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October 11, 2013 11:45 am

What Sandy Koufax Can Teach Us About Attracting Young People to Israel

avatar by Gidon Ben-zvi

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Ryan Braun. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Israel has been abuzz over the last few days, with the news that yet another prodigal son has taken home the world’s most prestigious award. On Wednesday, Kibbutz-born Arieh Warshel won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, along with fellow Jewish professors Michael Levitt (who also holds Israeli citizenship) and Martin Karplus.

The trio won the award “for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced. By creating computer models that can delve into complex chemical processes, the three are helping to elucidate the pathways of photosynthesis, without which life as we know it would not exist.

After this year’s award, six Nobel prizes have been won by Israelis over the past 11 years.

Yet amid the media blitz and phone calls from presidents and prime ministers, there is a giant blue and white elephant stomping around the room. An important and obvious topic, which many Israelis are aware of, but are uncomfortable to discuss: wasn’t the Zionist enterprise meant to combat and ultimately conquer the-Semitic stereotype of Jewish men as disproportionately intellectual, with an aversion to any rigorous physical activity?

A long-accepted theory explaining the Jewish people’s academic prowess is that they had to be smart to survive in exile. The thing is, recent history has shown that brain power was just one way out of a life lived in constant fear.

In the early part of the 20th century, millions of Jews fled persecution in Europe for the safe haven that America could provide. However, these immigrants were a microscopic religious minority in a largely Christian nation. As such, there was always a lingering sense of being a stranger in a strange land, little more than a visitor whose continued well-being was anything but a foregone conclusion.

Since Jewish Americans were excluded from certain neighborhoods, universities, jobs, and even country clubs simply because of their religious and cultural background, they turned to sports as a ticket out of a second class life. And did they soar!

Barney Ross, Dolph Schayes, Benny Friedman, Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, and too many more to list, shattered the myth of the pale, skinny Jewish weakling into a thousand pieces.

Today, the strong, vibrant State of Israel still revels in the fact that Jews account for roughly twenty percent of all Nobel Prizes ever awarded – all while constituting only one fifth of one percent (0.2%) of the global population.

Yet to appeal to young Jewish men and women everywhere who look to Shawn Green, Dara Torres, Ryan Braun, and Lenny Krayzelburg as role models, perhaps the time is right to start focusing a bit more time and treasure on sports. After all, it doesn’t take a Noble Prize winning chemist to understand that while the contributions of Jewish scientists are immense, they may not have the popular appeal required to fill up those Nefesh B’Nefesh flights from Los Angeles to Lod.

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  • Mark NYC

    While we may be justly proud of the achievements of these Jews and Israelis, it is rather sad that they no longer live in the land of their birth but instead have professorial positions here in the U.S. According to the NYTimes (not necessarily the most reliable of sources when it comes to Jewish matters), the wives of these Nobel Prize winners in chemistry say that they live here because their husbands could not get tenured or satisfactory positions in Israel. And that is sad.

    • Hi Mark. Thanks for responding to my piece. Indeed, Israel cannot realistically compete with the United States. Similar to the New York Yankees, America has the means to pick out and purchase the world’s premier scientists, researchers, etc. However, Israel’s appeal to Jewish people everywhere should not be limited to intellectual pursuits. After 65 years in existence, how is it that Israel’s national soccer team has only appeared once (if memory serves) in the World Cup? Israel’s lack of achievement in the Olympics is a national scandal. In short, a healthy, vibrant, balanced society should develop the means to invest in both academic and athletic pursuits. Feel good, Gidon

      • zadimel

        While many people may view athletic pursuits as a necessity for a “vibrant,balanced society” -which I would also tend to agree in my own limited fashion – the IDF has done very well in that regard. Running and jumping carrying a battle pack, containing the necessities of war along with a weapon is a bit more valuable to Israel than doing the 100 yard dash or even a marathon.