Lives of struggle, rejection, vindication: The essence of Israel’s ‘Nobelists’
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Israeli Independence DayEconomics laureate Robert Aumann's granddaughter told Rosenwaks his film was 'the first time she understands what he does'

Lives of struggle, rejection, vindication: The essence of Israel’s ‘Nobelists’

Filmmaker’s documentary reveals the personalities of recent Nobel laureates, explaining their work in terms even his mother-in-law can understand

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Illustrative images of Nobelist Robert Yisrael Aumann and his granddaughter studying Talmud in Uri Rosenwaks' documentary series, 'The Nobelists' (Courtesy Ruth Diskin Films)
Illustrative images of Nobelist Robert Yisrael Aumann and his granddaughter studying Talmud in Uri Rosenwaks' documentary series, 'The Nobelists' (Courtesy Ruth Diskin Films)

For a Nobel Prize laureate and mathematician who broke new ground in game theory, Robert Yisrael Aumann is surprisingly funny, outgoing and, well, normal.

“Yeah, no one knew he was so funny and heartwarming,” said Uri Rosenwaks, the documentary filmmaker who featured Aumann in his new film, “The Nobelists.”

Ditto for fellow Nobel Prize winners and scientists Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko, as well as economist Daniel Kahneman and scientists Dan Shechtman, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel.

“The Nobelists”, a YES Docu film, is being screened at Cinematheques this week in honor of Israel’s Independence Day. It’s a documentary series in five parts, each 35-minute chapter focusing on Rosenwaks’ time spent with a “Nobelist,” as Israel’s impressive succession of laureates are known in Hebrew.

In each section of the series, Rosenwaks helps viewers gain a full picture of the person and their research, utilizing parts of his own lengthy interviews with them, as well as some of their lectures, and clips from time spent with them at home or during their travels.

That broader scope was always part of Rosenwaks’ plan: to tell the story of their discoveries and advances, but to unfold their personal stories as well, given that “the science story is wrapped in a whole adventure,” said Rosenwaks. “Most of the people have a great story, the struggles, their backgrounds.”

He opens the Aumann chapter as the Nobel laureate gives a talk in his Jerusalem synagogue, speaking about emigrating from Germany to the US in the 1930s with his parents, and meeting John Nash at MIT.

He converses with Ciechanover, whose parents had both died by the time he was in his teens, and who talks about stealing and then selling flip-flops on the beach to get by. “I’m pretty sure I have a criminal record,” says Ciechanover in the film.

Professor Arieh Warshel, who grew up on a kibbutz in the Beit Shean valley, tells how he was first rejected by the Israeli scientific community and forced to uproot to the States when he began developing a computerized model for the understanding of complex biological systems.

And Technion chemist Dan Shechtman, was a laughing-stock in the international scientific community for many years for his discovery of the quasi crystal.

Nobel Laureate Arieh Warshel describing his theory on the see-thru board that Uri Rosenwaks used throughout the five-chapter series (Courtesy Ruth Diskin Films)
Nobel Laureate Arieh Warshel describing his theory on the see-thru board that Uri Rosenwaks used throughout the five-chapter series (Courtesy Ruth Diskin Films)

The film offers each the opportunity to display their personalities, as Rosenwaks teases out these inimitable characters. He has a moment with Ciechanover in a cab in Germany, where he follows him to get some more film time. And he spent 10 hours one day making the return journey from New York to Maryland, where he was interviewing Kahneman, in order to spend an hour with Irwin Rose, Hershko and Ciechanover’s third partner, who is now wheelchair-bound.

That road trip netted one of the best moments of the film, when Rose, frail and physically impaired, gives a wink and says, about Hershko, “Yeah, he’s a good pal.”

When someone becomes a Nobel laureate, things change, discovered Rosenwaks. They may have struggled professionally and personally for many years in order to reach that moment of discovery, enduring decades of hard work, but all that ends when they win the prize.

“The moment you become a Nobelist, you’re not just a scientist, in some ways you become a celebrity,” he said.

Uri Rosenwaks, at the screening of 'The Nobelists', his latest documentary, with former news anchor Mickey Heimowitz (Courtesy YES)
Uri Rosenwaks, at the screening of ‘The  Nobelists,’ his latest documentary, with former news anchor Mickey Heimowitz (Courtesy YES)

Nobel laureates also tend to live long lives, Kahneman told Rosenwaks. The Nobel Prize is generally bestowed on people in their 60s and 70s, and it often engenders the start of a new career, as they can leave the politics, scheming, and competitiveness behind.

“Hershko is 80-something, and Aumann is also in his 80s, and they’re all thriving,” he said.

They’re also disarmingly honest.

“Aumann told me that the worst thing about winning the Nobel is having to deal with guys like me,” said Rosenwaks.

Rosenwaks, the son and brother of two scientists, said he always had a latent interest in science. Yet it wasn’t until the packed screenings for his documentary with Rinat Klein about philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, “Leibowitz: Faith Country and Man,” that he thought about viewers’ desires for films about weightier subjects.

“You need something that on the one hand gives a response to people’s curiosity about these prize winners and what they’ve discovered, and on the other hand, it is cinema, you don’t need to be a scientist or philosopher to watch this,” he said. “It’s for anyone who’s curious. And, if I can understand what they’re saying, then anyone can.”

That may be true, but it does help when Aumann explains his theory with the example of his mother splitting a bar of chocolate between him and his brother. Or when Ciechanover talks about their theory with a fourth grade class.

Still, Rosenwaks had to do his homework, which involved reading the laureates’ books and articles, with the help of Sharon Garber, his post-doc research student, delving into a wide sphere of research that would allow him to ask knowledgeable questions of his subjects. He recalled reading Warshel and Levitt’s book on quantum mechanics, “which was so hard to understand,” but he consumed the material, “like a hamster,” and “puked it out at the interview.”

Economist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explains his theory in "The Nobelists" (Courtesy Ruth Diskin Films)
Economist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explains his theory in “The Nobelists” (Courtesy Ruth Diskin Films)

Then he had to figure out what to do with all that information once he was in the editing room, a minor detail that his film crew repeatedly teased him about after each interview.

“You always have to remember in the end that somebody will come home from work and see it just once,” he said, laughing. “You’re some kind of negotiator between the viewer and these guys.”

That initial level of understanding was necessary for the interviews, said Rosenwaks, in order for the scientists to engage with him in a substantive conversation about their work.

“If you talk to Michael Levitt, he will tell you that he gets really annoyed with scientific ignorance,” he said. “Science and technology are so advanced, and so few people really get it. He says, why do people think it’s okay that you have to know who Shakespeare was, but not Newton? Or Dickens, but not Einstein?”

There was a certain sense of relief when Nobel winner and best-selling author Kahneman said his interview with Rosenwaks was one of the best he’d ever had. And when Aumann emerged from the first screening and told Rosenwaks it was a great film.

“His granddaughter told me it’s the first time she understands what he does,” he said.

For that matter, said Rosenwaks, his own mother-in-law said the same thing.

“In the end, I tell stories,” he said. “I’m very happy when people get it, when I can make what they do accessible.”

The Nobelists, which received the support of the Keren Gesher and Keren Avichai Joint Venture, and is being distributed by Ruth Diskin Films, is being screened with English subtitles at the Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa Cinematheques this week.

The series is also being screened on YES Docu on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Wednesday, April 23 at 9 pm, and all five chapters will be available through YES VOD.

  • Jerusalem Cinematheque, Thursday, April 23, 6 pm
  • Tel Aviv Cinematheque, Thursday, April 23, Friday, April 24 and Wednesday, April 29.
  • Haifa Cinematheque, Friday, April 24, 4 pm.
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