Jerusalemites – Yisrael Aumann
An occasional series of interviews with notable veteran or more recent olim who have chosen to make their homes in Jerusalem.
BY DAVID OLIVESTONE
Yisrael (Robert J.) Aumann was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005 for his groundbreaking work in expanding the study of game theory. At 91 years old, Prof. Aumann, a charming and gracious man who lives in the Baka neighborhood in Jerusalem, can still be found every day in his office at the Hebrew University, when he is not away hiking, skiing or delivering a guest lecture.
You were born in 1930 in Frankfurt. Tell me about your family background.
My father was a businessman, a fine, upright man and a warm and loving father. My mother was extraordinary, with a bachelor’s degree at a time when that was very unusual for women. She was an accomplished singer and a medal-winning swimmer. She introduced my brother and me to nature, telling us the names of all the trees as we passed them. At night she taught us the names of the constellations in the sky.
When did you leave Germany, and where did you go?
In 1938, just prior to Kristallnacht, we emigrated to the United States. My parents thought first about coming to Eretz Yisrael, but they identified with Agudat Yisrael which was against the establishment of the State, and in any case they felt that the business opportunities in the USA were more promising. When we came to New York we had no money and my parents worked very, very hard to make ends meet, but my brother and I still had a beautiful childhood and they gave us a very good Jewish and general education.
Back then, were you regarded as a bright student?
Even up to the eighth grade I was not regarded as a good student. In fact, at one point I was evaluated and was told that since I was very good with my hands, I should think about learning a trade.
When did you begin to shine?
After elementary school, I attended the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva High School, and there I had two excellent, inspiring teachers who took a personal interest in me, one in math and one in Gemara, so I was captivated by both these subjects. These were the formative years; this is where I was formed, in that high school.
So after high school, with this deep interest in both mathematics and Gemara, how did you choose whether to further your education at yeshivah or at university?
It was a very hard choice. I agonized over it and for a while I tried to do both. I would take the subway every day from my home in Brooklyn to City College in uptown Manhattan, then down to the Lower East Side to learn Gemara, and later back uptown to college, and then home again to Brooklyn. But after half a year I couldn’t keep it up and I had to choose. In the end I chose math, because it’s just beautiful, beautiful stuff; it really is. It’s precise logical thinking, very deep, very involved.
How did you become interested in game theory?
After I got my doctorate at MIT, I did a post-doc at Princeton University and had a job in an operations research consulting firm. Operations research is a very, very practical branch of mathematics. I was assigned to analyze an actual military situation that made me recall what I had earlier read and heard about game theory. I immediately realized that this was the way to analyze the problem. And from then on, I concentrated all my energies on game theory and its applications.
Can you explain game theory very briefly for the layman?
Game theory is the science of the interaction between different entities that strive for different goals. Game theory has one underlying idea, and that is incentives. You want to make other people want to do what it is that you want them to do.
Your parents were opposed to Zionism. When did you become interested in making Aliyah?
In high school in the late 1940s my older brother and I became fascinated with what we heard on the radio and read in the newspapers about the struggle for the State, and we both became ardent Zionists. He made Aliyah in 1950 but I decided to get my doctorate first. My wife and I followed in 1956 and I started work right away at the Hebrew University and continued my research there.
When you came to accept the Nobel Prize, how did it feel to be an observant Jew on the world’s stage?
I had to give an after-dinner speech and I started it by saying b’shem u-malchut (mentioning G-d’s name) the blessing hatov ve-hametiv, and I specifically spoke of “the realization of a 2,000-year-old dream – the return of my people to Jerusalem, to its homeland.” Later on, I also had to deliver a lecture to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, and there I quoted both Pirkei Avot and the prophet Isaiah in Hebrew as part of that talk.
You were presented with your prize by the king of Sweden. Did you say the berachah on seeing a king?
I was advised by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein z”l not to say the berachah as he was largely a figurehead. But I have met King Abdullah of Jordan several times and the first time I saw him I did say the berachah.
Speaking of berachot, do people say the special berachah on seeing an outstanding scholar when they meet you?
It’s true that some people do say the berachah שֶׁנָּתַן מֵחָכְמָתוֹ לְבָשָׂר וָדָם (“who gives of His wisdom to men of flesh and blood”) when they meet me, but most people say it without shem u-malchut and I don’t like that. Either say it and mean it, or don’t say it!
You’ve used game theory to explain some difficult passages in the Gemara. This must be the ultimate example of Torah U-Madda.
Yes, you could say that. I have written about three specific sugyot in the Gemara, and I have a lecture on modern economic theory in the Talmud, showing that Chazal were aware of these notions in one sense or another.
You are known to hold strong political views. What does Zionism mean to you?
It means to want Eretz Yisrael. We are 55 years after the Six Day War and we still have a military government in Judea and Samaria. That means we don’t want it enough. Three times a day we ask G-d to come back to Jerusalem. In order for Him to come back, we first have to prepare the ground.
In conclusion, with your permission, I’d like to quote from the beautiful final paragraphs of the autobiography that you submitted to the Nobel Foundation:
“For me, life has been – and still is – one tremendous joyride, one magnificent tapestry. There have been bad – very bad – times, like when my son Shlomo was killed in action and when my first wife Esther died. But even these somehow integrate into the magnificent tapestry.
“And there have been a lot of very good times. The excitement of research, of groping in the dark and then hitting the light. The satisfaction of teaching, of meeting someone at a party who tells you that the course in complex variables that he heard from you twenty-five years ago was the most beautiful that he ever heard. The beauty of a walk in the woods with a four-year-old grandchild, who spots and correctly identifies a tiny wild orchid about which you told him last week. Dancing with your wife at your child’s wedding. Unraveling an intricate passage in the Talmud with your eighteen-year-old granddaughter, or with a study partner with whom you have studied for thirty years. Cooking a meal and hearing from a guest that the soup was the best she ever tasted. Raising a beautiful family. And seeing the flag of Israel fluttering in the wind, right next to that of Sweden, from the roof of the Grand Hotel in Stockholm.”
David Olivestone, formerly on the staffs of the British Museum and of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, was Director of Communications at the Orthodox Union in New York before making Aliyah to Jerusalem in 2013.