Naches and the Nobels: Jews and the prize

Plaque on Nobel Laureates Boulevard in Rishon Le-Zion, Israel

On Dec. 10, J. Michael Kosterlitz and Oliver Hart (but not Bob Dylan) will don white tie and tails. In the late afternoon, they will ascend a dais in Stockholm to be awarded Nobel Prizes for physics and economics (and literature, in absentia.) On that day, they will also enter an exclusive – yet surprisingly large – community: Jewish winners of the Nobel Prize.

Today, we shep a little naches.

Previous Jewish winners include:
Albert Einstein (physics, 1921) “for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”.
Karl Landsteiner (medicine, 1930) “for his discovery of human blood groups”.
• • Nelly Sachs (literature, 1966) “for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel’s destiny with touching strength” shared with Shmuel Yosef (S.Y.) Agnon, the first winner awarded for works in Hebrew, “for his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people.”
Menachem Begin (with Anwar Sadat) (peace, 1978)
• And Elie Wiesel whose 1986 Nobel Prize was not in literature, but for peace. “Elie Wiesel has emerged one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterize the world.”

Of course Bob Dylan did not reject his prize. He made it quite clear (eventually) that he “absolutely” intended to attend the ceremony in Stockholm “if it’s at all possible.” Well, it wasn’t. And he won’t. But one Jewish recipient did turn down his prize – under duress. The 1958 Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to Russian writer Boris Pasternak, best known for Doctor Zhivago. As noted on the Nobel site, “Pasternak first accepted the award, but was later caused by the [Soviet] authorities of his country to decline the prize.”


Nobel Prizes are always presented on Dec. 10, birthday of Alfred Nobel. When Prof. Robert Aumann won it in 2005, it fell on a Saturday – as it does this year – and that posed some logistical challenges for the Sabbath observant economist and mathematician. Beyond the kashrut and the hotel room with an electronic lock, another problem arose: Aumann’s attire. The banquet has a strict men’s dress code: mandatory tails. In order to ensure his suit did not contain shatnez, the biblically forbidden fabric combination of wool and linen, Aumann’s tailcoat and trousers were flown to Israel for testing.

Everything ended well as we are told in a lovely article in the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. At the gala Nobel ball, Aumann ascended the stage, stepped up to the microphone and led all the celebrants in the classic song, “Kol haolam kulo, gesher tzar meod” – “The whole world is nothing but a very narrow bridge. And the main thing is to have no fear at all.”

Another article mentions that S.Y. Agnon was probably the only recipient to include in his acceptance speech the Jewish blessing that is said upon seeing the king of a non-Jewish nation – in this case, the King of Sweden. “Blessed is He Who has given of His glory to flesh and blood.”

And in another first, you can listen to Isaac Bashevis Singer deliver part of his Nobel Lecture in Yiddish, something he decided to do when he got word that he had won the prize. Why? “Because no one has ever spoken Yiddish here in this hall [applause]. And only God knows if someone’s going to speak Yiddish here again.”

Do Nobel laureates sense that a win is in the offing? To get an answer, I highly recommend listening to a charming interview with Saul Perlmutter (physics, 2011) done by CBC Radio’s Bob McDonald. Perlmutter recounts how he was awakened with the news by a Swedish reporter asking for his reaction to winning the award – while the winner’s wife was Googling away to see if this was some kind of hoax.


Alas, not everyone can be a winner, something that poet Chaim Nachman Bialik understood all too well. As Lawrence Jeffrey Epstein writes in A Treasury of Jewish Anecdotes, “Several days prior to Bialik’s death, there was open speculation in the press that the aging author would be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. But the prize was given to another writer. Bialik was asked to react. He said, ‘I’m very glad I didn’t win the prize. Now everybody’s my friend and feels sorry for me. My, my, how angry they are on my behalf. ‘Now isn’t that a scandal,’ they say…

“On the other hand, what if I had been awarded the Nobel Prize? Then, I’m sure, some of the very people who are now so indignant on my account would have said, ‘Nu, nu, what’s so wonderful about winning the Nobel Prize? Why, even that poet Bialik got one.’”