Reporter's Notebook: Nobel Prize haul makes it a day to kvell

There are only 14 countries in the world that have more Nobel prizes than little Israel, and the number of Jews among all Nobel Prize winners is simply staggering.

October 10, 2013 02:08
4 minute read.
Michael Levitt celebrates Nobel win with wife Rina, October 9, 2013.

Michael Levitt celebrates Nobel win with wife 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Color me provincial, insular, ethnocentric or even shallow, but I’m bursting – just bursting – with pride over our Nobel Prize haul this week.

And when I say “our,” I’m thinking not only of Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt who won this country’s 11th and 12th Nobel Prizes on Wednesday. I also have in mind the four other Jewish prize winners this year, meaning that Jews have so far won six of the eight Nobels awarded for 2013.

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And it isn’t over yet: On Monday the Nobel Committee will award its prize for economics, an award Jews have won about 40 percent of the time.

“Mazel Tov,” I SMS’d each of my four kids on Monday.

“Two US Jews won the Nobel Prize in medicine. Yasher koach [“May your strength be increased”] and we should all have a nice day.”

On Tuesday, I SMS’d that a Belgian Jew won the physics award, pointing out that this meant Jews had won three out of the five Nobels. “Yasher koach,” I signed off, “and we should all have a nice day.” And then came Wednesday. What a day that was.

Even before the Nobel Prizes in chemistry were announced I sent out a message to the youngsters that US President Barack Obama (not Jewish) was poised to announce a Jewish woman as the head of the Federal Reserve Bank, and that, likewise, Esquire magazine named Scarlett Johansson – another American Jew, though with a Swedish name – as the world’s sexiest woman.

Schadenfreude is that German word coined to describe the feeling of joy at another’s downfall. Naches is the Yiddish opposite, joy at someone else’s accomplishment.

Oh, what naches did Wednesday bring.

And the naches grew as I started to put things in perspective: There are only 14 countries in the world that have more Nobel prizes than little Israel (though there are some 84 countries that have more Olympic medals than our seven). And the number of Jews among all Nobel Prize winners is simply staggering.

I always love this time of year. Soon after each Nobel Prize is won, in fields I don’t understand and by people I have never heard of before, I run to check and see if they are Jewish. I did that as a kid, though then – without Google and Wikipedia, it was more difficult to verify – and I do it as an adult.

I do it indeed because it gives me a great deal of pride to think that the small people I am a part of, and the small and often beleaguered country I live in, is full of so much smarts, talent and ability – despite all the odds.

So the whole debate over whether Warshel and Levitt are really Israelis because they live in California is secondary to me. They are Jews, and their achievements on the world’s stage gives me pride as a fellow Jew.

Some might deride me for a “shtetel” or “galut” mentality.

Others may slam me for emphasizing Jewish particularity, rather than being a universalist. But to them I shall pay no heed.

On the surface, there may be something illogical in my pride that Warshel won a Nobel in chemistry, or that Belgian Jew François Englert won it in physics. I don’t know them or anything about them. I don’t even know if they are proud Jews, or like being Jews, or – in the parlance of the Pew Research Center’s mammoth new study on American Jewry – whether they are Jews “with or without religion.” But my reaction is emotional, not intellectual.

I gave my kids a running scorecard of the Jewish people’s Nobel haul this year, as I did last year, because I want them – too – to be proud of their people and their country.

People who first move to this country often talk about how one of the beauties of life in Israel is that it feels like “coming home,” like being with family. Until, of course, they live here for a couple years and that “family” shine wears off.

But there are indeed times when there is a unique feeling of unity here – even a feeling of unity among Jews everywhere. This comes during periods of crisis, when the rockets are falling. But it also comes at times like when Gal Fridman wins Israel’s first Olympic gold medal, or when Ilan Ramon talks to us in Hebrew from space. It comes when much of the country – indeed much of the Jewish world – is kvelling over the same thing: a compatriot, or co-religionist, who has done us proud.

Wednesday was such a day.

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