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Pedagogical Anecdotes and Sayings by I. M. Gelfand

This section has two parts.

The first part contains Gelfand's own sayings from various occasions.

In the second part, we list the anecdotes and expressions from other people that Gelfand used for pedagogical purposes at his seminars, talks, or in conversations with people. Gelfand's pedagogical stories were always very much to the point and were never intended to offend anyone or to simply entertain the listeners. When quoting others, he always mentioned the person by name. When possible, the source is indicated. If you would like to clarify the source or share a different version of an anecdote which you heard from Gelfand, please contact us.

I. Sayings by Israel Gelfand.

"Mathematics for me is a universal and adequate language of sciences, and it is an example of how people of different cultures and backgrounds can communicate and work together. This is extremely important in our times."
- From Gelfand's acceptance letter to AMS for the Leroy P. Steele Prize

"Mathematics is a part of the human culture, any profession must understand the way of thinking."
- From Gelfand's Interview for the Highland Park Herald, 1992

"In our century of rapid changes, it is impossible to know everything. The goal is to learn how to learn."
- From the GCPM materials, 1994

"People (or students) do not have shortcomings, only uniquenesses. The goal of a good teacher is to turn these uniquenesses into advantages."
- Often repeated by Gelfand

"Explain this to me on a simple example; the difficult example I will be able to do on my own ".
- Written down by T.V. Gelfand, 1994

"Do not be afraid to ask simple questions and receive simple answers to them."
- Written down by M. Shifrin

"In an area [of knowledge] the number of ideas is limited. Everything else is a variation on the theme."
"In mathematics the number of ideas is not large. Everything that is achieved is obtained from the basic (or fundamental) concepts which are applied with some degree of variations. Mastering these basic concepts in one field of mathematics helps to distinguish and use them in other fields."
- From the introduction to Geometry, book co-authored with Tatiana V.Gelfand (submitted for publication)

"I am an optimist: in the battle between good and bad, the good cannot lose."
- From the Interview for VITA


II. Pedagogical Anecdotes and Expressions.

"Do not fight for cleanliness, sweep instead."
- from M.L. Tsetlin or V.S. Gurfinkel

"It is good to be a decent person, but one does not need to regret it constantly."
- from M.L. Tsetlin or V.S. Gurfinkel

(In regards to someone who knows how things should have been done.)
"You are as clever as my wife will be afterwards."
- from M.L. Tsetlin or V.S. Gurfinkel

"The least serious illness is the typhoid of your neighbor."
- from M.L. Tsetlin or V.S. Gurfinkel

One only has to be fast when catching flees.

A refined gentleman comes into a simple restaurant and orders dinner. When the waiter brings the soup, the gentleman notices that there is a fly in his soup. The gentleman looks at the waiter and says, "Would you, please, serve me the soup and the flies separately?"

(From a story told to Gelfand by a mathematician Boris Weisfeller.) While living in the USSR, Boris had a rare opportunity to go abroad to a country in South America. During his trip, Boris stopped at a restaurant and ordered mango which he never ate before. The waiter thought that Boris was an important foreigner and wanted to impress him. He leaned down and whispered into Boris's ear, "Today we have apples."

A drunk wakes up and finds himself lying on the sidewalk. He asks a passerby, "Can you please tell me where I am?" "You're 200 feet away from the intersection of Main St. and Park Boulevard," replies the passerby. "Heck with the details! Better tell me what city am I in?"

A man is walking down a country road and sees a farmer in the field. He stops and asks the farmer, how far it is to the City A. The farmer says, "Walk". The man walks a few steps, stops, and looks back at the farmer in astonishment. The farmer says, "In two and a half hours you should be there".

A Jew goes to a Rabbi and says,
"Rabbi, help me, my chickens are dying!"
Rabbi thinks for a while, consulted the Talmud, and says,
"Try washing them in sea water."
The Jew comes back after a week, and says,
"Rabbi, my chickens are still dying!"
Rabbi thinks some more, consults the Talmud, and replies,
"Try giving them fresh radishes."
Another week later, the Jew returns looking very sad and says to the Rabbi,
"Rabbi, all my chickens are dead!"
Rabbi scratchs his head, and says,
"Oh, what a pity! I had so many more good ideas."
- A Jewish anecdote

A Jew goes to a Rabbi and says,
"I have two roosters, a red one and a black one. I need to kill one of them. If I kill the red one, the black will be lonely, if I kill the black one, the red will be lonely. What should I do?"
Rabbi thinks and replies, "Kill the black one."
The Jew says, "But what about the red rooster? He will be lonely!"
And Rabbi replies, "Heck with him, let him be lonely."
- A Jewish anecdote

A crow is sitting on a big branch of a tree.
A rabbit who is passing by, stops and asks the crow,
"Crow, what are you doing there?"
"I am showing off," says the crow.
"May I join you?" asks the rabbit.
"Of course", answers the crow.
Sometime later, a fox is running by. He sees a crow and a rabbit on a branch and asks,
"What are you doing there?"
"We are showing off."
"May I join you?" asks the fox and climbs the branch.
Soon, a wolf joins them.
A big bear, who happens to walk by, sees all the animals up on the branch.
"What are you all doing there?" he asks.
"We are showing off."
"I want to show off too!" says the bear.
He climbs up on the branch and the branch breaks. The crow flies off, but all the others fall down.
"Before you show off, you should learn how to fly", says the crow, flying away.
- A Ukrainian anecdote

These days, medicine has become very specialized. Two specialists are needed to give an enema to a patient.
One who knows how to do it, and another who knows where it goes.

Once upon a time, there was a kind King. One day, while he was in the city, he noticed a blind man trying to cross a busy street. The next day, the King passed a law that all people must help the blind cross the street. When the King visited the city again, he noticed that two policemen were forcefully pulling a protesting blind man across the street. (There was more to this story but the details are missing.)

An accomplished writer unexpectedly meets his former school friend. The two haven't seen each other for many years and begin to catch up. The writer talks about his career, the books he has published, and his future projects. After quite a while, he says, "But why do I keep talking about myself all the time? Let's talk about you now. Have you read my last novel?"

During the Jewish pogrom massacres, in a one Ukrainian shtetl, a few schools continued to function. After one of the pogroms, a biology teacher was lecturing on the life of insects. One Jewish boy was not paying attention.
The teacher turned to him and asked, "Moshe, how many legs does a beetle have?"
Moshe looked at the teacher with sorrow in his eyes, "I wish I had your problems, Professor!"


A famous American actor took a role in an ordinary TV show. His friend asked him,
"Why are you doing this? You are wasting your talent! People usually watch TV while eating, chatting or even making love; they are not paying attention and cannot appreciate that you're doing your best."
The actor replied,
"I am imagining a lonely old lady who has no other joy left in her life, who is looking forward to sitting by the TV and watching my show. I am acting the best way that I can for her."
(Gelfand often also told a similar story about Stanislavsky performing for the old lady in the last row.)

A young son of a small store owner studied economics and asked his father what is "ethics".
"Ethics?" asked his father in return, "How can I explain this to you?
Let me give you an example. Suppose a woman comes into our store and buys a dress for $80. She pays with a $100 bill. She is so involved with her purchase that she leaves the store and forgets to take the $20 change.
Son, here comes the question of ethics. Should I share the $20 with my co-worker or not?"
- A Jewish anecdote

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