“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. 

Why Are Individual Humans Complex?

My thinking is “out-of-the-box”; my behavior is distinctly conservative. How can that be? I am an irrepressible punster; an original problem-solver; an unorthodox thinker. Conversely, I dress conservatively, follow rules and the law to the letter, have never used any drugs (or even smoked cigarettes) – in short, my actions are very “yekke” (German for a stickler). What accounts for people being so “inconsistent”?

This is not about “me” as Sam. I am simply using myself as someone representative of most of humanity in general. The question is: why are people so “complicated”, even “contradictory”?

Obviously, every person is “complex” in a different way. Some are conservative thinkers but act radically. Others are “off-beat” in one area of life but quite “straight” in other areas. Still others stick to all the social rules of the game in their lifestyle, but deep-down dream of other ways of living. The combinations are almost endless.

Why should this be? The question itself is interesting because one can easily turn it around: why would we think otherwise? The answer to that is the fact that when we look at almost all other species in the animal kingdom, we find a conservative regularity; birds don’t crawl, snakes don’t fly, ants have no individuality, and so on. Their behavior seems to be “wholistic” in nature (and in Nature). If we too are part of the natural world, why should we be different (from other species – and most important, from other humans)? But we are.

What makes us different (in both directions) is “culture”, i.e., the ability to communicate with each other and expand our knowledge of the natural world and each other. Over the eons, this enabled us to sustain ourselves without having to find food non-stop (anthropologists estimate that hunter-gatherers “worked” only about 3-4 hours a day), leaving ample time for “leisure”. Back then that probably meant telling stories around the campfire; creating ornaments; etc. In short, broadening our horizons – with new physical artifacts and also novel thoughts, intellectual ideas, and perspectives. Still later, we started expanding our social horizons – villages, towns, cities, states, empires – and that led to markedly different ways of living and thinking, as greater human density meant greater intellectual cross-pollination. Ultimately, we spanned (and communicated/traded across) the entire globe. As opposed to homo sapiens, African tigers don’t “talk” to Bengali tigers; they each stay mostly in their own habitat, and if there are any behavioral differences between these two “cousin species” (based on climatic, environmental and topographical differences) they won’t transfer one to the other, even if by chance they do meet up.

From a physical standpoint, humans look pretty much the same: two eyes, two ears, and so on. The real difference is found in our brain that has two main functions: consciously thinking thoughts and unconsciously controlling most bodily functions (you don’t usually think to breathe and certainly not to keep your heart beating). It’s conscious thought that makes all the difference – even to the extent that, for example, people born without arms have incredibly dexterity in their toes; the brain simply finds another “outlet” to do what the body needs to do!

However, what truly makes the human brain stand out is its multifaceted elements. It might look like one 3-pound piece of wet meat, but the human brain is actually a modular machine with numerous parts, each of which works on a different aspect of our “reality”. There are sections for receiving and interpreting inputs from the external world: perception; other parts do the rational thinking; an important sector runs our emotions; then there’s a section that filters thoughts and emotions so that not everything we feel or think comes out of our mouth.

It is here that we return to the original question: how can people be so different? Easy: one section of the brain does not necessarily have to be consistent with another. There are people so emotional that their rational side gets lost; others whose rational thought suppresses their emotions; still other humans whose perceptual apparatus works in weird ways (look up “synesthesia”: https://www.healthline.com/health/synesthesia); and so on. The various permutations and combinations of our brain’s “modules” are almost endless – ergo, people’s thoughts and behaviors differ widely.

The irony in all this is that we tend to judge a person by externalities: how good looking/pretty s/he is, how tall, their skin color, muscles, body size (lithe or heavy), etc. But the real “action” (insofar as differences are concerned) hide hidden away within our skull.

“Hold on!” you are probably asking: what about that “culture” mentioned earlier? Are people different because of their brain biology or because of their social environment: parental upbringing, formal education, peer socialization etc? The answer is “both”. However, we do not come into this world as a tabula rasa on which society can “write” whatever it wants to form our personality; we start out with a particular brain in all its complex modularity. Our social environment can indeed “mold” that brain to an extent, but such an influence is severely restricted by the particular biology of the baby’s (and growing adolescent’s) brain. Scientists are still arguing about the degree of Nature vs Nurture, but no one doubts that both are important in what makes me “me”.

In short, you probably know several “weird” people. But they’re not actually strange; rather, they are as complex as you are – just in different ways, and it’s not always easy for you (or anyone) to understand what makes that person tick. It’s only relatively easy to understand ourself: if you want to know why “you” are a complex person, first look in the mirror (at your head), and then go outside and survey your social environment. Given the innumerable elements that go into making “you” you, it’s actually pretty surprising that you actually are at least somewhat similar to other people! So try focusing more on how other individuals are similar to you, and less on how they’re different. We’re all “different” from each other in some ways, but that’s precisely what makes us all similar: we’re complex humans.

MEeting the “Enemy”

In my early 20’s, after many summers spent in Orthodox summer camps, I was hired by the Conservative Movement’s Ramah Camp to be its Sports Director in one of their camps. There I met a young woman (for the sake of her privacy, I’ll here call her Toni), who I started “dating” in camp. She was nothing like most girls/women I had ever met – very serious about religion and other social issues. We had many discussions, among other matters about “feminism” – something completely alien to someone like me, a product of Jewish Orthodox education through high school. After a month, she told me her not so secret “secret”: she was a lesbian. Didn’t I say “nothing like most girls/women I had ever met”?

No, that’s not a misprint in the title. It does say “MEeting” (I’ll end this essay with another “misprint” – something to look forward to…)

Almost everyone – except perhaps for children of diplomats and military officers moving from country to country every few years – spend all their youth growing up in much the same social milieu, even if they move once or twice to a different city. That provides comfort, for we quickly learn who’s who, how to behave, what is expected of us, and most of all: what’s “normal”. The downside, of course, is that such a milieu is a social bubble; we basically have no idea how other social groups and certainly different cultural enclaves live their lives and what they consider to be important or “acceptable”.

Frankly, this is especially true and problematic for citizens of large countries and/or countries that are mostly separated territorially from the rest of the world. Those two elements characterize Americans more than any other significant nation on the planet. If you’ve never seen it, look up Sternberg’s famous New Yorker cartoon cover; it even has its own Wikipedia page! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_of_the_World_from_9th_Avenue

It is also true for very cohesive social groups (religious, ethnic etc) – Orthodox Jews among them. This is not necessarily negative; that cultural self-ghettoization has enabled the Jewish People to survive longer than any other national culture on the face of the Earth (Chinese culture as we understand it today goes back “only” 2500 years to Confucius). But it does leave the average individual within that cultural enclave pretty clueless about other ways of life. Like I was.

It might seem that there isn’t much of a cultural gap between modern Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism. (As an aside: as a matter of fact, theologically [not sociologically] there isn’t that great a difference; one could somewhat simplistically but still truthfully argue that modern Orthodoxy is today’s Beit Shammai and the Conservative approach to halakha [Jewish law] is Beit Hillel. The former school [from 2000 years ago] was very strict in its interpretation of the law, whereas the latter were far more lenient and flexible. Interestingly – something that many Orthodox today have forgotten – the final decision on what was to be done was almost always according to Beit Hillel!) But the milieu from which Orthodox Jews emerge is quite constricted, as opposed to Conservative Jews who tend to live in less homogeneously Jewish enclaves.

So when I met Toni, it was a religio-cultural “oil and water” interaction (I guess, sometimes opposites do attract). My first shock: she wore a kippah (skullcap) all the time – something that back in the 1970s was unheard of (at least for me). The second shock: she put on tefillin (phylacteries) every morning! Ensuing discussions about what this was all about were not exactly shocking to me, but were certainly eye-opening. In a word – which I had read about, and only understood in very general terms – “feminism”.

It’s hard to say exactly why this deeply influenced my thinking. In retrospect, I can speculate about possible reasons: ancient Jewish law actually treated women quite well for the “norms” of that age; Judaism has always placed social justice at a high normative level; I never viewed girls as inferior (indeed, in the 8th grade at graduation I was voted Most Popular Boy, even though not one boy voted for me – I seemed to be one of the few boys who spoke to my classmate girls as equals); and finally, although my mother was never a “feminist”, she had several professional lives that were decidedly not of the “stay-at-home” garden variety: the first woman diamond cutter in Havana (back then, one of the world’s diamond centers), and in America an assistant fashion designer to one of Seventh Avenue’s leading designers, Bob McKintosh. So, while the idea of modern feminism was beyond my ken, the practice (and Jewish antecedent) perhaps smoothed the way to my “natural” acceptance of the whole basket.

I have been a strong feminist since (my revised surname is testament to that – a story for another day). Indeed, other than my wife Tami, without doubt Toni influenced me for the long term more than any other female in my life (Moms aren’t included in this regard). This is because her influence went far beyond teaching me what feminism is all about. Rather, the experience was an “education” in the real sense of the term. The main lesson: keep one’s eyes and ears open for other ways of thinking and living. Of course, this does not in any way mean that one has to (or should) accept and adopt those dissimilar perspectives and (sorry for this big word, but English doesn’t have a real parallel) different weltanschauungen.

What’s the value, then, of opening up to other ways of life? First, additive: we can learn about new things or other ways of thinking. Second, refractive: it’s a mirror to our own way of doing things, i.e. forcing us to consider whether everything we’re used to doing makes sense. And third, it improves our social intelligence – better understanding and tolerance of “strange” things that others might be saying/doing. For instance, different cultures have different conceptions of “social distance”: Latins (southern Europe and South America) tend to stand very close to each other when conversing; Anglos keep a significant distance. When the two get together without understanding the other’s culture, Latins consider Anglos to be weak and offputting for not getting up close, whereas the reverse has the latter considering the former to be “pushy” and aggressive for constantly “invading my space”.

Back to Toni and feminism. Why would I use the word “enemy” in the title of this essay? Because in Orthodox circles, anyone of another Jewish “sect” was (and certainly in Israel, still is) considered to be a dangerous “enemy” – the Conservative movement perhaps even more so than Reform Judaism, precisely because the former adheres to the same general basis: halakha. In any case, meeting such an “enemy” in Toni, not only showed me how absurd such theological demonization can be, but also constituted a life lesson in listening to different ideas, opinions and practices – even if ultimately one does not necessarily accept (parts of) that way of living.

The bottom line: in life when we come across a person who is “strange” or even seemingly “threatening” (our values, not physically) – what sociologists call “the other” – we should stop and think. Perhaps what we need to face is ourselves: the eneME?

Body and Brain

As far back as I can recall, I loved (and relatively excelled in) athletics. I have kept this up through the years: tennis (until my shoulder started aching in my 50s) and basketball still today (my early 70s). As all athletes know, sports activity is a mood enhancer – you feel great after working up a sweat. But who would have thought that intensive physical activity could also be a brain-intellect enhancer? Well, recent research has discovered some very interesting things about the body-brain connection…

We can start at the very beginning. Eons ago, our forefathers and foremothers did lots of walking, running, and other physical activities just to stay alive – mostly in the hunt for meat. (Yes, women too; it was reported recently that female bones were found buried with full hunting paraphernalia.) So, it stands to reason that the human body would evolve in such a way as to prioritize the ability to move quickly and for long distances – the better “proto-athletes” had a better chance of survival, and thus more progeny.

If hominids have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, and homo sapiens for one or two hundred thousand, then “modern” humans – the sedentary ones sitting in office all day, or worse, “couch potatoing” in front of a screen of one sort or another – are not doing what our body was designed for.

However, it turns out that not all types of “exercise” are equal. Let’s take a simple comparison: running on a treadmill vs. jogging in the park. The former is excellent for keeping your body in aerobic shape – good for your heart, arteries, and some leg and arm muscles. But the brain? No benefit there. On the other hand (or leg), running outdoors is different – especially for the brain. The reason is simple. On a treadmill, there isn’t much thinking we have to do; it becomes almost automatic – one leg in front of the other, on and on…. But outside? We have to keep track of the following: not tripping on some hole or object on the ground; where we are going (to avoid getting lost, or how to get back to where we started); not bumping into other people or a pole. We are also receiving far more stimuli: birdsong, animals scooting around, people doing interesting things, flowers blooming, etc.

In short, when we’re running outside, we are basically copying the same experience our fore-parents underwent, thereby keeping not only their bodies fit, but their brains as well. Indeed, to continue the “evolutionary” description I mentioned earlier, those who exercised their mind in the long hunt were also evolving in a positive, cognitive direction – and not just improving their physical capabilities.

What about sports? Is the above description also germane to competitive sports? Is the sky blue?? If anything, competitive sports is even more brain-enhancing than running outdoors. Just think (pun intended) of everything a sport demands of the player: cooperate with teammates (in group sports), follow the direction of a ball and coordinate the body with its movement (catch the ball, hit it, kick it etc.), think of our next tactical move within a broader strategy – all this while running around and not being certain of our opponent’s next counter-move!

Many athletes are vaguely aware that competitive sports are not merely a physical activity but demand mental exercise as well. However, until very recently, no one was able to show that such physical activity had a highly positive effect on our brain in the long run. Now researchers have begun to do controlled experiments with people, using MRI brain scans to test “before” and “after” effects (usually mid-term – a few weeks – and not one-time exercise) to see what happens in the brain. Without boring you with the neurological details, it turns out that consistent athletic/sports activity of the type I described here improves our memory and general cognitive functioning – indeed, it can slow down or even hold back gradual dementia!

And please don’t say “it’s too late for me, I’ve been sedentary all my life”. It turns out that it is never too late to start exercising. Sure, you’re not going to win any Olympic medal at this stage of your life, but in the “race of life” you can certainly extend your own “finish line”! That’s quantitatively (lifespan) and qualitatively (brain and body functioning).

How much time does one have to “invest” in this? For medium exercise (e.g. fast walking – break a sweat, get the heart rate up just a bit), 150 minutes a week; for intense exercise (e.g. running, full court basketball), 75 minutes a week – that’s a mere 10-12 minutes a day!

Too much “work” for you to keep your brain in shape? Then consider this: in 2016, a large-scale study found that very active people were much less likely to develop thirteen different types of cancer than people who rarely moved! Indeed, an ever more recent research study (American College of Sports Medicine) discovered that regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing some cancers by as much as 69 percent – and also might improve the outcome of cancer treatments, thereby extending cancer patients’ lifespan!! If you want to read more, see this: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/11/well/move/how-exercise-might-affect-immunity-to-lower-cancer-risk.html?surface=home-discovery-vi-prg&fellback=false&req_id=652281408&algo=identity&imp_id=710516562&action=click&module=Science%20%20Technology&pgtype=Homep

Ah yes, one more thing to consider: exercise also aids in losing weight – another life extender. But that’s a topic for a different day. For now, I trust I’ve given you some food for thought with regard to the connection between exercise/sports and mental/bodily health.