaic focuses on the life of Velvl Greene, a secular Jewish scientist-turned-Chabad-chassid who passed away six years ago at age 85. Rubinstein never met Dr. Greene but has become friendly with his son, Rabbi Dovid Greene, a shaliach in Rochester, Minnesota — not far from Carleton College where Rubinstein teaches.

Born to Yiddish-speaking socialist parents who sent him to the I.L. Peretz Folk School, William Greene was a teenager when he decided to take his grandfather’s name, Velvl, as his legal name to express solidarity with the Jews suffering in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. For decades, he taught microbiology at the University of Minnesota, and also worked on NASA’s Planetary Quarantine Program, which sought to prevent space probes from transmitting contamination to outer space and thus compromise efforts to identify life on other planets. After moving to Eretz Yisrael in 1983, Dr. Greene served as director of the Lord Jakobovits Center for Jewish Medical Ethics at Ben-Gurion University.

I never got to meet Velvl Greene either, but I first learned of him from a beautiful essay of his that was printed in the January 1971 issue of the Jewish Observer. It’s a piece I’ve reread many times, and each time, I’m moved by it all over again. It’s taken wings over the years as “The Minchah Story” starring Dr. Greene and Rabbi Moshe Feller.

Entitled “A Ten-Minute Appointment for a Five-Minute Encounter,” it describes his introduction in the winter of 1965 to the pioneering Minnesota shaliach Rabbi Moshe Feller, who’d asked for a meeting. Consumed with an extremely important, highly classified scientific project whose final deadline was fast approaching and isolated from the world “by many closed doors, any number of secretaries, and even by armed guards,” Greene had no interest in meeting what he assumed was yet another charity collector. But Rabbi Feller had persisted and was given a ten-minute appointment at 4:30 p.m.

When Rabbi Feller told Greene he wanted not money, but — as Dr. Greene was an active although non-religious member of the Jewish community — to use his name as a banquet sponsor, the latter tried explaining why the request was a waste of time. But then, recalled Professor Greene, instead of engaging in debate, Rabbi Feller

looked out the window at the setting sun, mumbled a “beg your pardon,” quickly rose from his seat, tied some kind of a cord around his waist, and started to pray. Quietly, but deliberately. Quickly, but with articulation….

I don’t think I will ever forget the flood of thoughts that swept through me during the few minutes of that winter twilight. On the one hand, I was completely nonplussed. What should I do? Can I smoke? Should I stand up? Could I return to my writing? How long is this going to last? ...My secretary poked her head in to say goodnight and never really recovered. The telephone rang and I didn’t know whether I was permitted to answer. What would the guard do with his gun when he came to close the vault?

On the other hand, I was annoyed and righteously indignant. After all, I had given this man a fixed appointment. Now he was using most of it for some type of medieval ritual. That’s the trouble with religious Jews, I thought. They come to ask a favor and then ignore you. What chutzpah!

But through the emotions of consternation and indignation, I remember being impressed. This young rabbi, new in town, in need of favors from people like me, desperately trying to get something started in a community which didn’t know him and wanted him less — this young rabbi felt a higher obligation. Regardless of what he needed from me, his hierarchy of values was such that temporal needs like my name or my check or even my approval came second to the prime need: to pray at the time fixed by law.

I liked that. Though I didn’t lend my name as a sponsor to his banquet, I liked that. That night I told my wife that a different type of person visited my office; someone who was sincere, someone whose religion meant more than the external trappings. Thus we invited the rabbi and his wife (a Phi Beta Kappa in mathematics) to our home to meet some of our friends. I wanted to show off someone who was real. Someone who davened Minchah in a microbiology laboratory. Someone who could write computer programs and wear a sheitel.

…Nearly a year after our first meeting I visited New York and discovered that our friends were not exceptions but prototypes… But I will never forget a winter afternoon, six years ago, when a young Hasid asked for a ten-minute appointment and spent five minutes of the time davening Minchah.

What happened to Velvl Greene during those fateful five minutes in his laboratory? A thought: In Pachad Yitzchok (Purim, Kuntrus Reshimos 1), Rav Yitzchok Hutner relates a line he saw in the notebook of a great man: “Me’olam lo to’am ta’am nefesh, mi shelo nisa limshol b’yitzro — He who has never tried to rule over his lesser self, has never gotten a taste of the soul.”

A person can move through life forever catering to his body and flattering his ego, and never even realize he has a higher self, a neshamah. It is only at the moment that he says “No!” to himself that he first becomes aware of the soul within him.

Velvl Greene was a prominent man of science, aiding the as-yet still futile effort to discover extraterrestrial life in the outer reaches of space. But on that winter day, he glimpsed the existence of the soul and discovered genuine human life, right here on Earth. 

SEAWEED SAVIOR It’s said that Sir Moses Montefiore once argued with the Chiddushei HaRim — the first Gerrer Rebbe — about the importance of Jews studying foreign languages by pointing to Mordechai Hatzaddik, who foiled the assassination attempt by Bigsan and Seresh after hearing them plot their scheme in a foreign tongue. Quite the contrary, retorted the Rebbe, they spoke unguardedly in his presence precisely because they didn’t expect a Jew to understand their words. Mordechai, a member of the Sanhedrin which required proficiency in every language, was an anomaly, the exception who proves the rule that Jews weren’t linguists.

I was reminded of that exchange upon coming across a World War II-era anecdote from which it emerges that there are times when unfamiliarity with “big words” can come in handy. Geoffrey Tandy was a cryptogamist — an expert in spore-reproducing plants like seaweeds, mosses, and ferns — employed in that capacity by Britain’s National History Museum from 1926 until 1939. Tandy wasn’t just another run-of-the-mill cryptogamist though; he was a specialist in algae.

In 1939, he enlisted in the Royal Navy Reserves, and apparently someone at the Ministry of Defense mistook his profession to be that of a cryptogramist, someone who deciphers messages written in code. In short order, Tandy was dispatched to the town of Bletchley, where the British code-cracking effort was centered, and where there was a concerted attempt to decipher the code of the German Naval Enigma Machine.

Tandy did what he could to learn skills for which he’d had no prior training. Then, in 1941, came his big break. Allied forces torpedoed a German U-boat and from the wreckage they salvaged important papers, such as bigram tables for double-letter conversion, which enabled users of the German Enigma Machine to unscramble messages.

But the papers had become waterlogged, seemingly rendering them beyond recovery — but not with a cryptogamist on staff. Geoffrey Tandy was expert in drying out water-damaged, fragile materials like algae. And racing against time, he dried the pages and made them legible once more.

The Bletchley team used those papers, once deciphered, to crack secret German communications, which, in turn, is estimated to have helped hasten the end of the war by two to four years. The transformation of an unsung seaweed scientist into a genuine war hero is a breathtaking display of Hashgachah Elyonah, in which the unfamiliarity of the obscure word “cryptogamist” saved untold millions of lives.

Then again, as denizens of the Duchy of Sesquipedalia (a.k.a., the “big words” folks) might wish to note, said unknown official did know the meaning of the equally four-syllabic word “cryptogramist”…

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 706. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com