Patented experience

At 80 years of age, Rabbi Moshe Landy puts in 12 hours a day at the Justice Ministry's Patent Office.

landy88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
If you walk into the crammed room of Moshe Landy at the Justice Ministry's Patent Office in Jerusalem any time between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., you may not see him there. That's not because he isn't in his room. It's because the small, somewhat stooped, employee is likely hidden behind one of about 30 large and complicated organic chemistry patent requests piled high on his desk. It's his responsibility to approve or reject them in the name of the State of Israel. The fact that Landy works such long hours and is so productive is not the only special feature about him, for the US-born civil servant is more than 80 years old and has been working full-time for the Patent Office for the past 34 years. Not only that, but the Brooklyn College MSc graduate in chemistry is also a rabbi who received his smicha (rabbinic ordination) from Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn. Landy immigrated to Israel 36 years ago at the age of 44. At the time, he and his wife, Lois, had eight children. They added two sabras after settling down in their home in Talpiot, where they have lived almost from the day they arrived in Israel. Landy's parents belonged to the Chabad movement but he was, in his words, "the black sheep of the family." Although he wears the traditional haredi garb including black suit and white shirt, and sports a long, white beard, he said he was never a Chabad follower and did not visit the late Lubavitcher rebbe or his father. As a young man his days were spent studying Talmud at the yeshiva, while he spent his nights studying chemistry at Brooklyn College. He said there was nothing inherently contradictory about studying both modern science and ancient religious texts and that, in those long-ago days, many of his yeshiva friends did the same. After graduation, Landy worked in New York as a chemist for the US navy, but he decided to follow in the footsteps of his sister who had immigrated to Israel just before the Six Day War. During a pilot trip Landy made in early 1969, he landed a job with the Fiber Institute. He was laid off two years later, leaving him unemployed and with many hungry mouths to feed at home. A friend of his mentioned that there was an opening at the Patent Office, and Landy decided to take it as a temporary measure until he could find a job as an active scientist. Nineteen years later, Landy's "temporary" job was due to come to an end after he reached the then-mandatory retirement age of 65. He did not want to go, but his boss explained to him that the office needed his permanent slot for another employee. In his characteristically gentle way, Landy resigned himself to what seemed to be the inevitable and said he would devote his future to religious study. His superiors, however, were loathe to see this unusually industrious and devoted employee go, and offered him a one-year special contract to stay on; it has been renewed every year since. "We don't do it as a favor to him," said his current boss, Meir Noam, the commissioner of patents. "We really need him. Moshe is no ordinary worker. He comes here in the morning and works until 8 or 9 p.m. without lifting his head from the desk. He does not believe in bitul Torah (wasting time on mundane matters.) You don't see people with such a strong work ethic any longer." Despite Landy's age, Meir added, he has a phenomenal memory and can still deal with highly complicated chemical formulae and developments that are on the cutting edge of organic chemistry. Nevertheless, you might think that Landy had had enough, if not at 65, then at 70, or 75 or perhaps 80. "I once discussed the question of retirement with a doctor friend," he explained. "He warned me not to stop working, that one needs to have something to do and needs a framework." Well, then, what about slowing down a bit, for example, working an eight-hour day like most employees 50 years younger than him? "I discussed this with my wife just the other night," he said. "I told her maybe we should cut down on the hours. But she said no, we needed the money to help the kids." "Kids" in this case does not necessarily mean only their immediate progeny. Landy and his wife have so many grandchildren and great grandchildren, that he can barely keep track of them all. His wife, by the way, who is just a few years younger, is still working as a secretary for former Agudat Yisrael MK Menahem Porush. The Justice Ministry's Patent Office receives 6,500 applications for patent registrations in scientific fields each year. Landy has no idea how many of these land on his desk. He said he just deals with them one at a time. Noam estimated that about 360 applications each year involve Landy's field of expertise, most of them connected to the pharmaceutical industry. Some of these applications may include as many as 200 pages of densely typed text involving highly complicated chemical compounds. Surely, from both a physical and mental point of view, it would be reasonable to assume that the material would be too much for a man his age. But apparently not. "Sometimes, I get bleary-eyed," was the most Landy would concede. "Especially if I have a long, drawn out request." He held up an example of the material he reads, and added: "Sometimes the print is half this size." "[Landy] is on the front lines of science and does an excellent job. I don't get work at this high a level from anyone else," said his boss, Noam. Landy's work can have serious repercussions because it may involve huge sums of money and infringe on one of the most basic human rights, freedom of occupation. Landy must determine if all or part of the patent application genuinely constitutes an "inventive step." In order to do so, he must be aware of all the latest developments in the field throughout the world. Most of the patent requests come from commercial companies and some approved patents can bring millions of shekels to the companies that receive them. In most cases, said Landy, the initial patent request is too broad, and he conducts a ping-pong process with the applicant via his local patent lawyer. This process often takes a long time. While it is going on, Landy is also working on other ongoing and new applications. How did this man, who grew up in a haredi home and studied in haredi institutions end up as a scientist? As a small child he participated in a drug store contest and won second prize, which, as fate would have it, was a chemistry set. The rest is history. Since he is also a rabbi, Landy could have had a career as a religious functionary, but this path did not appeal to him. "That's all I would have needed," he said with a sigh. "What I do is a good way to make a living." Even after 34 years at the same job, Landy said he was happy with his work. "Sometimes, I feel good when I discover a mistake and the patent applicant agrees with me," he said. In his case, this seems to happen a lot.