Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Triple Play

The Mishnah rather dolefully ordains that once the month of Av begins, we are already bidden to adopt some outer trappings of mournful regret so as to get in the right mood for Tisha Be’av. (The fast day commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem falls nine days later, on the ninth of the month.)  Later, the talmudic sage Rav embraced that idea—what could be more Jewish than getting an early jump on being miserable?—but added to it a far less depressive corollary: that just as we are to make despondent our demeanor and behavior once Av commences, so, once the month of Adar begins, are we to increase the outward signs of joyful celebration connected with the festival of Purim. That sounds more like it!

We’re into Adar now, albeit the first of two that this year brings. And Purim, the “first” Adar technically being the additional one, falls during the second Adar and so is invariably a month before Pesach regardless of how many months there may be in any particular year. So we’re not quite up to singing Purim songs in the Nursery School yet…but we’re getting there. And we’ll start soon enough telling the story of Purim too, both to our Nursery School children and also in the Hebrew School. It sounds like it should be fun. It even is fun, but it’s also a challenge each year to find a way to tell the joyous tale of Purim without mentioning en passant that the story begins with a vicious madman attempting to exploit his influence on the king of Persia to arrange for the brutal annihilation of the entire Jewish population of the empire, as the Megillah itself notes, “from youth to elder, including babes and women.” It seems a little heavy for three-year-olds.

I invariably see two paths before me: I can either omit mentioning Haman’s plans (in which case the rest of the story basically makes no sense) or I can water it down to “he didn’t much care for Jewish people” or even “he was just a big bully who couldn’t stand not getting his way” (which basically makes the whole thing sound more like Haman was planning a schoolyard fracas than a proto-Shoah). What I never quite feel comfortable doing is telling the story like it is, maniacal plans to murder an entire Jewish community not only not omitted but highlighted as the essential foundation upon which the rest of the story rests. Our teachers don’t even like it much when I sing the “real” words to “Once There Was A Wicked, Wicked Man” and get to the part about Haman “trying to murder all the Jews, though they were not to blame, sir.”

An outsider might think this issue is “about” Purim. But that outsider would be wrong…which would become obvious if he or she were to return to school a month later and hear me trying to tell the story of the Exodus without mentioning the death of the firstborn sons of Egypt “from the firstborn of Pharaoh seated upon his throne to the firstborn son of a maidservant hiding behind her mill.”  At least Tisha Be’av falls during the summer, which means that I don’t generally need to explain to children the part in Eichah in which Jeremiah describes the populace of Jerusalem so demented by hunger and thirst that they descended, among other things, to cannibalism.

These are our stories, the tales that rest at the root of our worldview, of our understanding of the specific way that the present functions as a kind of evanescent boundary between history and destiny. They all have at their core two thoughts, each equally essential: we face extreme hostility but we always prevail. (Or at least we always have prevailed!)  And they both appear so essential to our sense of who we are that even when they would otherwise be absent, we make a special effort to introduce them. The horrific story of the death of the ten martyrs doesn’t really have anything to do with Yom Kippur. But what would the Musaf Service on Yom Kippur be without a vivid description of the unimaginably horrific deaths suffered by Rabbi Akiba and the other sages? And then, as if reading about the Romans skinning Rabbi Akiba like a hunter might a rabbit weren’t enough, we now have a new High Holiday prayerbook at Shelter Rock, one that brings into the mix the misery of the Jews of the Rhineland during the Crusades, the Jews of Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition, and the Jews of Europe during the Shoah. Machzor Lev Shalem is brand new. But even as a child, I found myself drawn—and simultaneously repulsed—by the story Rabbi Bokser included in his version of the Musaf Service about the ninety-three young Jewish women in wartime Warsaw, teachers in a Beis Yaakov school there, who chose suicide over being forced to submit to the carnal depravity of their German overlords. It was all I could think about for most of the time I sat there as a child—old enough to read but not quite old enough to know how to process such a story—as the nine-year-old me sat in shul huddled up against my father’s tallis and wondered what in the world this whole Jewish thing was really about and why exactly I felt so drawn to it.

And now we have the answer! Or not the answer to the question of the nine-year-old me about the ninety-three maidens exactly, but the larger question: is this kind of endless focusing on the horrors of the past good for the Jews or not? I’m not even sure I would have phrased the question that way…until I read the other day that Amy Chua, whose book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother caused such a huge sensation when it came out in 2011, is now publishing a new book, co-authored with her husband Jed Rubenfeld, about an even more non-P.C. topic than the superior child-raising techniques of Chinese-American families: the specific reasons for which some ethnic groups in the United States consistently outperform other ones. 

In this land of opportunity, this is not at all what any of us wants to hear. We want to believe that no groups are favored here, that the opportunities offered to children from one ethnic, racial, religious, or cultural group are identical to those available to all. Clearly, that isn’t true. But even though we all know and more or less accept that wealthy school districts are permitted (by law, I mean) to provide more for the students in their charge than poorer ones, we bristle at the thought that potential is tied to more than money. But that notion in turn only makes the question that this new book, called The Triple Package and published this week by Penguin Press, tries to answer more interesting: if we labor so assiduously to provide the same basic set of opportunities to all, why do some groups regularly outperform others. The authors write about Mormons, about the Miami Cubans, about Igbo Nigerian immigrants, about Indian and Chinese Americans…and, yes, about us, about Jewish Americans.  People don’t know what to do with these statistics partially because they feel more than a bit racially-motivated. It’s obviously more complicated than that, yet the data gathered seems to suggest clearly that the statistics are real and that membership in some groups simply does appear to provide a path towards academic success or, particularly, success in business that other groups do not, or perhaps cannot, provide. And the authors, both professors of law at Yale, have set out to figure out why that is.

I won’t spoil the pleasure of reading the book for you. But I will say that it boils down to three things that all the groups that overachieve seem to have in common: a long, keenly felt history of victimization, an enduring, almost indelible sense of superiority, and the kind of remarkable stick-to-it-iveness that encourages working towards long-time goals over short-term ones. One way or the other, then, those three things—insecurity, arrogance, and the ability to favor the long view over the short one almost always—seem to constitute the triple threat that propels groups that have it to success and inhibits success in groups that lack it.  Other than the ability to work for long-term goals, these are not especially flattering traits. And yet the authors feel that it is all that the Igbos, the Mormons, the Miami Cubans, the Jews, and the other groups they identify as peculiarly successful have in common.

I don’t know many Mormons or Igbos. But when I apply these conclusions to our community…I find myself drawn back to my childhood. I think about the stories I was told in school and at home—tales of Pharaohs and Hamans, stories about the barbarism of the Crusaders, about the cruelty of Ferdinand and Isabella, about the horrors of the Cossack massacres of 1648 and 1649, about terrors of the Shoah—and I wonder if they didn’t provide that background of insecurity that Chua and Rubenfeld identify as one of the pillars of success. The second pillar—confidence born of an innate sense of superiority to one’s tormentors—that was also a feature of my Hebrew School education: each tale of disaster finished with our teacher—I remember particularly Mrs. Tripkowitz and Mrs. Bergman in this regard—with the teacher triumphantly pointing out that even despite the savagery and brutality to which our people were subjected by their oppressors…it was we, not they, who survived. They, we were endlessly reminded, are actually all gone. The ancient Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Syrian Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Inquisitors, the Cossacks, the Nazis—all gone forever from the stage of history while our tiny people, the victims of unparalleled brutality at the hands of all of the above, endure throughout history as one after another of our foes perishes and vanishes. Was it that combination of victimhood and confidence that yielded the stick-to-it-iveness that in turn led to the remarkable success of so many Jewish Americans?  It’s hard to say…although I have to admit that there is something in the argument that is very resonant with me. I’ll read the book and report back to you! And if you read it, I’d love to know what you think too.

Can it last? Other than the Mormons, all the “triple package” groups the authors identify are primarily immigrant groups. That specific self-conception—as strangers in a strange land—cannot survive more than a generation or two. As we think of ourselves less and less as an immigrant group, will our remarkable number of Oscars and Nobels diminish concomitantly? I suppose we’ll find out soon enough!

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