What? Not All Jews Are Geniuses?

By Joy Resmovits

Published October 06, 2010, issue of October 15, 2010.
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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


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