Are you like so many other Jews who take pride in how many Jews receive the Nobel Prize?
Among this year’s winners are Israelis Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt, in chemistry, becoming Israel’s 11th and 12th Nobel Prize winners. Only 14 other countries in the world have more Nobel prizes than Israel, a country of only 7 million people that is only 65 years old. Four other Jews are among the distinguished scholars who have been recognized with Nobel Prizes this year, meaning that Jews have so far won six of the eight Nobels awarded for 2013. To quote Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song, “not too shabby.”
The annual revelation this time of year sends even the most secular of Jews to check to see if the awardees are Jews. Even if we don’t know them, we feel a great deal of nachas, pride.
And it really doesn’t matter how Jewish or how religious the recipients are. This is one time we do not argue over who is a Jew.
We are happy to take credit for all of them.
But did you ever stop and think why we are proud that so many Nobel Prize winners are Jewish?
I think there are three reasons.
The first reason for our pride in their accomplishments stems from the feeling that we are all mishpacha, family. Wherever we live around the globe, we are members of an extended family. This sense of loyalty and belonging is kind of like the feeling you have when your home team wins the World Series or the Super Bowl, even if you are not a sports fan.
Judaism is much more than just a religion. We are a people. We have a sense of shared destiny as well as a sense of identity. It is why Jews around the world care about what happens to each other.
During the communist era, Judaism was not the only religion or people suppressed and oppressed in the Soviet Union, but Jews in the United States, Israel and around the world were unique because we stood up on behalf of our fellow Soviet Jews. We felt a connection and that we had an obligation to come to their aid and to demonstrate on their behalf.
A second reason we feel proud there are so many Jewish Nobel Prize winners may be because of our insecurity. Despite our widespread acceptance around the world, we still worry about anti-Semitism. The Nobel Prizes give us the chance to remind ourselves and others how much Jews contribute to the world and all we do to make the world a better place.
Perhaps the third aspect to our pride is a traditional Jewish concept unfamiliar to many Jews today. It is called z’chut avot, or as it is pronounced in Yiddish, zechus avos, which means merit of the ancestors. The idea is that on account of the good deeds of those who came before us, who did so much good, and whose reward could never match all they did, we are the beneficiaries of their benevolence. The concept is expressed in the High Holiday liturgy when we ask God to have mercy on us, on account of the deeds of Abraham and Isaac.
Yaffa Eliach, in her Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, recounts a story of Jews being held in Janowska Road Camp in Ukraine who were ordered to jump over a large pit. If they did not get to the other side, those who fell in would be shot. A saintly Rabbi Spira had befriended a freethinker, a secular Jew who did not believe in God. When they got to the edge of the pit, the young man told the rabbi there was no point in even trying to jump since they were so weak and malnourished. But the rabbi encouraged him and insisted that they must try.
Although the pit was filled with bodies that didn’t make it, somehow, miraculously, they closed their eyes, jumped and found themselves standing on the other side of the pit. The man was incredulous and grabbed the rabbi, “We are alive! Maybe there is a God.” He asked the elderly, frail rabbi how he managed to jump so far.
The rabbi explained, “I was holding onto zechus avos, the merit of my ancestors, the coattails of my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers of blessed memory and all the mitzvos they had performed.” The rabbi then asked his companion, “What about you? How did you reach the other side of the pit? What were you holding onto?”
The man said, “Rabbi, I was holding on to you.”
As Jews, we hold onto each other. We need each other. We support each other. And maybe that is why we take pride when our fellow Jews receive Nobel Prizes.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Zedek in