What? Not All Jews Are Geniuses?

By Joy Resmovits

Published October 06, 2010, issue of October 15, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It’s that time of year again.

As the temperature begins to dip and the leaves start to turn, the MacArthur “genius grants” fall from on high, followed quickly by the announcement of Nobel Prize recipients. And, as happens so often, Jews are prominent this year among the winners of each honor.

Four Jews have won the 2010 MacArthur Fellowships, which include $500,000 with no strings attached over five years, and the immeasurable prestige that comes with the award. This year’s Jewish recipients are David Simon, creator of “The Wire”; Michal Lipson, an Israeli physicist at Cornell who developed the field of silicon photonics; David Cromer, a theater director, and Marla Spivak, a University of Minnesota entomologist.

Their awards come as buzz begins over the 2010 Nobel Prize outcomes. As of press time, Russian Jew Andre Geim shared this year’s Nobel Prize in physics with Konstantin Novoselov.

Like the Nobel awardees, the MacArthur selections are made in secret meetings by a private committee from candidates submitted by anonymous nominators. The selection committee, according to MacArthur literature, seeks individuals who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.” The award has been administered since 1981 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The MacArthur’s focus on creativity may explain why people tend to track Jewish Nobel Prize winners, but not their quirky, newer counterparts. Nobel Awards recognize past achievements, while MacArthurs bet on what people will do, based on their “creative” potential. Jews are known for intelligence. But the history of Nobel awards suggests that creativity outside the sciences is perhaps a lesser-recognized part of this intelligence, despite the prominence of artists from Bob Dylan to Marc Chagall.

“It’s easier to count Nobels than MacArthurs, because MacArthur doesn’t have the obvious tag on it of what the person has done,” said Daniel Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program.

An unscientific yet conservative analysis by the Forward found that about 13.5% of MacArthur recipients over the past decade are Jewish. Arthur Hu, a Seattle programmer who studies overachieving ethnic groups, used a less cautious method to land at 15% between 1981 and 1997. Jews comprise about 2.2% of America’s population. As it turns out, even within the umbrella of creativity, more Jewish MacArthur winners were in the sciences than in any other discipline.

To be sure, there are many Jewish MacArthur nonscientists. For example, in 1989 alone, Jewish poet Allen Grossman, Yiddishist Aaron Lansky, and historian Theodore Rosengarten won. But the more widely heralded brand of Jewish intelligence has been the hard sciences, where Jews have historically been more heavily overrepresented: Of medical Nobel Prize recipients, 27% have been Jewish; 20% of those in chemistry; and 26% of those in physics — numbers that dwarf literature’s 12% and the Nobel Peace Prize’s 9%.

Socolow, who is Jewish, suggested that balance may stem from the generally disproportionate number of Jews in the sciences. Earlier years saw more Jewish winners — with an estimated 10, or 30%, winning in 1987. Socolow also suggested that the proportion of MacArthur Jews waned in the late 1980s as the foundation worked to find more fellows outside academia, where many scientists reside.

In 2006, Henry Harpending, a University of Utah geneticist and anthropologist, co-authored “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence,” a controversial and disputed paper that attributes Ashkenzi IQ to genetics. “We counted Nobel science winners because that seems to map I.Q.,” he told the Forward. The MacArthurs never came up, he added, because “they seem kind of idiosyncratic.”

For her part, Lipson, the Technion-educated physicist who won a 2010 MacArthur, thinks the concentration of winning Jewish scientists comes from the cultural emphasis on education.

Her observations stem from her youth: Lipson’s family moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil, from Haifa, and she attended a religious school. Though Lipson doesn’t consider herself observant, she attributes the degree of rigor she applies at work to that background. “I got that emphasis on education from my father and tried to give it to my kids,” she said.

Still, the winners interviewed said they had not thought much about the role of their Jewish backgrounds in their achievements. But when asked to reflect, they did say that their Jewish upbringing affected their careers.

For example, MacArthur winner Joan Abrahamson, who served as assistant chief of staff to George H.W. Bush during his presidency, attended Sunday Hebrew school in San Francisco. “Part of my cultural heritage is trying to make the world better,” she said.

Likewise, winner Leonard Zeskind, author of the 2009 book “Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism From the Margins to the Mainstream,” remembers reading “Black Like Me” at bar mitzvah classes. “I was brought up in a world in which civil rights issues were at the forefront of the Jewish community’s agenda,” he said. “That showed up in a lot of my work.”

What role, if any, the Jewish recipients’ Jewish identity had in their work may be hard to identify. But at least one of this year’s MacArthur recipients acknowledged his Jewishness influenced his reaction when he was informed he had been selected: Simon told The Washington Post that he felt guilty.

“I confess to a feeling that I can only describe as a vague sense of shame … when I went online and looked at the people who’d gotten fellowships in the past.”

Contact Joy Resmovits at resmovits@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.