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Jewish Nobelity

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

The life and loves of a Nobel Prize winner.

The picture on the bulletin board of his Hebrew University office says it all. Taken shortly after the announcement that the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics was being awarded to Prof. Yisrael [Robert] Aumann, the photo shows three generations of the prizewinner's grinning descendants, 32 people in all. In the middle, with his long white beard and white kippa, sits the 75-year-old Prof. Aumann, propping up a meter-high portrait of his beloved late wife Esther.

A few weeks later, Prof. Aumann took the entire clan to Stockholm for the prestigious awards ceremony. In addition to his five children and their spouses, his 19 grandchildren, his grandson-in-law, his two infant great-grandchildren, and his brother, the Aumann entourage included his second wife Batya, who is Esther's widowed older sister and whom he had married just a week before. Putting them all up at the exclusive Grand Hotel for ten days at $300 a night certainly ate a chunk out of Prof. Aumann's $650,000 prize (his half of the $1.3 million prize shared with Prof. Thomas C. Schelling of the University of Maryland), but obviously in Prof. Aumann's system of inner economics, family togetherness is worth the cost.

How does a person attain the pinnacle of his career without neglecting his family? "Nobody gets the Nobel Prize just because he's smart. You have to work hard," asserts Miriam Aumann Baris, the professor's daughter. Her father certainly worked hard, putting in 13-hour days and traveling extensively.

"My father was much absent and he was a wonderful father," Miriam avows. "When he was here, we had a lot of concentrated father time. He took us skiing, scuba diving, hiking. Every Friday afternoon when my mother was cooking for Shabbat, he took us out so that we wouldn't bother her. And he was a great husband.

"My father and mother had a very special relationship of love and respect and joint effort," Miriam recalls. "My mother always believed in him."

When their father was lying on the couch with his eyes closed, their mother would hush the children: "Don't bother Abba. He's working." When the eminent mathematician would monopolize the bathtub and the children would complain, "What's Abba doing in there for so long?" their mother would tell them: "He's working."

Their great love affair of 45 years ended when Esther died of cancer. Once she got sick, her husband, at the peak of his career, cancelled all his travel plans. "Life stopped," Miriam remembers. "He was constantly there for her."

Dr. David Rosen, the Aumanns' son-in-law, remembers his father-in-law waiting for hours outside a doctor's office to ask a question about Esther's treatment. "He was willing to mortgage everything he owned to get her well."

Alas, Esther died six years ago. "He was devastated when she died," David recalls. "He thought that he would die of sorrow, that he couldn't live without her."

At 75, Prof. Aumann continues to fling himself into his quadruple loves: game theory, family, nature, and Torah.

Resilience, however, is one of Prof. Aumann's cardinal traits. An avid mountain climber, thrice he's fallen and broken his leg. The first time, 30 years ago in the Yosemite Valley, the rescue team looked at the stricken climber and said, "We hope this doesn't stop you from climbing mountains." Yisrael, in agony, answered through his clenched teeth, "Don't worry. It's not going to."

After another mishap, his son Shlomo told him: "There're many more mountains left in you." Indeed, there were.


Prof. Aumann officially retired five years ago, but, at 75, he continues to fling himself into his quadruple loves: game theory, family, nature, and Torah. He still teaches three classes at the Hebrew University; picks up his grandchildren from kindergarten and takes them home with him when their parents are busy; skis, treks, and climbs some of the world's most beautiful mountains; and learns Torah regularly with the same study-partner he's had for 30 years.

He takes every grandchild, upon reaching 14, on an extended trip to the High Sierras or the South American jungles or Nepal, in order to share with them his own appreciation of God's wonders. Together, they ride on horseback into the wilderness, camp out in tents, and climb mountains. Five years ago, the 70-year-old Prof. Aumann scaled his highest peak: the 18,192-ft. Mt. Kala Patthar in the Himalayas.

"Eat over your book, drink over your book, live over your book."

For the bar/bat mitzvah of every grandchild, Prof. Aumann presents a set of the Talmud. He tells them: "I give you this if you promise that in a few years it won't look like it looks now." A grandson was once reprimanded by his father for eating over his book. His scholarly grandfather demurred: "Eat over your book, drink over your book, live over your book."

The professor's excursions into nature are also an expedition into the words and wonders of God. His granddaughter Shanni describes how they'll be out in the wilderness, and her grandfather will stop at a point overlooking a meandering river and explain from a mathematical and natural standpoint why the river turns and divides. Then he'll tie it all into a lesson from that week's Torah portion.

Prof. Aumann, a connoisseur of everything, connects everything to its Divine source. A wine connoisseur, whenever he puts a superior bottle of wine on the table, he recites the blessing, "He is good and does good." This was the blessing he recited publicly in front of 1400 guests while delivering his toast at the royal banquet following the Nobel awards ceremony.


Yisrael Aumann was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in 1930 in Germany. In 1938, the Aumanns escaped to the United States, where Yisrael studied in a yeshiva day school. He credits his math teacher there, Joseph Gansler, with first sparking his interest in mathematics.

"On the Jewish side," declared Prof. Aumann in an interview*, "the high school teacher who influenced me most was Rabbi Shmuel Warshavchik... He attracted me to the beauty of Talmudic study and the beauty of religious observance. Warshavchik's enthusiasm and intensity -- the fire in his eyes -- lit a fire in me also."

For a while the young Aumann debated between becoming a Talmudic scholar or a mathematician. For one semester, he raced back and forth between the yeshiva and City College. "Then it became too much for me, and I made the hard decision to leave the yeshiva and study mathematics."

After receiving his PhD at M.I.T., he did a post-doctoral program at Princeton. In 1956, it was time to launch his career. Dr. Aumann applied to several positions in the United States and a position in Israel at the Hebrew University.

"I was offered the job here [at Hebrew University] and also several jobs in the U.S. I was really hesitating and debating in my mind whether to accept the job in Israel or the job in Bell Tel Laboratories in New Jersey, but I took the job at Bell Tel. That very evening, I knew it was a mistake. I realized if I'm going to go to Israel at all, I should go now. I shouldn't delay it. So the next morning I called them and said, 'Look, I accepted the job and I'm a man of my word, so I'm coming. But they abolished slavery with the 13th amendment. So I'll come to work for you for one year, and then my obligation to you will be fulfilled, and I'm moving to Israel.' They told me, 'Aumann, you're off the hook. You don't have to work for us if you don't want to.'"

Why did the promising young mathematician choose to come to Israel, an embattled country that was at that time all of eight years old?

"I made aliyah because... I wanted to be part of that dream."

"I made aliyah because this is a dream that the Jewish people have dreamt for thousands of years, and I wanted to be part of that dream."

It has not been easy. In 1982, the Aumann's first-born son Shlomo was killed while serving in the Israeli army during a battle with Syrian tanks.

"It wasn't a crisis of faith for one moment. We were extremely proud of him. We realized that we had brought him up to this. Israel is not an easy place to live. People get killed here. When it happens to you, it's not any different than when it happens to somebody else... This is part of the price you pay for living in Israel."


In the world of business, people steal money. In the world of academia, people steal ideas. One of Prof. Aumann's outstanding traits is his scrupulousness to give credit to others, whether teachers, colleagues, or even students. At a press conference held the day the Nobel Prize was announced, Prof. Aumann surprised his audience by declaring that the Prize should have been awarded to someone else: "Lloyd Shapley of U.C.L.A. was worthy, and should have won. I see him as the high priest of game theory."

Prof. Aumann learned the concept of "intellectual property" from the Torah.

"There was a period 15, 20 years ago when stealing software was considered okay by many people, including many academics. There was an item of software that I needed, and I was wondering whether to 'steal' it -- make a copy of which the developers of the software disapprove. Then I said to myself, why do you have to wonder about this? You are a religious person. Go to your rabbi and ask him. So I went to my rabbi -- a Holocaust survivor, a very renowned, pious person [Rav Gustman]. Maybe there is a Talmudic rule about this kind of intellectual property not really being property. Whatever he'll say, I'll do. The rabbi said, 'It's absolutely forbidden to do this.' So I ordered the software."*

As one who believes that God gave the Torah to the Jewish People at Sinai, Prof. Aumann has made his hardest decisions based on the directives of the Torah.

"You can be a moral person, but morals are often equivocal. Religion -- at least my religion -- is a sort of force, a way of making a commitment to conduct yourself in a certain way, which is good for the individual and good for society."*


At a press conference at the Hebrew University given before he left for Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize, Prof. Aumann sat in front of a large blue banner proclaiming, "THE CENTER FOR RATIONALITY," and told a startlingly irrational story: Every male present at the Awards Ceremony, including his seven-year-old grandson, is required to wear tails and a white bowtie, provided by the Nobel Foundation.

Since the Torah forbids wearing shatnez [a mixture of linen and wool], Prof. Aumann realized that he would have to have these garments checked for shatnez. This required having the Chief Rabbi of Sweden pick up one such outfit and bring it to Israel, where it could be checked with a microscope in one of Jerusalem's many shatnez labs. The examination revealed that the tuxedos were indeed shatnez, and a team of tailors had to remove the linen threads.

Later I asked Prof. Aumann: "Shatnez is the antithesis of rationality. How do you reconcile these opposites?"

"I don't see any contradiction between shatnez and rationality," the venerable Nobel Prize winner replied. "Not everything in the world has to do with rationality. You do all kinds of things that are orthogonal."

To illustrate the meaning of "orthogonal," Prof. Aumann got up and strode to the whiteboard on the opposite wall of his office. "If you have a line," he explained, drawing a green line pointing to the right, "then you can go in the opposite direction," and he drew a brown line pointing to the left. "But you can also go off in a totally different direction," he added, drawing a purple line going straight up. "That's called orthogonal."

Returning to his seat, Prof. Aumann continued. "Shatnez is not irrational. It has nothing to do with rationality. When you sit down and play the piano, are you doing something rational? No! Are you doing something irrational? Also, no! It's orthogonal to rationality. The whole lifestyle of a religious Jew is not rational or irrational. It's a beautiful way of living.

"To understand the Torah, you have to understand it as one whole, not separate pieces."

"Shatnez is part of a big whole. It's something that you can't understand by itself. If you said, "Just don't wear a mixture of linen and wool," it wouldn't make any sense. But it's part of a lifestyle. As part of this lifestyle, it makes sense... To understand the Torah, you have to understand it as one whole, not separate pieces.

"If you play just one bar of music and you don't play the whole sonata, of course it doesn't make any sense. It's part of the whole sonata, that's what speaks to you."

The world got a rare glance of that "beautiful way of living" by observing Prof. Aumann in Stockholm. Although the Awards Ceremony was scheduled for late Saturday afternoon, the shortness of the Swedish winter day enabled the Aumann family to attend after the close of Shabbat. On Shabbat afternoon, they -- all 34 of them - walked to a hotel located just 200 meters from Stockholm's Concert Hall, where the Awards Ceremony would take place. As soon as they made havdalah [the ceremony separating Shabbat from the rest of the week], the Aumanns dashed to the Concert Hall, arriving just 90 seconds before King Karl XVI Gustaf's arrival and the closing of the doors.

At the royal banquet afterwards, Prof. Aumann's entourage were served a special kosher dinner on new china plates with the obligatory royal pattern that were specially kilned for them. Their place settings were completed with newly-forged gilded silver cutlery and recently blown gold-stemmed crystal.

In a world where Jews have so often sacrificed their religious principles to fit in, we can be proud at how this noblest of Nobel Prize winners stands out.

* "An Interview with Robert Aumann" by Sergiu Hart, March, 2005, Discussion Paper #386 of the Hebrew University Center for the Study of Rationality.


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