Purim’s Double Narrative: Celebration and Travesty

The holiday of Purim is my least favorite Jewish holiday – and Tami’s too. Why this should be so is an object lesson of what can happen when we become too comfortable with a traditional narrative.

All human beings have an amazing ability to take a relatively objective (factual) situation and interpret it in several ways, sometimes completely contradicting each other. As someone once said: “Variety is the spice of life.” But as we all know, sometimes spices can be very “hot” – burning us in the process of ingestion. In other words, if two people, camps, sectors, or population groups have widely different “tales” on what happened or “who did what to whom”, that could be a recipe for serious societal trouble.

This conflicting way of understanding the present is also true of the past (perhaps even more so!). There’s nothing like a contretemps between historians regarding a past event, or as Dr. Henry Kissinger once opined: “Academic arguments are so virulent because the stakes are so low…”.

Which brings me to the Purim holiday. As a mostly observant Jew (“Conservadox” is the best way to describe me), I have no intention of starting another “cultural war”. Rather, I want to explicitly state here something that other Jewish friends and acquaintances have sheepishly mentioned to me over the years: Purim is one “strange” story (and they don’t mean that positively). Some of you readers might have had the same queasy feeling.

The standard narrative is well known. Indeed, it is the classic basis for the Jewish trope (and joke): “What’s a Jewish holiday all about? The Gentiles tried to kill us, we fought back and won, and now let’s eat…”. Haman tried to manipulate King Ahaseurus into decreeing the destruction of the Jews, Esther devised a plan to turn the tables on Haman and succeeded, the Jews killed their Persian enemies, and we Jews celebrate to this day by eating and drinking ourselves into a stupor (the only day of the Jewish calendar when drunkenness is permitted). Kids celebrate by masquerading, adults by gorging on “hamantaschen” (in Hebrew “oznei Haman” = Haman’s Ears), and a good time is had by all.

So, what’s not to like? Well, when read a bit more closely, the Purim story is a complete travesty of Jewish ethics and commandments! Esther, an orphan, is brought up by her “uncle” (or cousin?), and when the king decides to find a new queen through a “beauty contest” (in the king’s bedchambers) of all the country’s virgins, she joins!! In other words, she is willing to have sexual relations before marriage, and with a Gentile no less. Then when she wins the competition, she actually marries the Gentile king!!! When was that ever condoned in Judaism? Indeed, in Jewish Law there are only three transgressions that prevent the saving of life – one of them, illicit sexual relations – so how does Mordechai even suggest that all this happened to save the Jews??

The Rabbis came up with all sorts of convoluted “explanations”, e.g., Esther was actually married to Mordechai (!?!) and didn’t consummate anything with the king (??) ; or, she would go to the mikveh (ritual pool for cleansing) before having relations with the king, and then again when she snuck out of the palace to have relations with Mordechai. (I am not making this up.)

Not as egregious from the standpoint of Jewish Law, but quite unJewish nonetheless, is Mordechai’s self-aggrandizement in the concluding sections. We are asked (actually commanded) to repeat every year the heroics of Mordechai (“the great man”, as the book puts it) – that he ostensibly wrote himself! Where did Jewish modesty go?

Which of the two main narratives is correct – the traditional one representing the Jewish Diaspora experience through the ages (trying to successfully fight anti-Semitism), or a highly problematic “outlier” in the Biblical canon? Obviously, I’m not objective given my antipathy to the entire Esther story, but consider these two points. First, where did the names Mordechai and Esther come from? The ancient Mesopotamian gods Marduk and Ishtar!! In other words, not only is their behavior reprehensible (by Jewish standards), but their very names suggest that they are not acting Jewishly – because maybe they aren’t?

Second, other than the Song of Songs (a love poem), the Book of Esther is the only other book in the entire Bible where God’s name is not mentioned! The Almighty was obviously as embarrassed by this narrative as I am…

Religious Observance: Dispensable or Dutiful?

Image result for google images wood tennis racket

When I entered City College of New York for my undergraduate education, I decided to try out for the tennis team. Although my first love was basketball, playing on my championship-winning, high school varsity team for two years, I wasn’t good (or tall) enough to play hoops at a college level. But as I was a tennis teacher in summer camp, I figured I might be able to play college varsity tennis. So, I went to the tryout.

After a few matches against other candidates, I made the team. Then came the hard part: informing the coach that I could not play on Saturdays, as I was a sabbath observer. That meant I would miss about a third of the matches. The coach was a stout fellow from Alabama – throughout his life perhaps not having been in much contact with Jews. He looked me in the face, thought about it for a few seconds, and then asked: “Can’t you get special dispensation from your Rabbi?”

OK, you can stop chuckling now. It is funny (if you know Judaism), but there’s a serious issue behind a question like that. Religion demands adherence to strict “commandments”. Some like Christianity have a relatively low number of “do’s” and a bit more don’ts; Judaism has a huge number of them: 613 main ones and uncountable lemmas, additional “fences”, and assorted customs that have eventually morphed into “edicts”. Either way, if the underlying assumption is that these are God-given (or at least God-inspired), there isn’t too much wiggle room for the religious observant.

Or perhaps there is? I am no expert on Christianity (or Islam), but papal dispensations for all sorts of future (or past) transgressions are well known. Judaism, however, has only one central “dispensation”: protecting human life. If there is any sort of mortal danger to a person then (almost all) commandments not only can, but SHOULD, be abrogated in order to ensure the person’s continued life. This need not be a clear case of life and death; even preventing a relatively minor illness – that theoretically could lead to death – is enough to allow transgression. There are three exceptions: idol worship, murder, and incest, e.g., if someone says “kill her or I will kill you” the Jew cannot pull a trigger on the woman.

However, this “thou must LIVE by them” dispensation means that there are not any other circumstances that enable transgression. Which leads to the next question: what’s the utility of being a stickler in performing religious commandments?

First, any “legal” system needs performance consistency. It wouldn’t work if any pedestrian could decide that it’s OK to cross the street at the red light because that’s their favorite color. All religions constitute a sort of “legal system”, notwithstanding the origin (after all, we obey secular laws even if not mandated “by God”). Second, as humans we are creatures of habit – comfortable in repeating activity that we enjoy or find meaning in doing. Third, and somewhat related, all religions are social – designed to strengthen communal solidarity, something critical for mental health and it turns out quite important for physical health too! Religious people on average live 3 to 6 years LONGER than those who are non-religious!! (See: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322175) The main reason for that in the modern world seems to be social solidarity: loneliness is the number ONE killer of senior citizens!

For Jews in the past, there were other more prosaic reasons. For instance, the edict that one has to wash hands (and make a blessing) before eating was obviously a major hygiene boost in an era when people had no idea about germs and the like. Circumcision seems to reduce the incidence of sexually transmitted disease. And so on.

Of course, we never know what aspects of religious practice are beneficial and which not – and that’s precisely why sticking to tried and true beliefs and accompanying rituals is worthwhile. Just ask my fellow, college tennis teammates.

During my senior year, my tennis team was scheduled to play Temple University (Philadelphia) – that’s not the Jewish “Temple”, or even a religiously-oriented college, although it did start out Baptist. The problem? The match was to be played on the interim Passover days (Chol Ha’moed), so that with the long, round-trip bus ride and several hours of the match, I had to bring my own food along. So I’m on the bus with my teammates on the way to Philadelphia when I get hungry and take out a matzoh sandwich I made for myself. The first bite – “CRUNCH!” – and everyone turns around. “What’s that?” asks one of my teammates. I try to explain, but they look at my gigantic “cracker” and start laughing, with some good-natured mocking of my culinary habit.

We were thoroughly beaten in the match: 7-2. The only two wins: my singles and also my doubles matches. On the bus ride back, all I could hear was my teammates imploring me: “Can I have one of those? There’s got to be some secret ingredient in those crackers!” 

 If you stick to your religious guns, it all works out in the end. No need for dispensations…

The Wondering Jew (Not a Typo!)

Ever since I was a tot, I would ask “why?” (My baby-sitting, twin cousins, Ruthie and Naomi called me “the mouth” – at age 3!) But as the stereotype has it, that seems to be something natural to most Jews – asking, questioning, disagreeing, and protesting. And it’s worth remembering that not all “stereotypes” are wrong. If indeed this one is correct (as I believe it is), the question is – sorry about this! – WHY?

As with every good question, there are several possible answers – each probably true to a certain extent. I’ll start with a few that historians have bandied about, and then I’ll add my take. First, the Bible (“Old Testament”) is replete with arguments (Abraham telling God that “He” can’t destroy Sodom and Amorah if there are saints living there), protests (the Israelites in the desert), and sundry questioning of authority (the Prophets). Not for nothing does God call the Children of Israel “a stiff-necked people”!

Second, more than a thousand years later, after the destruction of the Second Temple (68 CE), Judaism took a radical turn away from the Temple cult (priests, sacrifices etc) to scholarship. Religious learning and education evolved and soon developed what came to be known later as the Talmud, a gigantic compendium – not of laws, but of arguments. The questions, debating, arguing, go on for pages and pages, each camp (many times more than two) utilizing all the tools of rhetoric and logic. Over many hundreds of years (the Talmud, originally purely oral based on memory, was finally written down around the 5th-6th centuries CE), it has created a culture of learning through interrogation and verbal give-and-take without parallel.

Third, anti-semitism also played its part over the past 2000 years. When the world views you as an outcast or “inferior” (in the Moslem world, that was called “dhimmi”), then at some point you begin to view yourself as well as an “other” – and start thinking as an “other”. Actually, I should take back the word “start”; as the first two factors above note, the Jews have viewed themselves as “other” from their very start – whether as “The Chosen People” or simply believing differently than everyone else around them (monotheism vs the ancient world’s polytheism).

When I was ten years old, my mother took David and me for an entire summer vacation to England and Switzerland to see the family. Each direction on a famous ocean liner. Being with my overseas family was fun, but the real “added value” was seeing “alien” things: cricket, farthings, fish & chips, even a royal palace!

In retrospect, it strikes me that a major reason for the Jewish mindset is the Jewish People’s never-ending wanderings. Think about it: Abraham moved from Babylonia to Assyria to Canaan to Egypt and back to Canaan; Jacob moved his whole family to Egypt (and we know how that turned out); the Israelites sojourned in the desert for 40 years and then entered Canaan; 10 tribes were expelled in the 8th century BCE and then 200 years later the last two tribes’ leaders were also forced to leave, but they managed to return to the Holy Land after 50 years; then five centuries later came the Roman destruction of the Temple and more expulsions – this time to Babylon (again), Egypt and Rome. The next 2000 year period (until today) constitute(d) the Diaspora, with Jews ever on the move from one continent and country to another.

That’s why we are also called “The Wandering Jew”. And it seems to me that all this Wandering also makes us Wondering, i.e. wondering why we are not accepted almost anywhere, and also wondering (in the new place we settle) why “they” do things the way the way they do.

Note how this plays into all three of the original factors mentioned earlier: Jews don’t accept the “conventional wisdom” of anyone; they were highly literate and educated among other nations that have very low educational levels, so that was only natural to ask “why?” when the only answer forthcoming was “tradition”; and all this, of course, gets the Gentiles angry, leading to more anti-semitism that brings more expulsions etc., thereby starting the cycle all over again.

Thus, the Jewish way of doing (and thinking) things is “Wonderful” – as in “I wonder why it’s done that way?” Terrific for progress: scientific, technological and even social (Jews were/are in the forefront of most major social protest movements). But that also leads to Wanderful: sometimes a “push” by the Gentile world, and sometimes a “pull” with the Jew seeking out more amenable pastures. As one example: look how many Jews have immigrated to Palestine/Israel in the past century – and how many have also left Israel since its establishment!

Can we have our cake (enjoy staying put in our home country) and eat it too (see other places to broaden horizons)? Yes. The answer is vacation travel – not only to have fun but to learn how human nature is highly variegated, how others can live quite differently than us – but still make sense of their lives. Americans are notoriously “parochial” (the center of the world), and part of the reason for that is never leaving the U.S.  Indeed, even after the law was changed to require a passport for visiting Canada and Mexico, only about 30% of Americans have passports! I am willing to bet that the vast majority of the ultra-nationalist, racists in America have never left the good ol’ U.S.A. If solitary confinement in jail is inhuman, then self-confinement to one’s national borders is a recipe for anti-humanity.

Obviously, the present Corona period is not the time for travel. But once we’re past the pandemic, all of us should “get up and go”… far away. Not only for our mental health, but our moral health as well.

To make a bilingual pun (from my Mom’s home country), seeing the world is wünderbar!

“Perfect” Almost Never Is

In my freshman college year, I took a great course on the History of Art. The professor was one of the world’s leading art historians and critics from the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art – and a really good lecturer to boot. He once devoted a full 90-minute lecture to one painting: Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”. The presentation was “eye-opening” (literally and figuratively) and the analysis immensely fascinating, not to mention enlightening. But there was one “small” problem: he deemed this to be a “perfect” painting, perhaps the greatest ever.

One should use superlatives very sparingly – like fine wine. Too much and one’s senses begin to become dull, lessening the enjoyment. Indeed, overusing a superlative can even dull the word itself! For example, I was taken aback the first time I heard a British cousin say “brilliant!” when I made a relatively unremarkable observation. I knew I wasn’t a dumb person, but “brilliant” because I had a “thought”? I was too embarrassed to ask, but pretty soon realized that the word had lost all its “American” luster when I heard another Brit say “brilliant!” to some other banal comment. 

Of course, there are superlatives – and then there are SUPERLATIVES. Among the latter is the word “perfect”. This one should be used extremely sparingly, perhaps once or twice a lifetime. The reason goes far beyond the diminution phenomenon I just mentioned; that’s the least of it. The real problem is that “perfect/ion” hardly exists in the real world – and even if it does (very, very rarely) reasonable people could argue about whether indeed it is “perfect”.

Back to that college class lecture. The professor explained how this painting was basically the first ever to get the three-dimensional perspective absolutely right. He further pointed out how each of the twelve disciples was doing something that foretold his future (end). And so on. The lecture ended with the claim that this was as perfect a painting as one could imagine. And then he asked: “any questions?”

I was never known for my shyness, at least not in a classroom. So I raised my hand and asked: “How can you say the painting is perfect, when we know that this was the Passover seder – and DaVinci drew bread rolls on the table instead of matzohs (unleavened bread)”? The entire class went silent – several students turning around looking at me with astonishment that I had the audacity to confront this august professor. But to me more astonishing was the fact that the professor himself was struck dumb. After what seemed an eternity (probably only a few seconds to all of us), he replied: “I never noticed that. Interesting point!” (The most incredible part of this story is that he was Jewish!!)

From that incident I took away two central lessons. The first – really important in light of my future academic career – was to forthrightly admit my error if a student caught me erring in some factually way. Indeed, with any such student I go out of my way to duplicate the quasi-compliment I received from that world expert. That’s part of higher education: students should never hesitate to ask or even “confront” a teacher with the facts (or opinions, for that matter). Encouraging individual thought is what thinking is all about.

The second lesson I learned is that the most “deadly” word in the English language is also the most positive of all: “perfect”. There are two, almost contradictory, reasons for that.

On the one hand, as my Art History Lecture story suggests, even when one thinks that something is “perfect”, it probably isn’t because there might (probably will?) be some flaw discovered later on. (Newton’s physics worked “perfectly” – until Einstein showed that this was not universally true.) On the other hand, if by some “miracle” perfection is attained, this will only induce others to try and get to “perfect” in their own bailiwick. But as the adage wisely states: “Perfection is the enemy of accomplishment”. In other words, if you try to be perfect, you will spend so much time on this almost impossible goal that you won’t get much else done.

There’s a relatively new word in the English language: “satisficing” – getting to a level that’s enough to accomplish the purpose you started out with. That’s not “satisfying”, i.e., we might not be completely satisfied (happy) with what we’ve done, but if it achieves the goal then that’s good enough. So instead of “deadly”, maybe I should have said “deadening”. Running after perfection not only won’t lead to satisfaction, but it might actually cause a contraction – a word that combines the contradictory terms of “contra” and “action”.

Bottom line: the perfect way to do things in life is not to try and do them to perfection.

Passing the Marshmallow Test

Marshmallow test claims it can tell how successful your kid will be - but  there's a problem - Mirror Online

I have now gone thirty years without any significant weight change; indeed, throughout these three decades it has not fluctuated more than 3 pounds either way. In fact, today I weigh exactly what I did when I was eighteen years old. Genes? Nope – my parents gained weight as the years went by. Biology? Not at all – during my 1989-90 sabbatical in San Diego I gained twenty pounds, just from adding a frozen yogurt every day in the university lunchroom. The answer: I passed the “Marshmallow Test” – possibly the most important exam in the life of any child or adult.

What’s the Marshmallow Test? First, you don’t have to use a marshmallow; any tempting treat will do (tempting for the person being tested). Second, this test is usually given to a child around the age of four or five; it’s harder to do with adults, but it could work under the right conditions. Here’s how it goes:

Put the kid in a relatively empty room – the emptier the better because you don’t want other “interesting” things to be within reach that could enable the child to distract him/herself. Sit the child down at a table that has only one plate on it with one, and only one, marshmallow (or other candy). Tell the child that you will be leaving the room for five minutes and that s/he can eat the marshmallow/candy whenever s/he wants, but if s/he does not eat it, then when you return to the room you’ll give them two marshmallows/candies to eat!

This experiment has been performed many times under controlled research conditions, and it tests for “delayed gratification”: whether a person can push off obtaining something desirable right now in order to attain something even more desirable in the “future”. It turned out that many children were able to hold off from that marshmallow – but about the same number were not able to control themselves.

So what? Although the test and its outcome were interesting in itself, the real ramification of the results came only 15 years later – quite clearly (and shockingly). Those children (now going to college) who back then were able to hold off in order to get the larger (later) reward tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational accomplishment, lower BMI body mass index (i.e., were slimmer), and other positive life measures! In other words, one simple test at a very early age was better at predicting life success or failure than almost anything else a child could be tested for and about.

Further exploration of the issue revealed some additional insights. Part of the ability to delay gratification was clearly inborn, but that was hardly the full story. Socio-economic background and parental upbringing practices were also influential. Thus, this “ability” is not either-or but rather can be learned or self-taught.

My personal experience (no weight gain) can offer one more insight. If a person has enough motivation for “holding off”, then that can make it easier to push back at temptation. In my case, I had two motivations. First, my father died of heart failure at age 57 and as I started to see that “age” coming up the pike, I felt the need to start taking better care of myself. Second, my love of playing basketball. Unfortunately, one can’t do that well being overweight, especially passing – not the ball – but age 40. As I am wont to joke: when I was young, I would eat in order to play basketball; now I don’t eat, in order to play basketball!

Of course, delaying gratification is easy to say, but a lot harder to do. For each such goal, one needs a “system”. Mine was (still is) simple albeit for some people pretty drastic: I get on the scale every morning! If I’m a pound “overweight”, I diet down a few days. That’s it. I don’t write off cake completely – just a tiny bit here and there; no empty calories – but I will “indulge” once in a blue moon if something really scrumptious comes along.

That’s not for everyone – and in any case, there are many other goals in life for which we could use some delayed gratification, e.g., saving for retirement (or even that expensive vacation you’ve been dreaming about). What’s important is to have a reasonable plan (not completely inflexible) and stick to it by periodically checking on your progress, e.g., that growing pension plan you’re saving up.

And if you have a child or grandchild, do the Marshmallow Test. If the results are not satisfactory, it’s time to start “gratification training”…

Midlife Changes

All my life, I have been surrounded by midlife changers. In her 50s, Tami went from successful marketing copywriter to even more successful children’s book author; my mother went from diamond cutter as a young adult to fashion patternmaker and assistant designer in her 40s; in his 60s one of my uncles went from upscale tourist storeowner/manager to dental technician (crossing the ocean from Israel to the U.S. for two years to learn the new profession); and then there’s a second cousin through marriage who went from housewife to… I’ll leave that for a bit later (believe me, it’s worth the wait!).

In the distant past, a person would train or be educated for one type of work – and after several decades, would retire from that job, with or without a gold watch from the employer. Lots of work security; also, lots of professional boredom. Those days are pretty much over. There’s no sense bewailing the change, as the pace of the contemporary world accelerates with its technological and social-cultural dynamism. On the other hand, it makes eminent, personal sense to think about what we each want to do about it.

It’s not merely our environment that demands adaptation. Luckily, we also live in an age of vastly increasing lifespan. Assuming that we retire at approximately the same age as in the past, that leaves close to two decades (on average) to “fill” with something meaningful. Best not to start that at retirement, but rather actively “prepare” ourselves well beforehand.

Of course, changing one’s profession is not the only thing that we can do. Today’s options are almost infinite: volunteer work; sports and serious recreational activity; high-level amateur arts & crafts; travel & tourism; and on and on. Some hobbies keep the brain fit as we age; other activities, the body trim; and still others, both brain and body together. Most important, though, is to keep one’s “soul” nourished by doing things that we really like and want to do – not simply “pass away the time” before we literally pass away.

I could clearly see how Tami gained a “new life” with her children’s book authoring; every morning, my mother couldn’t wait to get to work in Seventh Avenue; and as funny as it sounds, dental technician work can actually be quite challenging, and even at times fascinating, as my uncle recounted on more than one occasion.

As for that second cousin: Naomi. Her husband (my dad’s cousin) was a Holocaust survivor, came to the U.S. penniless, and managed to establish an oil company and even bought an entire local bank. When he passed away too early in life, Naomi (by then in her late 50s or early 60s) decided to establish her own institution – a total break from her previous, married life. Here’s the background story as she recounted to me – I am not making this up!

Naomi used to enjoy spending Sundays going to bazaars, fairs and garage sales. One day her adult son who enjoyed collecting all sorts of objets d’art for his home asked his mom to try and get for him some classy erotica whenever she came across something along those lines in her weekly perambulations. Naomi had never seen that sort of stuff but decided to keep an eye out. Weekend after weekend she would visit these places – and… nada. No one was selling that type of thing. So, one day Naomi asked a seller where she could find erotica. He looked at her quizzically: why was this grandma-type of “square” lady going around asking about that? She explained. His response: “I understand. Well, no one puts those objects out for just anyone to see; after all, we have families with kids at these events. If you want to buy erotica, just ask the seller and if they carry it, they’ll take you to the “back” where it’s stored.

Sure enough, quite a few Sunday fair merchandisers did carry such art objects “in the back”. So Naomi started buying selected erotica for her son, who seemed impressed by her discerning eye as well as a newly discovered business acumen, and complimented her. Pumped up by her son’s accolades, Naomi began to find some of these artifacts to be quite pleasing to her eye too (after all, it is real art). Soon enough, she was buying erotica for herself as well.

To make a long story short, after her husband died, Naomi decided to move to Miami from New Jersey), and set up… The naomi Wilzig Erotic Art Museum (WEAM)!! The museum carries over 5000 pieces of erotica, ranging from miniature Japanese sculptures to a massive, hand carved oak bed from Germany with many “interesting” carvings on the four bedposts (Naomi told me that it cost more to ship to the U.S. than to buy!). If you’re interested, here’s the website: https://www.weammuseum.com/ Just make sure your kids are not hanging around your computer when you surf the site…

Why tell this story – other than the fact that it’s utterly “fantabulous”? Because there’s a lesson here. One’s midlife change need not be anything “planned” at a younger age. Rather, we should always be open to the unexpected when “tripping” over life (that’s meant in the running sense, not drugs…). Sometimes a BIG change is what’s needed, something completely out of our previous comfort zone. That way, we can feel that life is starting over again and not merely a Second Act event.

In short, midlife changes are crucial in order to avoid a middling life. We only live once, but that doesn’t mean that we have to have only “one life”.

The Child is the Father of Wo/Man

Separated at the start of the Holocaust era from their parents at quite a young pre-teen age, my relatives (nameless to protect their privacy) spent their adolescent years in physical security but in severe economic poverty. Throughout their adult life, otherwise honorable and quite normal, they had one “foible”: hyper-materialism. As much as they could afford, the wore only the finest suits and sported the best jewelry. Once I understood their history, it was not hard to figure out why.

They aren’t the only ones. What’s “lacking” in youth need not be something material; emotional starvation is just as bad (maybe worse). For instance, a parent who died too early, leaving the child with the second parent, incapable of emotional support (occasionally due to their own pain); or overwhelmed with the task of parenting and being the only source of economic support; or remarrying and wanting to start “anew” without the memory of the previous spouse and progeny of that earlier union.

And then there are adopted children turned adults. Their “past trauma” is hard to see because most (especially those adopted at birth), never suffer any specific trauma. But the emotional pain is deep when they discover at whatever age that they are adopted. Their general question (not often spoken out loud): why did my mother/father abandon me? (From this standpoint, the “lucky” ones are adopted because their parents died; they might rail against “God” but there’s no human rejection.)

These are painful experiences or situations, but at least the person involved (usually) understands the drive to supplement what was once (and forever) greatly missing. It’s the rest of us – fortunate enough to spend our youthful years with material and emotional support of our biological parents – who need to be aware of the problem. I am sure that all of us have met people whose adult behavior is “peculiar”. We usually ask ourselves whether this isn’t a matter of their “flawed personality”; we should first rather be asking if there might not be a personal-historical reason for such “traits”. Certainly, assuming that it is someone we care for (cousin, aunt) or is close to us whether we want them or not (an in-law), we would do well to try and understand the source of that person’s behavior.

This general phenomenon is quite widespread but difficult to ferret out, given that the individuals in question are not keen on “revisiting their past”, or to seem as if they are blaming a parent, or to publicly admitting that they even have a problem. Most people, though, are not “born strange” – the most probable reason for “strange” behavior is circumstantial. Nurture, not Nature.

It also turns out that environmental factors in one generation can have an influence two generations further down! The classic example: the 1944 “Dutch Hunger Winter” when Nazi Germany occupied the Netherlands and basically starved its population (https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/07/moms-environment-during-pregnancy-can-affect-her-grandchildren). Women who became pregnant and gave birth during those famine years had grandchildren who were born significantly smaller or were prone to diabetes and obesity later in life!! If you were puzzled by the title of my essay here, perhaps now you understand the aphorism’s deep wisdom.

Is there anything we can do about all this? I believe so. First, as already mentioned, we have to try and be more tolerant towards people with “quirks” or worse. There might be some dark (or negative) things that s/he went through earlier in life. Second, of all the professions in the world, by far the most important one is “parenting”. I have always wondered why we demand education and even licensing for most serious professions, but not for parenting. Of course, I am not suggesting prohibiting people from having children without due “parenting education”, but I am suggesting that governments could “incentivize” such “parenting training courses” e.g. pay them to attend; tax them higher if they don’t; etc.). The eventual savings – economic and societal – are huge, if only we decreased somewhat the pain that children suffer due to lack of parenting knowledge about child development and the like.

And consider this: children who are emotionally (or physically traumatized) will likely do something similar to their progeny, and so on – a sort of “Emotional Hunger” that carries forward from one generation to the next (and the next…). On the other hand, grant a child a solid upbringing and we’ve started a virtuous cycle for many decades into the future.

Let the Good Timings Roll

After receiving my PhD in 1976, I sent out my “file” to all the Israeli universities, as Tami and I had decided we would move to Israel within the coming years. The next summer (June 1977) we took a trip to Israel and I chanced an uninvited drop-in to the Political Studies Department in Bar-Ilan University that happened to be near where one of my cousins lived. I figured I’d simply “show my face” so that they could see the person behind the CV. There was a huge surprise waiting for me…

We all try to do the best we can in life. That basically means we try to plan our next “move” – not just tactically (should I have that healthy salad for lunch or that delicious macaroni and cheese concoction?) but especially strategically: where do I go to college? whom do I marry? As an aside (I’ll get to my main point shortly), it is very well worth noting what neuroscience has discovered: our brain is nothing less than a “prediction machine”. It is always, constantly, incessantly, relentlessly, non-stop, every second of the waking day, predicting what will happen in the next few seconds and prepares “us” accordingly. We don’t recognize (and it is even weird to think about the fact) that we are only partly in control of our brain – it controls “us” too! The point here is that all sentience involves “future planning” – the only way to survive and flourish.

Back to our topic. Whether it’s a tactical, short-term decision, or a longer-term strategic one, not only are we somewhat in the hands of our brain but even more so of our external environment. And the world around us does its own “thing” – many times with an unpredictable effect on our life.

So, to continue with my little tale above. Although I had a pretty good understanding of Israeli politics back then (one of my PhD oral exams was on the “Modern Middle East”), as an American I was only generally aware of the major electoral “revolution” that occurred in Israel in May 1977 – for the first time ever, the Left-wing government that had ruled Israel for 29 years lost the election to the Right-wing Likud led by Menachem Begin. What I did not know (and realistically could not have known) was that this brand-new government, desiring to start with a clean slate of officials, “drafted” two lecturers from Bar-Ilan’s Political Studies Department into government service. (One of them – Eliakim Rubinstein – eventually became State Attorney General, and later Supreme Court Justice.) Thus, the department had this huge teaching hole just a few months before the new academic year and didn’t quite know how to fill it.

And then I “dropped in” for my impromptu visit. Pandemonium. Right there on the spot, the chairman called a meeting with two other senior professors who happened to be in their office, and after an hour I was hired!! To this day I am not sure who was more stunned by the turn of events – them or me. In any case, I happily and productively spent the next 40 years (virtually my entire academic career), at Bar-Ilan. And all because of a “little election” that led to a major government reshuffle that caused a department headache that…

Well, you get the idea. Sometimes the timing of events is far beyond what any of us humans could possibly take into account. We are on a kayak paddling down a seemingly smooth river when all of a sudden it turns into rushing rapids. If we’re lucky, it’s a great ride; if not, we hold on for dear life.

We try to avoid thinking about this because we would rather believe that we’re in control of our lives. Of course, to some extent we can navigate our personal future. (Navigating or leading society in total is a much greater feat, practically impossible to carry out perfectly.) But the more we admit that it isn’t completely up to us, the better we are able to adapt to the swift changes and challenges that we surprisingly confront.

I returned to our hotel room and told Tami: “I have good news and bad news: I was offered a full-time job by Bar-Ilan!” For me it was great news, but decidedly mixed for Tami, as she was already having great success in her job at one of America’s first cable TV stations and wasn’t keen on leaving then, having already won an award for one of her productions. But she went along with this new “river rapids” situation. (For those of you muttering to yourself: “another case of the wife giving up something important for her husband” – here’s an explanation of what I mentioned at the start: Tami was the one who made it a condition of our marriage that we make Aliyah to Israel. Thus, this move was a product of her earlier wish; it’s just that the timing for her wasn’t the best! As Oscar Wilde once opined: “when the Gods want to punish us, they grant us our wishes…”)

Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht” is an old Yiddish saying that means “Man Plans, and God Laughs.” Sometimes the joke is on us – and other times we laugh all the way to the bank. Planning is important; good timing, even more so!

The Favorite

I had several uncles (two are still alive so I won’t mention names), but only one do I still consider my “favorite”. I suppose that no one would see that as a problem. But when recently Tami and I had a conversation with a couple of close friends, the question arose: “do you have a favorite child?” THAT elicits horror among some people. But why?

Yes, I know the answer: one should love all one’s children equally. My response is: “that’s not necessarily natural.” However, “loving” a child disproportionately does not mean treating all one’s kids unequally.

It is basic human nature to differentiate – in every aspect of our lives. I love broccoli but hate cranberry sauce; you might like to eat fish but can’t stomach meat; and so on. I love most classical music but am bored by opera; I’m sure there are others who love opera but are bored by “only” music. So why should it be different in our relationship with people? It’s completely natural that we love our spouse, but not a neighbor. So just because someone is biologically related (uncles/aunts, grandparents, cousins, etc.) – even our children – we have to cease being in touch with our true feelings?

Of course, this does not mean that we “have” to have a favorite child. I’m sure that many parents honestly could not pick their favorite because they genuinely do not have one. And that’s natural too. But if for some reason – usually somewhat inexplicable (just like we aren’t exactly sure why we chose this specific person to marry) – we do like/love one kid more than others, that’s not something to get worked up over.

But this truism is absolutely not the same as treating them in a way that clearly marks one as the favorite over the others. By coincidence, the weekly reading of the Torah this sabbath is the last “section” of Genesis (Va’Yekhi). If there is one theme running through the entire Book of Genesis it is this: sibling rivalry is deadly, especially if fomented by parental favoritism: Ishmael and Isaac (Sarah threw the former out of her home); Jacob and Esau (Isaac’s favorite was Esau; Rebecca’s favorite was Jacob); Joseph and his brothers (Jacob clearly favored Joseph). The result: familial pandemonium. And who knows whether Adam and Eve favored Abel (murdered by his brother Cain)?

What’s the Bible saying here? Clearly it recognizes that it is “natural” for parents to have a favorite child – but just as clearly the Bible is warning us to keep that feeling under wraps as much as possible. Otherwise, the family falls apart, or worse. (As an aside I can add some more food for speculative thought: after Genesis – from Exodus onwards through the entire Book of Judges that covers about 250 years – not one Israelite leader hands over the reins of power to his/her child; interesting way to avoid having the child favoritism problem affect the entire nation!)

And now to highlight an interesting paradox: loving one’s children means treating them “unequally”! To put it more clearly and succinctly, each kid should be treated based on her/his real needs – obviously different from child to child.

An example from my two sons. Both are quite bright, but for completely different reasons each had trouble in school. As we lived in what is called a modern Orthodox community, the expectation was that for high school every boy was to be sent to a religious boarding school (girls are sent to a separate religious “seminar” school near home). The social pressure was great to do that for (“to”?) our boys as well. But Tami, especially, understood that they had different needs. So, we sent one to a vocational school to learn car mechanics because from an early age we saw that he was highly talented mechanically; the other chose a very small academic school for bright kids with learning difficulties (his was extreme hyper-activity). They both flourished in their “offbeat” educational milieu. Were we wrong to send one child “only” to a vocational school and the other to an academic one? Of course not!

My advice: if you ever have pangs of guilt because in your heart you “favor” one child over others, drop the guilt. As long as that “favorite feeling” stays there – in your heart – and is not translated into inappropriate action (e.g., Jacob giving Joseph a coat of many colors), you’re doing fine as a parent. Appropriate “inequality” (or “differentiality” if you prefer a milder term), on the other hand, is not only fine but constitutes the height of good parenting. As they grow up (and certainly when they become parents themselves!) your children will understand why “she” used to get X, and “he” would receive Y from you instead. “To each according to their need,” opined Karl Marx. Perhaps that wasn’t and isn’t the best recipe for macro-economics, but it is absolutely the right way to parent, no matter what’s going on within our heart.

Identifying with One’s People: An Emotional Journey

I attended a modern Orthodox Jewish Day School from 1st through 8th grade, and then a similar high school. The secular education was quite good, and the Jewish part – at least from the standpoint of “do’s and don’ts” – wasn’t bad either. But something was missing, although I didn’t realize what until I went to college and took a course in Jewish History. For me, that’s when everything changed…

This essay is not about “Judaism” per se; it’s relevant to anyone and everyone of whatever ethnic, national or religious background – each with their own variation. But the underlying premise is the same: there is a difference between “knowing the rules” of your group and “feeling the connection”.

In those twelve years, I learned about the stories in the Bible; what a Jew is commanded to do; and how to study the sacred books. The approach was hyper-rational and didactic: this is what the Bible states; that is what the Talmud’s Rabbis argued. What was completely missing? Any real historical framework that would give “life” to those people and events of yesteryear. Sure, the Bible’s heroes were “heroic” (although each with flaws as well), but they existed in a world without socio-cultural context.

One central example: the Talmud (including the Mishnah) covers 500 years of history in the Land of Israel and Babylon, but not once were we taught that “this Rabbi lived in the 2nd century CE in Palestine” (the name given by the Romans), whereas “that Rabbi lived in Babylon in the 5th century CE”. In and of itself the specific “century” was not all that important; what is critical for understanding was the political, social and cultural milieu in which these rabbis worked and argued – and the impact of their environment on their argumentation and law rulings. To mix metaphors, this was teaching Jewish history and law from “Olympus” on high, and not within the messiness and complexity of real life, evolving over time.

In registering for that Jewish History course, I thought that I would be merely be filling in some lacunae in my knowledge. What I got was a double shock. First, I wasn’t missing a few pieces of knowledge; it was more like 450 pieces of a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle had gone AWOL without my knowing! Second, whatever I did “know” about Judaism was cut and dry, without much emotional resonance. Yes, I knew about the destruction of the two Temples – but more as a Fast day (the 9th of Av) with some specific prayers, than any flesh and blood detail about who, why, and how those catastrophes occurred.

The rest of Jewish history? The word “history” never arose in my 12 years of education; again, the Jewish calendar is taught as a litany of holidays and commandments, with almost no historical context (and certainly without questioning the extent to which “history” that was taught is actually accurate). But far more important, any event that did not have a place in the Jewish calendar was simply invisible: the 8th century BCE exile of ten (!) tribes, never to be seen again; Byzantine Emperor Theodosius’s persecution of the Jews in the Holy Land; periodic, Christian campaigns of mass conversion of Jews; Crusader pogroms through the mid-Middle Ages; the Spanish Inquisition; Chmielniki massacre of Polish and Ukranian Jews in 1648; the false messianic, Shabtai Zvi mass movement (most of Western European Jewry following his lead); and other significant, lugubrious events.

Of course, Jewish history is full of other, more positive (or “neutral”) developments, and these too were never mentioned: post-Temple Jewish Babylonian society with the “Rosh Golah” (Diaspora Head) opposite the Yeshiva rabbis; the various Jewish mass migrations from East to West, setting up huge, new communities in North Africa and later in Europe; the literary and commercial effervescence and affluence of Spanish Jewry under Moslem authority; Spinoza and later the Jewish Enlightenment (e.g. Moses Mendelssohn). And astoundingly completely missing from Jewish Day School (or modern yeshiva) education is Zionism, as this was largely a secular movement of national independence.

Confronting all this in my college course – the good, the bad, and the really ugly things in Jewish history – was a wrenching experience for me. When the emotional dust settled, I had a much greater appreciation of Jewish history. Far more important, I now had a greater visceral attachment to the Jewish people and my heritage. Judaism wasn’t only 613 Commandments; it was the product of a 3000-year journey from depths to heights and back again – over and over – each time with the Jews exhibiting the highest level of fortitude and adaptability in the face of some of the greatest challenges that any nation has ever faced. And still the Jews endure(d).

I started this essay with these words: “it’s relevant to anyone and everyone of whatever ethnic, national or religious background.” So I’ll end with an example. Today is Christmas. Why does it fall on the 25th of December? Indeed, why is Hanukkah also celebrated around this time of the year? (The Jewish calendar is lunar so that the “civic date” shifts by a few weeks back and forth every annum.) After all, the Maccabee revolt against the Seleucids went on for seven years; however, Hanukkah’s date does not celebrate the revolt but rather the rededication of the Temple when its Menorah was relit. The answer to both these questions is the same: throughout the ancient (pagan) world the 25th of December was celebrated as the first day that it was possible to see that the sun actually “regenerating”, i.e., until Dec. 21 the days got shorter and shorter – only four days later could it be discerned that the days started getting longer and “the world was saved”.

That’s why Hanukkah is celebrated mainly as the holiday of LIGHTS!! That’s why Jesus was (supposedly) born on that day, as the harbinger of a “new era”. Both these religions understood that in order to survive they had to “piggyback” on the pagan world’s age-old holiday festivals.

Does this “cheapen” Hanukkah? In my opinion, quite the reverse. It is but one example of many as to how Judaism over the millenia adapted to the exigencies of the time, turning something “unholy Gentile” (a superstitious belief in the Sun’s demise) into a holy celebration of national independence and religious rededication. (The Christians, in their completely different way, did this too. And if already on the topic: why is New Year’s on Jan. 1? That’s eight days after Dec. 25 – when Jewish Jesus had his brit milah [circumcision]! Christians too need to understand their religious connection to Judaism – not just to paganism.)

In sum, a true emotional connection to one’s people – whether religious or national – can only arise from a deeper and especially wider historical comprehension of who they were and why, i.e., with what our forebears had to contend. It is only through such an understanding that we too today will be better able to deal with the newer challenges that our people face.