Happy Birthday, Sergey!

Posted on August 20th, 2012 by

A blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert.

I use today’s blog post to celebrate a piece of contemporary Maryland Jewish History.  Happy Birthday, Sergey!  If you don’t recognize who I’m talking about, I’m sure you can google it.  Tomorrow, Sergey Brin turns 39 and it is hard to think of many people twice his age who have had half as much influence on our daily lives.  Sergey Brin’s success is based on many things – including vision and talent – but beyond doubt his accomplishments were all enabled by the difficult decision his parents made to leave their homes in Moscow and take up residence in Prince George’s County.

The story of one of America’s greatest high tech corporations is linked to the decades of struggle to liberate the Jews of the Soviet Union.  Sergey’s father, Michael Brin, had his hopes for an academic career squashed by rampant anti-Semitism in Soviet society.  He was quoted in a 2007 article in Moment magazine as saying, “nobody would even consider me for graduate school because I was Jewish.”  So in May 1979 the Brins became one of the last Jewish families to leave Russia before Gorbachev era.  Sergey grew up near Greenbelt, MD and went on to get his bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland, where his father had become a professor of mathematics.  In 1996, Sergey teamed up with Larry Page to introduce the world to their revolutionary search engine – and the rest as they say is history, at least recent history.

It occurs to me that the Sergey Brin story is also part of bigger picture, the role that American Jews have played in the development of media.  The classic example, most often cited, is the legacy of the 1920s/30s movie moguls.  In the 1989 book, An Empire of Their Own:  How the Jews Invented Hollywood, Neal Gabler  chronicles the dominant studio chiefs who nearly all had Jewish origins. Carl Laemmle who created Universal; Adolf Zukor who founded Paramount; William Fox and his namesake brand; and, of course, Louis B. Mayer who emerged from the scrap business to run MGM.  I even found a Baltimore connection, as Benjamin Warner was a cobbler here, before his four sons grew up to be the Warner Bros.  This spring JMM will host Zap!, Pow! Bam!, a traveling exhibit from Atlanta’s Breman Museum that looks at the powerful role that Jewish illustrators played in creating superheroes in the 1930s and 1940s.  Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Captain America all have Jewish roots under their capes.

While Jewish leadership in today’s new media may not be quite as overwhelming as Hollywood or the Golden Age of Comics, but there are certainly some superstars like Brin and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.  Also perhaps some very influential names with a bit lower profile.  As I sit here writing this blog, I am wondering how many people know the name David Winer.  Winer is a Brooklyn-born software developer and entrepreneur who started web publishing in the early 1990s. His “Weblogs” pioneered the concept of using the world wide web as a site for user-generated news and commentary and he is considered by many to be the father of the “blog.”  To be honest with you, I have to admit I looked this information up on Wikipedia…where it took a little more hunting to discover that the man who suggested to the founders of the web encyclopedia that they invite users to generate content was Ben Kovitz.  It appears that it was Kovitz who put the “wiki” into “Wikipedia”.

It is beyond my expertise to suggest why American Jews have been so effective as innovators in media development.  Perhaps our “outsider” status is actually helpful in seeing the possibilities inherent in new forms of communication…but I will leave the speculation to others.  I can only admire the talents of those who build new worlds.

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