An Italian Jew who grew up in Boston, Viterbi can trace his paternal roots to 1588 near Rome, and his maternal Sephardic roots from Spain to northern Italy after the Inquisition.
"All the way through high school and college, I would be asked, 'How can you be an Italian and a Jew?'" the father of cell phone technology recalls with a laugh. "Scholars have always known about Italy's Jews, but to the general public, it's a contradiction in terms."
His parents fled Italy after Mussolini's racial laws of 1938 which saw his father, head of the main hospital's opthalmology department, dismissed. He then worked contacts to obtain US visas for his wife and son, then 4. They first lived in New York and later in Boston, where he started a new ophthalmology practice.
Viterbi's wife, Erna Finci, is a descendant of the Bosnian chief rabbi. Living in Sarajevo when the Germans invaded in 1941, her family fled to modern-day Croatia under Italian military control. They were interned in a small Italian village, where all the residents cooperated to hide them, said Viterbi, and eventually landed in Switzerland.
He attended Boston's fameous Boston Latin School, and quotes philosopher George Santayana who said that people who have forgotten their history are doomed to relive it. "I am interested in Jewish history everywhere and throughout the ages for that very reason. I don't want us to have to relive that history."
Viterbi is not alone. Although most American Jews are Ashkenazi, a small group of American Jews have Italian roots, while more have roots in other areas of the Mediterranean.
His family has established a $1.4 million endowment to create the Viterbi Family Program in Mediterranean Jewish studies - to begin next fall - through UCLA's Center for Jewish Studies.
It will bring a distinguished scholar in some aspect of Mediterranean Jewish society, history or culture to campus for one quarter of instruction each year, and will also fund quarterly lectures and seminars on Jewish communities in Italy, France, Spain, the Balkans, North Africa, Egypt or Israel.
"I am not an anomaly," Viterbi said. "Because the Mediterranean region has been at the crossroads of commerce and ideas for thousands of years, it has been the site of one of the richest and most diverse Jewish cultures in history. I want that culture to be explored and recognized."
Read the complete story to understand Viterbi's evolving understanding of his Italian Jewish heritage and the Holocaust. He has a PhD in electrical engineering from USC and joined its faculty in 1963. A few years later he developed an algorithm that helped make cellular phones possible; founded Linkabit (1960s) and Qualcomm (1985). In 2003, he and his wife donated $52 million to USC.
UCLA's Center for Jewish Studies (established 1994) offers some 70 annual courses, as well as about 50 public lectures, seminars and conferences each year in a variety of fields. Programs include a specialized series in Sephardic studies, Holocaust studies and modern Jewish culture.
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