Scholars in the spotlight

Experts in fields from Maimonides to cherry tomatoes have been awarded the Israel Prize.

blidstein 88 (photo credit: )
blidstein 88
(photo credit: )
On Independence Day, the Israel Prize is presented at a state ceremony in Jerusalem. The esteemed prize, established in 1953 and the most prestigious civilian honor bestowed in Israel, is awarded annually to persons or institutions for excellence in academics, culture or service to the state. Honorees are selected by a committee of judges who then pass on their recommendations to the minister of education. Among the 14 winners this year are Nachum Kedar, Ruth Lapidoth and Ya'akov Blidstein, all leading scholars whose contributions might have otherwise gone unappreciated by the general public. YA'AKOV BLIDSTEIN Award in Jewish Thought Academics can sometimes feel that the work they produce has no effect on people. But Professor Ya'akov (Gerald) Blidstein recalls one piece that actually had a concrete physical impact. In 1979, Blidstein wrote that "the Jew who loves his people wishes to experience its fullness, and the adventure, the challenge, of Jewish fullness today is in Israel. The Jew who identifies with his people wishes to be at the cutting edge of its history and that, today, is in Israel." Not long after it was published, someone approached Blidstein and said that he had come to Israel after reading that article. The two American transplants remain friends to this day. However it is not for his aliyah activities that Blidstein is being awarded the Israel Prize. Rather it is because he is considered one of the founders of the field of Jewish political thought. His work in rabbinic thought from the medieval to the modern period, according to the citation by the Ministry of Education, "has made ... a radical breakthrough in research into the halachic philosophy of Maimonides and its influence throughout the generations. In his very accurate analysis of the Halacha, he reveals its philosophical foundations and deepens our understanding of pure philosophy." Nonetheless, for Blidstein, news about receiving his Israel Prize came as a surprise. It came as such a surprise that he almost tried to pass it up. Blidstein knew that he was a candidate in a general way, but when acting Education Minister Meir Shitrit called, "at first it didn't even occur to me he would talk about this." In fact, Blidstein thought he was calling about something else and, wanting to get off the phone, considered telling him, "I'm not the person you need." Then Blidstein realized what the true purpose of the call was. Born in Brooklyn, Blidstein was educated in New York and received his Ph.D from Yeshiva University. Afterwards, he spent two years teaching at McGill in Montreal. From there, he immigrated to Israel and accepted a post at Ben Gurion University in 1972. Apart from one year in Tel Aviv, he has been at BGU ever since. "You might say it's a Ben Gurion prize in a certain way," he says. But not only Ben Gurion folk were pleased for Blidstein. Since word got out, he has received personal congratulations from a wide world of acquaintances, some of whom he had not heard from in decades. For him that was a very positive experience, one that may have been as rewarding as the prize itself. Blidstein even wonders aloud whether a prize like this is the "only aspect of life that Israeli society can come together about." He says this in jest. About Israel he says, "There is much more to be applauded than is generally acknowledged or publicized. There are lots of good and noble things going on that just don't get the attention they deserve." Even though the Dodgers are long gone from his native Brooklyn, Blidstein maintains his American citizenship and still feels a loyalty to it and its language. But unfortunately for readers of English, most of Blidstein's scholarly works are published only in Hebrew. Of those available in English, he recommends his Honor Thy Father and Mother and In the Rabbis' Garden: Adam and Eve in the Midrash. The father of 6 children and 15 grandchildren, Blidstein is currently at work on a book on the death of Moses. NACHUM KEDAR Award in Agriculture Professor Nachum Kedar is often credited with inventing the cherry tomato. He explains, however, that that is "not really the right way to call it." More accurately put, Dr. Kedar's work in genetics and breeding took the pre-existing cherry tomato and lengthened its shelf life enough for it to become a viable commercial product - his work made the cherry tomato available for mass consumption. The various tomato seeds developed by Kedar and his team at Hebrew University, in collaboration with Israeli seed companies Hazera and Agridera, now constitute a substantial portion of the tomato seeds sold and the tomato fruits consumed worldwide. Kedar says that he was "very happy, naturally," on being awarded the Israel Prize. "I have been working many years for that," he adds. This could be considered something of an understatement considering his life long commitment to the State of Israel. Born in Vienna, Kedar was early on a member of the Zionist youth organization Maccabi Hatzair. Finishing high school, he went to agriculture school in Denmark, "before the Germans made trouble to all the Jews in Denmark," and afterward to Sweden. Throughout those years, "when in Denmark and Sweden, I wanted to study agriculture because it might be very important for the future of Israel." Kedar made aliya in 1950 and, after several years at the Weizmann Institute, went for his Ph.D to Hebrew University, where he has been ever since. Kedar's work in tomatoes began on a trip to Thailand where he went to help some Israeli farm advisers who were having trouble with tomato crops. The trouble, Kedar learned, was that in Thailand (like elsewhere) many tomatoes were picked when they were green. This allows more time to sell and transport them but it also compromises the taste. Upon his return to Israel he recalls, "I started asking myself why you can only keep a tomato for a few days. Then I found some genes which are called long-shelf-life genes. . . and we started breeding." Over time, he and his team of 25 (whose help he mentions repeatedly) were able to extend the shelf life by several days. These new seeds were given to Israeli seed companies to be produced in Israel and not long after, they were sold all over the world. After this success, Kedar was approached by British conglomerate Marks & Spencer with a cherry tomato that could only last about a day before it had to be thrown out. After six years of work, he and his team produced a cherry tomato that could last a week. These varieties were likewise given to Israeli companies, but patent protection in genetics being a slippery science, other companies began producing them as well. Nonetheless, he says, "Most of the varieties now sold in Europe, cherry and cluster varieties, were originally made in Israel." In addition to his breeding work, Kedar taught courses in vegetable production and with his team published about a hundred papers on work in genetics. Though officially pensioned for over 10 years, Kedar continues working and is looking forward to a large, tasty tomato that he hopes will come out soon. He and his wife Kate, who he says "helps me sometimes in the field and always at home," have two children and seven grandchildren. When asked how readers might get a sense of his work, Kedar recommends getting a packet of R-139 cherry tomato seeds and putting them in the ground. He assures that they have "a good flavor: sweet and sour, with a good aroma." RUTH LAPIDOTH Award in Law For Professor Ruth Lapidoth it is perhaps an added honor to receive her prize in Jerusalem, a city that has been the subject of a good deal of her work. "Jerusalem has been with me for a long time," she says. Likewise, Lapidoth has been with Jerusalem for a long time. She has been on the faculty of the Hebrew University since 1956 in the fields of international law, law of the sea, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. During this time she has published six books and 95 articles. Lapidoth's prize is somewhat unique in that it is not being given solely for her academic research. "The prize is given for research and not for activity for the state," Lapidoth explains. "Nevertheless, the committee who decided also took into consideration my diplomatic activities." These activities included her taking part in the establishment of the multinational force deployed in Sinai after the Camp David accords and, later, on the panel to solve the boundary dispute between Egypt and Israel at Taba. Lapidoth herself considers these diplomatic activities to be one of the major highlights of her career. She laments, though, that the peace with Egypt has largely been a cold one. She recounts how Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a member of the Egyptian team, told her in 1980 that "this peace will remain cold until you solve the problem with the Palestinians. But they did not go to war with us. And this is wonderful!" she exclaims. Much of her work has focused on avoiding war. "People speak a lot about the obligation for the rule of law," she says. "And I have tried to underline that the rule of law means not only applying the law properly within the state but also properly between states." However, Lapidoth is quick to point out, entities like Hamas and Iran do not care about these laws and do not abide by them. Neither Iran's threats to eliminate the state of Israel nor Hamas' decision not to honor previous agreements made by its predecessor can be justified in any way under international law. Indeed, she regards the present situation as being very complicated and frightening. Lapidoth is no stranger to the threats posed to the Jewish people. Born in Germany in 1930, her immediate family managed to escape in 1938 and make it to Palestine. Many of her aunts and uncles, though, remained behind and were lost in the Holocaust. Lapidoth now has a daughter and son and six grandchildren. Another son was killed in the army. "Every Israeli has somewhere something very sad," she says philosophically. As far as receiving the prize, Lapidoth feels "It's a great honor and I am very happy and excited to have it." Immediately after her joyful outburst, she adds that there are "many others who also deserve it, but it seems they cannot give it to everybody at the same time." At present, she is working very hard on the question of the future of Jerusalem. She and a group of experts from various fields are trying to find alternative solutions for the historical basin of the capital, a term that refers to the Old City and it's immediate environs. Their preliminary findings were submitted this year to the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center and the full report, perhaps even with an English translation, should be forthcoming soon. 2006 recipients of the Israel Prize Prize in Jewish Thought Professor Ya'akov Blidstein Prize in Education Professor Chaim Adler Professor Miriam Ben-Peretz Prize in Law Professor Ruth Lapidoth, Professor Amnon Rubinstein Prize in Agriculture Professor Nachum Kedar Prize in Chemistry Professor Tzvi Rappaport Prize in Sport Ya'akov Chodorov Ralph Klein Prize in Music Professor Peninah Saltzman Professor Mendy Rudin Prize for Lifetime Achievement Devorah Omer Prize for Contribution to the State Al Schwimmer The Israel-Andalucia Orchestra