You have just received the Nobel Prize and been feted with kosher food at the king’s banquet in Stockholm. At the post-banquet ball a fellow laureate, who deservedly won the Prize for discovering the bacteria that cause ulcers, jumps up on the stage and sings his own composition, “Ballad to Bacteria.”
Only Robert J. (Yisrael) Aumann would at that moment be reminded of a midrash that describes a similar situation.1 During the meal following the brit milah of Elisha ben Abuyah, some of the secular guests at the circumcision feast sang non-religious songs. Said Rabbi Eliezer to Rabbi Yehoshuah, “They are busy with their songs, why aren’t we busy with ours?!” The rabbis began to recite Torah, then Neviim, then Ketuvim, and the words of Torah rejoiced as on the day they were given on Sinai, surrounded by fire.
At the ball, this midrash flashed through Professor Aumann’s mind. “They are busy with their songs, why aren’t we busy with ours?!” With that, he ascended the stage, stepped up to the microphone and led the predominantly non-Jewish celebrants in Rabbi Baruch Chait’s now-classic song, “Kol haolam kulo, gesher tzar meod,” speeding up into a rousing, foot-stomping refrain, “Vehaikar lo lefached klal.”2
This was one of the unplanned moments recounted by Professor Aumann to an audience of hundreds of Jerusalemites who came to the Great Synagogue to honor him upon his return. It is indicative of how steeped he is in Jewish tradition that no matter what goes on around him, it is family and tradition that form Professor Aumann’s own x and y coordinates.
Professor Aumann admitted that he had a childlike wonder at the fairy-tale opulence of the palace: thousands of candles lit, eight fireplaces ablaze, glittery silver, elaborate tapestries. Yet, when asked, he said the most memorable moment was cut of a different cloth— the Israeli flag flying over the palace, along with the six flags of the nationalities of the other winners.3
Professor Aumann observes that the actual ceremony, where the king awarded him the Prize, was exciting. But even more meaningful was what happened the moment after the king and queen left the hall. His children, their spouses and his myriad grandchildren burst onto the stage while his son gave him an emotional embrace. This reflects the Aumann “family first” values. Professor Aumann insisted on making this an outing for the gantza mishpachah, taking nineteen grandchildren and two great-grandchildren to Sweden.
Another extemporaneous moment came at the start of Professor Aumann’s banquet speech, which he began with the blessing in Hebrew for good things in this world, “Baruch ata Hashem … hatov vehameitiv, invoking the full Shem Malchut. 4 He had told no one about his intention to pronounce the berachah, and his family’s spontaneously resounding Amen is etched forever in his memory.
The banquet was not without moments of anxiety. Professor Aumann had made sure the kashrut details were meticulously carried out. But when he sat down at the start of the banquet, he suddenly started worrying about how he going to perform netilat yadayim since he had made no provision for the ritual hand washing. As he wondered whether he could do an airplane-style hand-ablution (surreptitiously pour the water over his hands under the table), he was surprised to see a liveried waiter heading toward him with a silver chalice and bowl. Similar chalice-and-bowl-laden waiters were heading to the rest of the Aumanns, scattered among the 1,300 dinner guests. It turned out that the head of the Swedish Orthodox community had thought of this detail beforehand.
Each prizewinner can invite sixteen guests. Professor Aumann needed twice that number to accommodate the families of his five children and a few colleagues. The literature laureate Harold Pinter did not attend and gave his sixteen guest places to the Aumanns. Professor Aumann had been widowed several years ago, and shortly before the trip to Sweden married Batya, a sister of his late wife. He was then a double chatan because Nobel laureate in Hebrew is chatan Nobel. At the post-banquet celebration, his children hoisted him on their shoulders and danced with him “just like a chatan” he relates.
He credits his bride with the successful planning of the logistics of Shabbat, kashrut and clothing. The king insisted that the china, silverware and crystal for the Aumann entourage be identical to those of everyone else. Since the palace buys new dishes every year to make up for breakage, the Aumanns received the new dishes, so the tableware was kosher. The royal family also insisted that the kosher meal look exactly like what everyone else was served. To this end the royal chef revealed the menu, kept secret until the banquet day, to the kosher cooks so together they could find look-alike substitutes for the non-kosher menu, which included crayfish with fennel-baked Arctic char, scallops and Norwegian lobster on baby lettuce, ptarmigan (grouse) breast baked in horn of plenty mushrooms with caramelized apples and lemon and yogurt mousse with raspberry-Arctic bramble sauce. In addition, there were three different Carmel wines: sparkling, red and dessert, matching the non-kosher selection.
Another strict rule is that all men must dress in formal black tailcoats, with white bowties and waistcoats; even the six-year-old grandsons wore white ties and tails, cufflinks and shirt studs—an interesting contrast with their festive knitted kippot! Women must wear solid-color floor-length gowns (no problem for the modestly attired Aumanns), and though the only head covering for women usually allowed are tiaras for royalty and married women, they did allow the tichel-like headscarves of the Aumann women. Every year all male participants rent formal attire in Stockholm. With foresight, the Aumanns had a sample of the formalwear flown to Israel to check for shatnez; it turned out that the tailcoats had the Biblically forbidden wool-and-linen mixture. The Aumanns solved this problem by renting shatnez-free formalwear from an Israeli rental agency and having it flown to Stockholm for the ceremony.
Shabbat planning was done in a similarly punctilious manner. The Aumanns excused themselves from the Friday night reception and Saturday rehearsal. The Aumann family, who often go mountain climbing together, did a lot of walking over Shabbat to the three synagogues in Stockholm. Friday night they went to one Orthodox synagogue, and Shabbat morning to the other.5 Then they attended a kiddush in the social hall of the Conservative synagogue. The Aumanns had left their suites at the Grand Hotel on Friday morning, and rented rooms for Shabbat near the Nobel ceremony concert hall. Thanks to the early Shabbat nightfall at 3:55 p.m., they were able to daven Maariv, make Havdalah, get dressed and walk to the ceremony, arriving a minute before the king and queen entered at 4:30.
While the Nobel Prize comes with a sizeable monetary gift, the most meaningful present was the watch that Professor Aumann’s children and grandchildren gave him to replace his own ancient ten-dollar timepiece. On it they engraved a verse from parashat Vayetze, which was read that memorable Shabbat, December 10th, “… Venivrechu vecha kol mishpechot ha’adamah, And all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.…”6
Shira Leibowitz Schmidt has six children and six grandchildren. She graduated from Stanford University, with a degree in engineering. She currently works as a translator and is affiliated with the Haredi College in Jerusalem. She lives in Netanya.
- Midrash Ruth Rabba 6, 4.
- A statement attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, “The whole world is nothing but a very narrow bridge. But the main thing to recall is not to fear at all.” The tune, by Rabbi Baruch Chait, rosh yeshivah of Maarava, can be heard at http://www.greatjewishmusic.com/Midifiles/Kol%20HaOlam.htm.
- S.Y. Agnon, the 1966 Israeli Nobel laureate for literature, was also moved by the sight of the Israeli flag in Stockholm and asked his wife, Esther, “Did you ever dream you would see the Israeli flag flying over the palace in my honor?” Her laconic reply: “I usually do not dream about flags!”
- “Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who is good and does good.” The banquet speech and Prize lecture can be found at http://nobelprize.org/economics/laureates/2005/aumann-lecture.html. See www.nobelprize.org for the video of the ceremony. Professor Aumann can be seen from minute fifty-eight onward.
- This was an ironic “closing of the circle” for Professor Aumann who, as an eight-year-old, fled Frankfurt with his family after Kristallnacht. One of the Orthodox shuls in Stockholm had been transplanted from Hamburg. It survived Kristallnacht intact because it was on the second story of a building that the Nazis did not notice. It was transferred to Stockholm after the War and installed on the second floor of a building there.
- Bereishit 28:14.