Top U.S. Ebola point men are Jewish
Any mother, Jewish or otherwise, would kvell over the accomplishments of her three sons, although at the moment she might wish that the youngest one weren’t constantly in the news.
That would be Thomas (Tom) R. Frieden, director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who is the government’s primary point man in dealing with the Ebola crisis and its possible threat to this country.
As such, the youthful-looking Frieden, 53, has been grilled – and frequently criticized – at congressional hearings and media interviews. (President Barack Obama on Friday, Oct. 17, named as Ebola “czar,” Ron Klain, who is Jewish and served as Vice President Joe Biden’s chief of staff.)
Frieden learned how to cope with pressure in his previous job as New York City’s Commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene. When he was honored for his work as a Public Official of the Year by Governing magazine in 2005, the lead paragraph read:
“Consider [Frieden] as the consummate Jewish mom – except that he isn’t nudging you about wearing a scarf so you won’t catch a cold. Rather, the admonitions that [he] slings relate to much more serious illnesses – HIV/AIDS, heart disease, lung cancer, tuberculosis, hepatitis and diabetes.
“And it isn’t galoshes that Dr. Frieden wants people to don as a preventive measure, it’s condoms. In fact, he has a bowl of them in his office for the taking.”
Frieden grew up in Larchmont and New Rochelle in New York City’s suburban Westchester County in a family of overachievers.
His late father, Julian, was chief of coronary care at New York’s Montefiore Hospital, and his mother Nancy is a family and human rights lawyer.
Oldest brother Jeffry (ok) Frieden is a renowned political economist and Stanfield Professor of International Peace at Harvard University.
Middle brother Kenneth (Ken) is Chair of Interdisciplinary Judaic Studies at Syracuse University, New York, and a prolific author on Hebrew and Yiddish literature – as well as clarinetist in The Wandering Klezmorim band.
The Frieden boys grew up in a religiously largely secular Jewish home, whose forebears immigrated from Eastern Europe and Germany to the United States in the late 19th century.
In an extended phone interview, Ken Frieden recalled brother Tom, two years younger, as “studious, but not bookish, whose first academic interest was in philosophy.
“I remember reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ to Tom, and he was fascinated by it,” Ken Frieden said. As a family of five, counting the parents and three brothers “we hold six advanced degrees,” he added.
In a separate interview, Jeffry Frieden recalled brother Tom as “a sweet, thoughtful kid, always trying to do better. At one point, he wanted to become a pitcher and he would keep throwing balls for hours at a time.”
For a while, the three brothers attended a Torah study group, taught by a knowledgeable neighborhood lawyer, and the boys used to come home with all kinds of questions and arguments, Jeffry Frieden said.
Although all branches of the Frieden family are culturally and intellectually fully conscious of their Jewishness, Ken Friedman is the only one who has made Jewish studies the focus of his life’s work.
The impetus, oddly enough, was a 1980 conference he attended in Germany.
Having lived in New York and Chicago, Frieden had always taken the presence of a large Jewish community for granted. But during the meeting, and later while studying and teaching in Germany, he keenly “felt the absence of Jews,” he said.
From that beginning, Ken Frieden decided to master Hebrew and Yiddish and subsequently has written extensively on the influence of translations on literary history and especially on the impact of Hebrew on Yiddish.