From the time she was a little girl growing up in Philadelphia — when she wasn’t spending significant amounts time with her Holocaust survivor grandfather in Prague, that is — Rivka Hyland was different. While other kids her age played with Barbie or watched Barney and the RugRats, she was engaged in a different kind of learning.
Learning foreign languages, which now — at least partially — number eight; learning to see different cultures at work
by going to school in China and Germany and living in Jordan; learning about various religions — even learning that the best thing to do academically at age 13 was to go to boarding school — all part of the process.
Last week, the 20-year-old Hyland, now a senior at Harvard majoring in Islamic Studies, learned something else: She’s been named a prestigious Rhodes Scholar, and will be spending the next few years at Oxford. That’s just down the road from that other Cambridge, where she spent a couple of summers working for professors, before getting ready to take on the world.
“This is definitely not something I dreamed about, like someone growing up dreaming of being a ballplayer,” said Hyland during the Thanksgiving break, which she spent up in Boston rather than coming home. “Being a ballplayer’s a career. Being a Rhodes Scholar’s a tremendous honor, but it’s not in and of itself a career. What’s so exciting about it is the people I met when I was being interviewed are all so different. They all have things in common and are all brilliant. These people are going to change the world, but in very different fields.”
Changing the world usually doesn’t get listed on most college kids’ resumes. Then again, Rivka Brod Hyland’s not like most college kids. Maybe it goes back to her family background as the daughter of two college professors, Richard and Sharka Hyland, whose own story is pretty compelling.
“She comes from a family in which everyone knows a lot of languages,” said Richard, a comparative law professor at Rutgers-Camden and a native of San Diego, where he recalls once waking to up to find a swastika painted on his front door. “Her mother is Czech. Her grandfather, Toman Brod, was born in 1929 and far as I know was one of the youngest who survived Theresienstadt as a child and was transported to Auschwitz. He was one of the Birkenau Boys” who were selected by Dr. Joseph Mengele to live and work at the camp while everyone else was murdered. “He’s a historian now.”
Toman is the grandfather little Rivka — named after the second Jewish matriarch, who became the wife of Isaac and mother of Jacob, noted for her kindness — used to visit two to three times a year almost from the time she was out of diapers. When Richard and Sharka couldn’t make the trip with her, they’d put her on a plane with one of his students. She never seemed to mind, he added.
That’s also where Rivka learned much of her Jewish identity, largely because her parents — despite their best efforts — didn’t have much of one themselves. “We were married in the Alt Neu Synagogue in Prague” — the 13th-century synagogue considered the oldest active synagogue in Europe and among the oldest in the world — explained Hyland, who met his wife in what was then the Russian-occupied Czech Republic. “We were married during the Brezhnev era in 1982, when the Jewish community was very oppressed. There hadn’t been a Jewish wedding there since the Second World War. I asked for permission and got it.
Across the street was a Jewish town hall, where Barbra Streisand had just finished filming Yentl. She’d given them some money from that which they used to refurbish the synagogue. Our wedding banquet was held on the third floor of that building.”
From those unique origins, is it any wonder Rivka grew up distinctive in her own way? “I studied eight languages,” she said. “I was raised bilingual in English and Czech. I’m fluent in French because I went to the French International School in Bala Cynwyd. My parents told their secrets in German, so I picked up some of that. I studied Japanese in high school and Arabic for a year in high school and then at Harvard. And I’ve studied Latin and Greek to better understand Christian theology. When I was in ninth grade at Friends Select, we had this world history course mostly about the Middle Ages. We did a month on medieval Islam. Nothing has interested me the same way since.”
That course paved the way for her pursuit of Islamic studies, during which she’s examined the difference in theology between Muslims, Christians and Jews. In the process, she’s come to the realization their similarities in many ways outnumber their differences.
That’s an important message she thinks should be communicated to the rest of the world. It’s a message she convinced the Rhodes Scholar selection committee — which chose her and one other student among the 12 finalists who interviewed at Haverford College two weekends ago — is worth further research.
After beginning the application process in August — which entailed getting a series of recommendations from professors and other experts, along with a heavy dose of writing — Rivka was granted an interview. “It was really an incredible process,” she said of the experience. “I’ve never been forced to fully articulate why what I do is important and relevant. The interview was about 20 minutes long. They mainly asked me to connect my research in medieval theology to the modern world and how I became involved in some of the extracurriculars I do at Harvard. I’ve found going through this has given me a tremendous opportunity for reflection.”
Unless you, too, have been studying the differences between medieval Christianity and Islam, trying to understand what Hyland plans to do with her life may be a bit confusing. But the bottom line is, if they all see how much they have in common, maybe they’ll find a way to accept each other.
“These are two monotheistic religions within the same monotheistic tradition so they draw on the same scripture sources,” she explained. “They overlap each over and cover a lot of the same territory.
“Both were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. Christians and Muslims in the Middle Ages were using Aristotle and reading Plato. These are very different religions, but they’re trying to answer similar question between the human and the divine. How can you bridge the infinite distance between an eternal, invisible God and a temporal, visible human world? In answering that question they are often drawing on similar scriptural stories from the Greeks.”
Got all that? If not, you have time to bone up, because she will be spending the next five to 10 years expounding upon those theories. “The plan is Oxford for two to three years, then go for my Ph.D. if anyone will take me,” said Hyland, who does have a life outside her books, rowing for her London House team on the Charles and bike riding at midnight. “After that it’s research, maybe teaching or writing for someone like the New York Times if they want the perspective of a medievalist.
“Right now, I’m working on my thesis. I’m comparing 4th-century Christian faith with 9th-century Islamic faith in debating about the word of God. In Christianity, the word of God is incarnate as Jesus Christ. In Islam the word of God shows up as the Koran.
“I have to finish that and take three more courses. Then, hopefully, Harvard will give me a degree.”
Richard Hyland says he expects his daughter, to distinguish herself, just like those other Rhodes recipients. “I think she will change the world,” said the man who sent her off to Phillips Exeter Academy in 10th grade because, he said, she had simply run out of academic challenges in Philadelphia. “In the West, we’re having trouble understanding and communicating with the Muslim world.
It’s smart of her and the committee to see this is important and that she’s the person for the job.
“She’s been an astonishing little girl, but all of sudden I can see she’s grown up.”