Advice From Nobel Prize Winner

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When Boys Town Jerusalem students met Nobel Prize Laureate Professor Yisrael (Robert) Aumann, the game of life took on a new meaning for the high school students. Awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize for Economics for his groundbreaking work on conflict and cooperation through “game theory” analysis, Professor Aumann shared insights with the young men on the Jewish ideals that shape his life.

“I can’t forget being beaten as a Jew when I was only a second-grader in Frankfort, Germany,” Professor Aumann told the students. “My parents’ wisdom saved us, and we fled to America in 1938, just three months before the Kristallnacht pogrom. Living in New York City, my parents had no money at all, but they made every effort for my brother and me to receive a good Jewish education.” After he’d worked his way through college and graduate schools on scholarships and grants, Prof. Aumann recalled the dilemma he faced upon receiving his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I was offered a job at the prestigious Bell Laboratories research center, with a chance to begin making money and gaining valuable experience. Yet my wife and I were determined to make our lives in the new Jewish State of Israel, and we decided to make that move before getting settled into American life.”

The Aumanns thus headed directly for Israel in 1956, where Professor Aumann joined the mathematics department at Hebrew University. Since that time, he has instructed students in mathematics and the game theory. “The moment I got the phone call from Stockholm informing me I’d won the Nobel Prize began a fascinating challenge for me as an Orthodox Jew—and the contingent of 35 family members, colleagues and students that I brought—to prepare for the gala Awards Ceremony.” According to Prof. Aumann, obtaining strictly kosher food for the banquet was only one issue. “The ceremony took place Saturday night, directly after the Sabbath, which posed logistic problems. In any case, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was very gracious in meeting all my special demands.”

The Boys Town Jerusalem students took heart as the Nobel Prize winner recalled his own school years. “I was not a very good student in elementary school. By high school, the guidance counselor sat me down to review the results of my vocational aptitude tests. He told me, ‘The good news is that you can make an excellent carpenter or car mechanic. But the bad news is that you have no aptitude whatsoever for math or for teaching.’ It’s now close to 60 years that I’ve been teaching mathematics at the Hebrew University….

“Which brings me to my message to you,” Professor Aumann told the young men. “Follow your curiosity. Do what interests you. Don’t let anyone stop you. And don’t run after a Nobel Prize—it will come to you!”

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