Skip To Content

5 Jewish Things About the MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grants

If there’s a Jewish gene for smarts, the list of MacArthur Fellows might be proof positive. American Jews have been heavily represented among recipients of the “Genius Grants,” the $625,000 annual prizes given to the nation’s most promising artists, scholars, and writers. It’s no different this year, as laurels go to the composer Julia Wolfe and the music critic Josh Kun. Here’s a run-down of five Jewish things about the prestigious awards.

There’s Always Been At Least One Jewish Recipient

The MacArthur Foundation established the grant program in 1981, and Jews have been in every class since. Sometimes, that figure goes much higher than one. There were four Jews among last year’s group of 24 winners.

A MacArthur Grant Paid for Critical Holocaust Research

Saul Friedlander, the pre-eminent Holocaust chronicler, won a “Genius Grant” in 1999. He used the money to support research into the second volume of his magisterial history of the Shoah, “The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945.”

Someone Won A Grant for Saving Yiddish Literature

Aaron Lansky received a prize in 1989 for saving hundreds of thousands of Yiddish-language books from moldering away in the attics of old men and women. It’s a dramatic story, recounted in his memoir “Outwitting History.” Collected at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, the archive represents one of the largest collections of pre-war Jewish writings.

2 Jewish Mathematicians With the Same Last Name Have Won

Two (unrelated) Jewish mathematicians with the same last name have won MacArthur Fellowships. The first, Gregory Chudnovsky, earned the grant in 1981 for his work on large-scale mathematical computation. The second, Maria Chudnovsky, received the honor in 2012 for her research in a field known as graph theory.

One ‘Genius’ Created Jewish Dance Prayer Rituals

Liz Lerman, selected as a fellow in 2002 for her innovative choreography, has used her own synagogue, the Reform-affiliated Temple Micah of Washington, D.C., to incorporate dance and movement into religious services. Pieces of hers have featured titles like “The Good Jew?” and “Shehechianu.”

_Contact Daniel J. Solomon at [email protected] or on Twitter @danieljsolomon.__

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.