Voices from the Field
Robert Aumann is an Israeli American who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005 for his work in game theory. Israel has more Nobel prize winners per capita than any other country, and Aumann is one of the contributing reasons for this. Brett Kopin had the opportunity to interview him, and below is the transcribed interview with related questions to bring this conversation to your learners for continued discussion.
What sparked your interest or passion for math and economics?
"There are two different questions here: one is math, the other one is economics:
With math, what sparked my passion and interest was a high school teacher by the name of Abraham Gansler, who taught in New York in the '40s and '50s and maybe early '60s of the last century. He was an excellent teacher, and I fell in love with mathematics. I studied high school geometry. The challenge of it, the logic, the theorems and proofs, the constructions, they really caught my imagination. Most math did not, but that did. That is real mathematics, unlike most of the high school mathematics, which is like cookbook stuff and not real mathematics. That was what got me interested in math, and I carried it on in college and in graduate school.
Now, you asked about economics also. I took a course in economics in college and I was bored and baffled by it and dropped the course in three weeks. My interest in economics came much later and it was really sparked by my interest in mathematics and specifically in game theory. I met John Nash when I was in graduate school. We got to be friendly and he explained game theory to me and I did not think it was very interesting at that point. After graduating, I went to work for an operations research consulting outfit. They did practical consulting for real companies doing work on real projects. I saw that game theory was the right tool for dealing with their projects. That got me interested in game theory and from game theory I got into economics, mathematical economics, and the foundation of economics, and that is the story."
- Think about an influential mentor or teacher you’ve had. How did he/she impact you?
- What is something that you've learned that has really caught your imagination?
- What can Aumann’s story about Abraham Gansler tell us about the role or power of an educator?
What has been a significant challenge in your work?
"Maybe the biggest challenge is getting your paper published. You know, let me say this: Since getting the Nobel Prize I’ve had more rejections of papers by scientific publications than in my whole previous academic life combined."
How do you account for that?
"The bar goes up. I was awarded the prize for the whole body of my work throughout the years, but the thing that got the most emphasis was something I did in 1959, close to 60 years ago, and everything went from there.
The specific angle that I attacked in 1959 was the matter of repeated games. If you are involved in a situation which is repeated again and again, what I showed was that in such a situation, cooperation is more likely to cause a win-win than a one-shot interaction."
- What motivates you to explore and create?
- Describe a significant contribution or achievement you have made (or would like to make) to the world around you.
- What challenges would you like to overcome in your life?
What was it like for you to receive the Nobel Prize?
"The most moving moment was not the actual receiving of the prize (though that was moving also) but standing in front of the Grand Hotel in Stockholm and somebody said, 'Look at the roof' and there on the roof there were seven flags. The flag of Sweden was in the middle, and then there were six flags representing the countries of all the Nobel Prize winners and right there next to the flag of Sweden was the flag of Israel. That was a very moving moment.
What inspires you?
"I think the history of the Jewish people inspires me. You know, in our prayers we say three times a day, we ask God to return to Jerusalem, His city, and I decided that with the formation of the State of Israel, God is returning to His city and I would follow Him and be a part of that. That’s one thing that inspires me."
- What do you think Aumann is saying here?
- In what ways do you feel connected with Israel and Jewish history?
- How does Israel and/or Jewish history motivate you to act and why?
What would your children or grandchildren say about your work?
"Well, I guess you have to ask them. Thank God I have five children, one of whom was killed, by the way, in Lebanon in 1982, but his wife, who is remarried, is like a daughter to us, so I have five children, and I have 21 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren, going on 15. So that’s it, I don’t know what to say but I’m very close with my family. I do a lot of activities with them, I study with many of my grandchildren. So it’s great having such a nice family."
If you could impart one lesson to your children, what would it be?
"I think people should do in life what they like to do – not what they think makes the most money, not what their parents tell them, but what they like. If you like something then you’ll do it well, and if you do it well, you will succeed. That’s it."
- How does family impact your life and your accomplishments?
- What does it mean to leave a legacy?
- What is one lesson you would like to impart on your future children and grandchildren?
Brett Kopin has recently edited a volume written by his grandmother – Jewish educator and author of The Tattooed Torah, Marvell Ginsburg – in preparation for its publication as an e-book. This "Voices" piece is a reflection on the Chapter on Shabbat and is inspired by the real-life traditions that made Shabbat with his "Bubby" special as a child.
Repetition – whether weekly, monthly, or annually – links thoughts and feelings to space and time. Though traditional Judaism houses rituals in every holiday, their richness is so often enhanced by particular family rituals, usually ones that come about organically, as a consequence of the different personalities interacting around the dinner table. For many years, my family’s weekly Shabbat table was incomplete without "Bubby cookies."
The white box they came in was lined with translucent paper and had grease spots staining the outer corners. My favorites were the purple ones; my brother’s – the ones with tiny rainbow sprinkles. Pareve and freezer-burned: the centerpiece of every Shabbat meal. Not even my mother’s mushroom barley soup or savory London Broil could evoke the same emotion.
Bubby had a Friday ritual of her own. After getting the same lovely hairdo from the same lovely beauty shop, she proceeded to Chaim’s Bakery for a fresh box of cookies (if she had run out of her frozen stock). There was something special about getting the fresh box on select Friday nights, but the freezer-burned ones were equally appreciated. These, after all, were "Bubby cookies."
The family counted on Bubby to bring these cookies week after week for years – until one fateful Friday when I was 12 years old. Bubby came over and told us that she had driven by Chaim’s that day and it was closed. Like, for good. She only had a few boxes left in her freezer, and after that, well...
It took me a moment to process this: “You mean we won’t get any more Bubby cookies?” A lump was forming in my throat, and she felt my pain. “Brett, you need to write the story down.” I did not follow her advice at the time.
When I was visiting her in the hospital last year, I reminded her of the cookies and the fact that she had told me to write the story.
“Did you write the story?” she asked.
“No, Bubby, I never did.”
She frowned, and said very soberly, “Write it! You write that story down!” I told her I would. This, after all, was a tradition worth remembering.
Flash forward to May 2015. A friend and I went to pick up dinner at Hungarian Kosher Foods, a place in Chicago I had never been to but had heard so much about. Upon walking in, we turned left at the checkout counters and behold, reclining in their own display case, were the "Bubby cookies!" I was in disbelief. They even had the purple ones. The lady behind the counter gave us each a free sample, and with that first bite years of nostalgia were quenched.
Standing there, it amazed me how a simple taste, a texture, an appearance, could instantly bring back the feeling of the childhood Shabbat table – its consistency, its warmth, and especially the lived experience of having shared so many of those meals with Bubby. As I mentioned in my Mother’s Day post, I have been working on editing a curriculum guide she wrote in 1970 called Teaching Holidays to Young Jewish Children. Her first section (linked at the top of the page) is on teaching Shabbat and creating a Shabbat environment for children and their families. I hope Bubby, through her teachings, will inspire some of her readers as she inspired my family just by being at the table, week after week.
Shabbat Shalom, Bubby.
The days since the quake have been, without a doubt, some of the most terrible I've experienced, and also some of the most inspiring – it's been a roller coaster of emotions. I've had to become something of a self-salesman, inserting myself into as many relief projects as I can.
In the days immediately following the quake, I helped a team of Israeli doctors by translating for their Nepali patients into Hebrew. High school Ayal studying Hebrew at Niles North couldn't ever have imagined that this was one of the moments for which he was preparing. I have also spent some time helping build shelters and toilets in rural districts, and organizing teams of volunteers to go out and work.
On the side, I've been photographing and listening to survivors’ stories and posting them on Facebook. Initially, my thought was to share their stories with friends and family with the goal of helping make Nepal and its current struggle relatable and personal, to “meet” real Nepalis (should sound familiar to an iCenter audience).
It's also become a therapeutic project for me – meeting Nepalis who have lost quite literally everything except for their own lives, yet keep on living, not holding themselves as total victims, is humbling.
Nepal will rebuild itself. It will need a LOT of international aid, and a lot of time, but life will continue here.
About a week after the quake, I came to the IDF army hospital in Nepal to help with a bit of translation (the IDF literally flew in a fully functioning hospital, X-Rays, operating rooms, everything. It was the best hospital in Nepal for the two weeks it was here). Anyway, I was later called into the search and rescue (pikud ha'oref) tent to help them understand the situation in one of the cities near Kathmandu, the one I had been in when the first quake hit. I walk in, and the soldier sitting there gives me a look and says, "Ayal!"
The Israel world is a small place but I did not expect to meet someone who I knew, davkah here, davkah now. So, I turned around to see if there was another Ayal in the room. There wasn't...
I didn't recognize her initially, but she quickly reminded me she had been at the iCenter's Masters Concentration in Israel Education seminar in January of 2014 – Tom Shay, from Kibbutz Lochmei Ha'getaot. After catching up over couscous, hot dogs, and tehina in the dining tent (I was pumped about the tehina, a hard-to-find commodity in Nepal), she explained to me that there's a Nepali man who works on her kibbutz whose family lost everything. The kibbutz members pooled a sum of money to help the family rebuild and get through this difficult time. They had asked Tom to deliver it to his family, but she was not allowed to leave the base for security reasons and also didn't know Kathmandu. Obviously, I offered to help. Later that day I made contact with the family in Kathmandu, now homeless and living in the back yard of a distant relative. I met up with them, they invited me for tea, and I delivered the money. It will help them a lot.
I never thought that my time at the iCenter would connect me to helping hand out relief money in Nepal, but the world works in funny and sometimes wonderful ways.
More about Israel in Nepal
To quote a fellow Israeli traveler, "In these uncertain days after the quake, I would be scared NOT to be Israeli." She was referring to everything that Israel did to help Israeli travelers. There were dozens of search and rescue experts hiking up into the mountains to locate and save Israeli hikers who had been stranded due to ongoing landslides and avalanches. Helicopters were acquired to help in this effort even when they were near impossible to find. The IDF brought in a fully functioning hospital to help injured Nepalis (and travelers as well). The Chabad here was keeping a list of all Israeli and Jewish travelers who were accounted for, and those still missing. They, even more so than the embassy, are the experts in search and rescue here; unfortunately this isn't the first time there have been disasters with hikers in the Himalayas. Also, for the three or four days following the quake, the embassy allowed Israelis (and those like me who snuck in by speaking Hebrew) to sleep on the grass of the embassy to have a safe place to stay outdoors, away from hazardous buildings. In the midst of an already emotionally trying period, processing all of this pride in what Israel was doing to take care of its own, and also of Nepalis, was incredible. It got me rethinking my current situation of having one passport. But that's a story for another day...
Ayal’s passion for Israel was cultivated early on from his home life and quickly became a major part of his life independently. He graduated from Brandeis University with a BA in Environmental Studies and International and Global Studies, and a minor in Hebrew Language. Prior to joining the iCenter team, Ayal lived in Jerusalem as a JDC-BBYO Jewish Service Corps member. His work focused on utilizing community gardens as a way to empower low income communities across the country as well as organizing leadership programming for at-risk Ethiopian Israeli youth. He loves photography, playing music and being outdoors- and likes doing these things especially so in Hebrew and while in Israel.