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Elinor Ostrom Had the Last Laugh

Anti-Semites, sexists and snobs were no match for this Shivah Star

Irin Carmon
June 14, 2012
Ostrom in 2011. (RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Ostrom in 2011. (RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Each week, we select the most interesting Jewish obituary. Today it’s that of Elinor Ostrom, the only woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics, who died Tuesday.

A political scientist, she won the Nobel in 2009 and ruffled a few feathers among economists who had never heard of her. The Nobel committee considered her work on the cooperative management of common resources and government regulation to be pathbreaking, but the apparent snarkers on economics blogs trashed her anyway, including her interest in actually talking to human beings. One supporter told the Times, “Some things said about her in blogs and other media were so ignorant and in such bad taste that I felt ashamed on behalf of the economics profession.”

But Ostrom was used to haters. The daughter of a Jewish father and Christian mother who fondly recalled kosher dinners at relatives’ houses, she told a Swedish interviewer she had been the subject of anti-Semitic bullying as a child in Los Angeles. “I got circled in the schoolroom, out on the playground.” The children shouted, ” ‘You Jew! You Jew!’ ‘”

“Having that experience as a kid and being a woman, and having that challenge as it has been at different times to be a woman,” Ostrom said, “I’ve got pretty good sympathy for people who are not necessarily at the center of civic appreciation.”

Irin Carmon is a senior correspondent at New York magazine and co-author of The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her Twitter feed is @irin.