Prof. Sam: Reflections on (a) Life

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My father Arthur Wilzig was born in 1910 in the tiny Polish-German (the nationality depended on the era) town Krojanke; my mother Jenny Weinreb (1925), in Hamburg, Germany, moving to Berlin at age 2. From there the “wandering Jew” syndrome took over for both: he moved to Cuba in 1936 (where there was a large Polish-Jewish expat community, fleeing the Polish pogroms in the mid-20’s), and she escaped from Nazi Germany in 1939 to Lisbon, and from there to a British-run refugee camp in Jamaica, and from there to Cuba in 1944, where she met my father who by then was Vice Chairman of the Joint Distribution Committee, greeting Jewish refugees in his official capacity. They married in 1946 and I was conceived in Cuba in late 1948, when they immigrated to the U.S. with me in utero – making me a truly “international baby” (1949). No surprise, then, that 28 years later I too moved halfway round the world to Israel. But more on all this later… 

This is not a memoir. I might have lived a fairly interesting life – interesting, that is, to me and perhaps a few loved ones – but certainly not enough to entice a wider audience than that. Rather, I am using certain aspects of my life as a diving board to jump into some deeper ruminative waters that I trust will be of interest to many people. Each “chapter” starts with (or includes) a short personal event or happenstance – and from there I delve into what I believe is the “larger, more universal meaning” that others can learn from these. Thus, you need not read these in order – it’s altogether fine to cherry-pick the ones whose title and topic catch your fancy.

Obviously, I have no pretensions to completeness or comprehensiveness. A person can live only a very small number of the life possibilities afforded by modern society. But within that circumscribed life, each of us comes up against many of the same problems, issues, dilemmas, and other choices that make living in our era so challenging (and interesting). It is to these aspects that I devote my attention here – indirectly suggesting some of what made, and makes, me who I (S)am.

Which leads to my first warning: I love puns, and am known in my circle of friends as being a real groan-up. I’ll try not to overdo it here, but as I really do not have any addictions, let this be my worst vice.

Indeed, if you didn’t notice, the title of this series is a pun (I just did this twice: the first and also the last time I explain a pun of mine). As suggested earlier, I am trying to do two things here: reflect on life in general through specific mirror reflections of things that I have done or that happened to me. These are not necessarily the most important things in my life, but rather events that set me thinking about important issues of living in general.

The reader will very quickly discover that I have very wide-ranging knowledge in quite a number of disparate disciplines. To use Isaiah Berlin’s terminology, I am not a hedgehog (digging deep in one field) but rather a fox (moving hither and thither to gather food – for thought, in my case – among several fields).

“Wide-ranging knowledge”? Doesn’t that sound somewhat conceited? Forthrightly, I have tried my very best in this book to be completely honest about myself for better and for worse. You will read about several of my “accomplishments” but also discover a not inconsiderable number of “failures”. Temperamentally, I am very averse to telling anyone what I really think about them; but I have no problem doing the same about myself. As we grow older, we prefer less and less to look at the mirror image of our physical visage, understandably so; however, maturity demands of us to metaphorically look into the mirror about who we really are. If I have succeeded in anything, it is this willingness to see my character warts and try to smooth them over, if not eliminate them altogether. Why and how – I leave that for later elucidation.

And now for a few “apologies”:

1) Everything here will be the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth. We all have “dark secrets” – some very significant and evil, others minor and simply non-normative. Although “letting it all hang out” seems to be the new zeitgeist in our social-network-driven world, I come from the old school believing that there should be clear limits to self-baring selfies. Indeed, it would be better if we spelled the word “sell-fees” because in trying to sell ourselves there is usually a heavy price to pay down the road.

Moreover, many things in our life involve others – spouse, children etc – so that their privacy and feelings have to be taken into account, even if the memoirist was willing to “bare all”. This is not a “bug” of any (auto)biography but rather part of the code. Just as a newspaper editor will not let the reporter write a 5000-word description of yesterday’s event that includes every minute detail (and even some, not so minute), so too the (auto)biographer has to be selective in what to display. But again, this book is not an autobiography in the classic sense; rather, it’s a vehicle for significant life ruminations based on selected elements of my far less significant life.

2) Some people tell me I have an annoying habit of writing with too many parenthetical asides (the ones inside parentheses, just like this one). This could be annoying, but there are two good reasons for this.

a- I have been trained to think “associatively” (or maybe I was simply born that way?), and coupled with my wide range of knowledge, I see (too?) many connections between seemingly disparate facts and phenomena. I could put these into footnotes – but as an academic I have had more than my fill of that!

b- Details, details: too often readers misconstrue or misunderstand (or are simply confused by) a comment without sufficient context or explanation; I prefer to err on the side of “over-explanation” so that you don’t err in understanding what I write.

3) As an academic, I know full well the importance of “sourcing”: where does this fact come from? who said it or verified it? is it speculative or proven? On the other hand, as a reader of much academic work I am also aware of how all this can complicate and even undermine comprehension, especially for (even highly educated) lay readers. So I shall forego citations, sourcing and other academic paraphernalia. In the age of Prof. Google (Scholar), it is quite easy to find relevant sources for any idea, argument, theory, factoid and the like. If any idea among my ruminations strikes your curiosity bone, feel free to do some intellectual detective work by yourself. What I reflect, you are welcome to refract….