Cana­dian Jewish No­bel win­ners made their mark

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - News - JOSH GREEN CJN STAFF

In Jewish cir­cles, Oslo, Nor­way, is com­monly known as the place where a his­toric peace ac­cord was se­cretly bro­kered be­tween Is­rael and the Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion in 1993. The Nor­we­gian cap­i­tal was also the site where the two sides’ rep­re­sen­ta­tives would be hon­oured with the No­bel Peace Prize the fol­low­ing year, “for their ef­forts to cre­ate peace in the Middle East.”

Oslo and Stock­holm, Swe­den – where No­bel Prizes are awarded for con­tri­bu­tions to the fields of physics, chem­istry, medicine, lit­er­a­ture and eco­nomics – have played host to the achieve­ments of many Jews. De­spite com­pris­ing about 0.2 per cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, or about one out of ev­ery 500 peo­ple on Earth, those of at least half-jewish an­ces­try ac­count for more than 22 per cent of the 885 in­di­vid­u­als ex­alted with the ti­tle of No­bel lau­re­ate.

Cana­dian Jews have sim­i­larly over­achieved, even though they con­sti­tute just over one per cent of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion. Five of Canada’s 18 No­bel Prize win­ners have been Jews: Saul Bel­low for lit­er­a­ture in 1976, Sid­ney Alt­man and Ru­dolph Mar­cus for chem­istry in 1989 and 1992, re­spec­tively, My­ron Sc­holes for eco­nomics in 1997 and, most re­cently, Ralph Stein­man for medicine in 2011. How­ever, like many Cana­di­ans seek­ing glory on the world stage, this cel­e­brated group had to ven­ture south to the United States to gain recog­ni­tion.

“I knew that if I wanted to grow and achieve my po­ten­tial, I should at­tend a school where I could learn from and work with those who were the best and who could bring out the best in me,” wrote Sc­holes of his de­ci­sion to at­tend grad­u­ate school at the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago. Sc­holes, the only Cana­dian Jewish lau­re­ate not to hail from Mon­treal, was born in Tim­mins, Ont. He ob­tained his un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in eco­nomics from Mcmaster Uni­ver­sity in Hamil­ton, Ont., where his fam­ily moved when he was 10. Af­ter his time in Chicago, he would join the Stanford Uni­ver­sity fac­ulty and, later, rise to the role of man­ag­ing di­rec­tor at U.S. in­vest­ment bank Salomon Broth­ers, be­fore co-found­ing his own Con­necti­cut-based hedge fund firm, Long-term Cap­i­tal Man­age­ment.

Alt­man echoed Sc­holes’s sen­ti­ment in his own No­bel bi­og­ra­phy. De­spite grow­ing up in the Mon­treal sub­urb of Notre-damede-grâce and in­tend­ing to en­rol at Mcgill Uni­ver­sity af­ter high school, Alt­man ended up com­plet­ing his un­der­grad­u­ate stud­ies at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, where he “ex­pe­ri­enced four years of over­stim­u­la­tion among bril­liant, ar­ro­gant and zany peers and out­stand­ing teach­ers.” He would go on to earn his PHD at the Uni­ver­sity of Colorado and work in pres­ti­gious lab­o­ra­to­ries, be­fore climb­ing through the pro­fes­sional ranks of Yale Uni­ver­sity.

Ex­cept for a six-year stint in Detroit dur­ing his child­hood, Mar­cus re­mained in Canada un­til ne­ces­sity drove him south of the bor­der. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing his PHD from Mcgill and par­tic­i­pat­ing in a post-doc­toral pro­gram at the Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil in Ot­tawa, Mar­cus made a switch from ex­per­i­men­tal to the­o­ret­i­cal chem­istry, which re­quired leav­ing the coun­try, as “there were no the­o­ret­i­cal chemists in Canada at that time.” He would ac­cept a sec­ond post-doc­toral re­search fel­low­ship at the Uni­ver­sity of North Carolina and even­tu­ally make his way to the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, where he was work­ing when he was awarded the No­bel Prize “for his con­tri­bu­tions to the the­ory of elec­tron trans­fer re­ac­tions in chem­i­cal sys­tems.”

The lau­re­ates’ ex­pe­ri­ences are rem­i­nis­cent of the ex­pe­ri­ences of many Cana­dian Jews, with most of their par­ents hav­ing im­mi­grated to this coun­try and sub­se­quently work­ing hard to build a bet­ter life for their fam­i­lies.

“My mother worked in a tex­tile mill and my fa­ther in a gro­cery store be­fore they met and mar­ried,” wrote Alt­man. “It was from them that I learned that hard work in sta­ble sur­round­ings could yield re­wards, even if only in in­finites­i­mally small in­cre­ments.

“For our im­me­di­ate fam­ily and rel­a­tives, Canada was a land of op­por­tu­nity. How­ever, it was made clear to the first gen­er­a­tion of Cana­dian-born chil­dren that the path to op­por­tu­nity was through ed­u­ca­tion. No sac­ri­fice was too great to for­ward our ed­u­ca­tion and, for­tu­nately, books and the tra­di­tion of study were not un­known in our fam­ily.”

Bel­low’s par­ents came from Rus­sia in 1913 and set­tled in a mul­ti­cul­tural part of Mon­treal, which was home to fel­low new­com­ers from Rus­sia, Poland, Ukraine, Greece and Italy. Per­haps this cul­tural mo­saic con­trib­uted to Bel­low’s ap­ti­tude for lan­guages, as he be­came flu­ent in English, French, He­brew and Yid­dish at an early age.

In Rus­sia, Bel­low’s fa­ther had been an im­porter of lux­ury pro­duce, such as Turk­ish figs and Egyp­tian onions. Once in Canada, he opened a business as a self-em­ployed “pro­duce bro­ker,” but fell on hard times and turned to boot­leg­ging, which got him in trou­ble with some dis­rep­utable peo­ple and forced the fam­ily to flee to Chicago when Bel­low was nine.

When Bel­low later at­tended North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity, and was try­ing to fig­ure out what his next step would be af­ter school, the English de­part­ment chair tried to dis­suade him from pur­su­ing his plans to study the lan­guage. “No Jew could re­ally grasp the tra­di­tion of English lit­er­a­ture,” he told Bel­low, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize, mul­ti­ple Na­tional Book Awards and many other hon­ours in ad­di­tion to the No­bel Prize.

Stein­man’s par­ents em­i­grated from East­ern Europe and opened a de­part­ment store in Sher­brooke, Que., about 150 kilo­me­tres east of Mon­treal. Though his fa­ther wanted him to con­tinue in the fam­ily business, Stein­man would grad­u­ate near the top of his class at the Har­vard Med­i­cal School and be­come a pi­o­neer in bio­med­i­cal re­search at Rock­e­feller Uni­ver­sity in New York City.

Stein­man used treat­ments de­rived from his prize-win­ning dis­cov­ery of a pre­vi­ously un­known class of im­mune cells, to com­bat his own pan­cre­atic can­cer for more than four years. How­ever, even in death, Stein­man proved to be among the rarest elite. Fol­low­ing a rule change in 1974 that barred the prize from be­ing be­stowed posthu­mously, Stein­man be­came the first de­ceased per­son in half a cen­tury to be hon­oured as a lau­re­ate, as the No­bel Com­mit­tee had been un­aware of his pass­ing three days prior to its an­nounce­ment of the award.

Saul Bel­low

Ru­dolph Mar­cus

My­ron Sc­holes

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