Reaching for the prize

Will the trend of Jewish excellence in academia and sciences continue into the future?

Prof. Dan Shechtman receiving the Nobel Prize 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Ints Kalnins)
Prof. Dan Shechtman receiving the Nobel Prize 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ints Kalnins)

I feel as if a helicopter has just dropped me off on the summit of Mount Everest, and now I am standing there, applauding thos who climbed up on their own, those who for decades have fought their own intellectual and physical limitations to make it to the top. I have the privilege of appreciating those who have made it after years of frustration and pain, crashing time and time again, and then using their last drops of imagination and passion to rise up again.

I am encountering the people who have really succeeded.

They are the few, selected not only because they were able to push the envelope of their own existence, but primarily because they pushed the envelope that binds us all to reality, as we know it and to our specific perceptions of time and space, life and death, illness and cure. They are the few who dare to tear a small window into the sky that surrounds us and probe the secrets of creation.

Thanks to these courageous ones, we live longer, we know better, we fly higher and we can endure the challenges of everyone’s life and survive the time that spans between the moment of our birth until the powers of our brain, and our being, die.

These are the Nobel Prize Laureates. The days are very short in Stockholm at this time of year. The first dim light of dawn does not appear until 8:30 a.m. and by 2 in the afternoon, the sun has disappeared into the bottom of the sky. During the long hours of darkness, people depend on electricity and light candles everywhere – in restaurants, shops and offices, homes and public forums. The people here are engaged in a constant struggle to create light against darkness.

They will be victorious in June, as the longer days assert themselves, but the rest of the year provides ample hours to probe primeval fears, and to think about culture, wisdom, and the struggle for enlightenment. The North Pole is only 3,387 km (2,104 miles) away, but it is the darkness, not the cold, that leaves the strongest impression. The temperatures hover around the freezing point, not colder.

The city is decorated beautifully for the Nobel Prize Awards ceremony, an event that has taken place every year since 1901, awarding the world’s highest recognition of achievement in physics, medicine, chemistry, literature, and, since the 1960s, thanks to a contribution from the National Bank of Sweden, in economics.

The Nobel Prize for Peace is awarded separately, in Oslo, Norway – because as common wisdom tells it, Alfred Nobel believed that Norway, the country that in modern times was rarely involved in war, should host the prize for peace. In 2009, US President Barack Obama was the Nobel Prize Laureate. But most of us who are old enough will always remember that in 1978 it was awarded to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and, in 1994, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, then-foreign minister Shimon Peres, and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat received the honor.

I hope that the fate of the three women who will share the prize in 2011 will be different from those men and from the situation in the Middle East today: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia is Africa’s first democratically elected female president; Leymah Gbowee, also from Liberia, leads a women’s peace movement that helped to end the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003; and Tawakkul Karman is a Yemini journalist, politician and peace activist.

But since peace is usually about politics – I will write about Stockholm. There the prizes are awarded to the people who approach the secrets of the heavens through rigorous scientific scholarship.

In the 110 years' history of the prize, according to numerous sources, at least 170 of the 850 prizewinners in all categories – about 22 percent – have been Jews. Since the percentage of Jews in the world population is merely 0.2 percent, this justifiably provides us with great national pride.

The websites that do a Jewish headcount of Nobel laureates agree on some of the recipients of the 2011 prize. Bruce Beutler, one of the three laureates for medicine, they note, is Jewish. His father, Ernest Beutler, was a Jewish hematologist who fled from Germany just in time to resettle in California, where Bruce was born in 1957. The counters are also sure about Adam G. Riess, recipient of the prize for physics. He is, they tell us, the grandson of Curt Riess, the writer who fled from Germany on board the famous ‘Europe’ in 1936, and settled with his family in New Jersey, where Adam was born in 1969. They have also included Prof. Saul Perlmutter, Nobel laureate in medicine. (After all, they seem to figure, how wrong can you go with a name like Saul Perlmutter?)

The pundits were not so sure about Jules Hoffman, the French recipient of the prize for medicine. His grandfather might have been Jewish, but his mother wasn’t. And so, in great sorrow, they took him out of the count. That’s the way it is when you start counting – some people just don’t make the cut.

As for Ralph Steinman, the third recipient of the prize for medicine, they were sure: his grandfather was chairman of the hevre kadisha (burial society) in Montreal. And, of course, there’s Prof. Dan Schechtman, the sole recipient of the prize in chemistry, from the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology But these statistics do not make up a very good reason to go as far as Stockholm and I am anyway not terribly comfortable with what can quickly turn into a kind of racism-in-reverse.

Still, this year five of the nine laureates in science are Jews. Three of them are first-generation North Americans, whose parents fled Europe just as the doors were closing; one of them is a third-generation native Israeli.

Isn’t this a reason for some national pride? I ask. Isn’t this, after all, an opportunity to think we probably are special. If these achievements are not due to our gene pool, then how else can we explain the statistics? Maybe we are so successful because of our national predilection for study.

And so, the thinking goes, “we should be more outspoken about ourselves, especially as the world is starting to talk once again about wiping us off the face of the earth. We are the pioneers; we are good for the world.” And in some circles that I’m familiar with, this argument quickly deteriorates into “and how many millions of Arabs are there in the world? And how many of them have won Nobel Prizes?”

And so on.

But I really don’t care about how many millions of them – whoever “them” is at the moment – there are. I think it is more important to learn what these numbers tell us about ourselves and our future.

The press conference in Stockholm that opened Nobel Prize Week was held in the modest and very respectable headquarters of the Nobel Foundation. Several dozen journalists gathered to listen to Dr. Lars Heikensten, the foundation’s executive director. At this time, he announced that this, the jewel of all prizes, is carefully testing the possibility of expanding its activities by partnering with the Nobels of our era, such as the Gates Foundation or people like Warren Buffet.

This was also an opportunity to meet some of my media colleagues. One of them, a producer from New York who seemed to be about my age, identified my accent and approached me with the inevitable question: Do I know his cousin in Tel Aviv?

I don’t, but we began to talk anyway. When I asked him about the Jewish phenomenon (and what else can we call it?), he quickly shushed me down. “I don’t think that we should talk about this here. Isn’t it enough that they are blaming us for controlling Hollywood, the banks and the media? And now you want to bring up this question? They’ll end up blaming us for controlling the sciences as well.” Shah. Shah. And he gave me his card and shook my hand fiercely and asked me not to forget to say hello to his cousin in Tel Aviv.

Just like in the good old days, before Facebook and Skype were invented, and we were afraid.

So now we Jews control science, too. Not bad for just over ten million Jews. If it were true, I wouldn’t mind being hated.

The meeting with the Nobel laureates in medicine takes place in the Karolinka Institute in northern Stockholm. Beutler and Hoffmann are seated on stage; they are recipients of the prize for, in the language of the foundation, “their discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity.” In a different language, that means that they may have discovered a way to harness the human immune system in extreme situations in order to overcome disease.

Beutler and Hoffman shared the prize with a third physician, Prof. Ralph Steinman, who received the prize for “his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity.” This means the same thing – Steinman took the world of medicine one step ahead towards finding a cure to cancer and other terminal diseases. But Steinman suffered from a particularly aggressive type of cancer that usually kills patients within less than a year from the time of diagnosis. He used his new medicine on himself and lived with his disease for five years.

He didn’t make it to the awards ceremony in Stockholm. Steinman died just a few hours before they announced the prize. For the first time in history, a Nobel Prize was awarded posthumously.

Steinman’s widow, Claudia, and his three children were there in his stead and she accepted the prize in his name.

I met with Claudia Steinman by chance, together with her son Adam and her twin daughters, Alexis and Lesley. They cam to Stockholm together with Ralph’s sister, Joni Steinman. I heard her voice across the elegant lobby, decorated for Christmas, as she told someone unseen, “Of course we deserve a mazel tov!” And so I joined their table to hear Joni talk about her big brother and their childhood.

“We were born 11 years apart,” she says. “He was my big brother. He influenced and shaped my life, there in Canada, in our warm Jewish home, where, as children, we learned English and French and Yiddish and Hebrew. Our home was especially filled with the love of learning.” I take the expression, “love of learning,” with me to my meeting with Claudia, Ralph’s widow.

They had met at a hospital in Massachusetts. He was an on-call physician in the ER, and she was a nurse. So many great love stories start this way. No, she answers, she didn’t have a Jewish background. “I was a good Protestant girl, and I loved with all my heart this special, shining man, Ralph, and heloved me.”

Claudia converted to Judaism, but they decided to live ecumenically: they combined their lives, holidays and religions, and that is how they raised their children. They weren’t defensive about their Judaism; their home and their lives were open. Claudia reflects that same shining openness, and so do her children, who travel through the bubble of Nobel festivities smiling broadly, clearly proud that they are Ralph Steinman’s children and that they had the opportunity to grow up with him as their father.

At the awards ceremony, Claudia does not sit with the laureates, but behind them. As she approaches the King of Sweden and receives the medal and the prize, the audience applauds for a particularly long, moving time. And then she kisses her own hand and waves toward the skies, as if sending the kiss to her husband. Nobel Prize Award ceremonies are usually very dignified and staid, but this time, it seemed, no one in the audience or on stage hesitated to shed a tear.

An hour later, as the laureates walk into the hall where they will enjoy a formal dinner, attended by 1,600 invitees, Claudia Steinman leans on Dan Shechtman’s arm. She is seated next to Perlmutter and his wife and enjoys a kosher meal with them. Shechtman is a third generation Israeli, whose grandparents were refugees from Russia.

Shechtman arrives in Stockholm with a large entourage, including the leadership of the Technion, and representatives of all of the major media outlets in Israel. The prize ceremony is broadcast live in Israel on all the stations. Israelis feel a double pride – not only as Jews, but as Israelis who believe that this prize vindicates and validates our national rebirth.

Here, in the State of Israel, we tell ourselves, we find the continuity of the Jewish traditions of excellence and investment in the individual. It is here that we will rebuild the world of study that was consumed by the fires in the crematoria of Auschwitz. And not only have we redeemed ourselves in our land, we are enjoying the recognition of the entire world.

It seems that for us, the Israelis, everything comes back to this point. Yet throughout the noise and commotion of the festivities, it is Shechtman who, more than anyone else, keeps his cool, even his distance. “All that pride belongs to the past,” he tells me. “The problem is the future.” The people who, throughout the years, have counted the number of Jews who have succeeded, should be looking at the future, too. Was Ralph Steinman the last Jew in his family? Does it matter?

During an earlier press conference with all of the scientists, in the Swedish Academy of Science, Shechtman and Perlmutter, seated next to each other, exchange jokes and anecdotes. And right there, they also banter about the role of their Jewish mothers in their success: their mothers always demanded more of them, they recall, and so they always tried to achieve more.

Yet they also both say very clearly that their deep commitment to creating a better society in order to survive in the future isn’t part of their Jewishness or lack of Jewishness. It is a natural fact, and, as scientists, that is the only language they understand.

Nobel Week in Stockholm, December 2011, is filled with emotion, meetings and reflection on a past that is rapidly disappearing. In the future, there probably won’t be very many more individual Jewish Nobel Prize laureates. The prize will be awarded to teams, to groups that unite across the world to solve problems and discover new directions.

The age in which the Jewish society of scholars has had this unique influence on the highest levels of scientific achievement is gradually coming to an end. It seems that it has been the wonderful story of the Jewish people over the past 200 years, as the Jews gradually left the ghettos at the beginning of the period of Enlightenment, that lead to these achievements, but now that story is coming to an end.

Jewish society once knew how to find its most brilliant students, and it did all it could to nuture them, to take care of their needs, to marry them off to the daughters of the richest men so that they could continue to study. The commitment was nurtured from the family through to the community. The historical opportunity to leave the ghetto, and the willingness of the non-Jewish world to accept the best into their general studies programs, created this big bang, these tremendous contributions to the world.

This is the story of Jewish achievement, and the list of Nobel Prize laureates over the past 100 years is merely one part of it. But if we look at the list and its implications a bit longer, the sad questions come up, too: “What would have happened if only…” Following the Enlightenment, the Jewish people was faced with the threat of annihilation, and one third of the community was murdered. And what would have happened ʽif onlyʼ? Look around you: The Jewish community of scholars played a tremendous part in changing the face of the world over the past 150 years.

But this year’s story is also a story of another ending. Throughout the week, Shechtman repeatedly stated that he is worried. “I am fearful. I am a Zionist, but not one of my children lives in Israel any longer. I am worried because I believe that our educational system is collapsing. It was once a system that knew how to nurture excellence, that demanded that each and every child strive to achieve. It was a system that nurtured a generation of initiators, of people who asked questions, pushed limits aside and broke through into new territory.”

But now, he says, that system is collapsing.

He is especially critical of the haredi public, the one that has created the community of scholars. The haredi community that created the tradition of nurturing excellence, but now has closed itself off, unwilling to share the burden, and waste the brains of the best and brightest, he charges. He even says that people who deprive their children of an education should be put on trial – and when he says education, he means math and chemistry, not rote repetition of pages of the Talmud. As Schechtman’s blunt comments prove – you don’t learn to be politically correct in a chemistry lab.

Interest in science is declining throughout the Western world, including the Jewish world. It’s not a new phenomenon: in all of the important universities, the graduate students who will be the new world leaders in science come from Korea, India and China, not from cohorts of second and third generations of American- or Israeli-born. But in the final analysis, the Jewish people’s contribution to the world will not be measured by the number of Nobel Prizes, and certainly not by our ability to cut ourselves off.

After a few moments of natural pleasure, and unabashed pride, we have to get back to reality.