On Being Jewish
I just finished a book I could not put down until the last page: Treblinka, by Jean-Francois Steiner. Originally published in French in 1966, it has been translated into 16 languages. Simon & Schuster first published the English translation in 1967.
The book is a kind of diary of what happened in Treblinka, the extermination camp where nearly one million Jews were gassed and their bodies burned to ashes to erase all traces of the atrocities. Among the victims were my grandmother, grandfather, three uncles, three aunts, and numerous cousins.
What I found extraordinary were the author’s insights about the essence of the Jewish psyche—of being Jewish.
Often, in reading a book, you find that one valuable sentence justifies having read the other hundreds of pages. This book offers a lot more than one sentence.
Take the following, from a passage in which the author explains why most Jews—millions of them—went to their deaths without a fight.
Here is his explanation: “It is not truth that mattered the most, but hope.”
This sentence explained many of the mysteries I have encountered in trying to understand Jewish behavior in general.
On one hand, we Jews debate any item with passion, turning the subject over and over, attacking it from every angle as if committed to finding the absolute, undeniable truth. (Which, by the way, we never do find, even though we’ve been arguing for thousands of years)
But this behavior pertains to the intellectual realm. When the subject is of personal or emotional significance, we do the opposite: We bury our heads in the sand, refusing to recognize reality (truth), and clinging to hope beyond rationality.
When I ask Israelis what their plan is for dealing with a complicated problem, often the typical answer is: “Yihye beseder”—“Everything will be all right.” Period. “Just relax; it will be fine!!!”
There is a story about Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel. Asked if he hoped for miracles to keep Israel alive, he replied: “IN ISRAEL, IN ORDER TO BE A REALIST YOU MUST BELIEVE IN MIRACLES.” (INTERVIEW ON CBS, 5 OCTOBER 1956)
On Passover night for thousands of years, every Jew recites, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Even if he is in a dungeon, sentenced to die the next morning: “Next year in Jerusalem.”
And what is the song sung in synagogues world wide, that Israel adopted as its national anthem? “Hatikvah”!—“The Hope.” And here is the refrain (English translation):
“Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Israel has been free for more than sixty years, and yet we are still singing that refrain. What do we hope for now?
Hope is related to faith—faith that no matter what, we will survive.
Here is the most famous passage of the Old Testament’s 23rd Psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I have no fear, because God is with me.”
We are the chosen people. We will survive. Hope, always hope, and faith will dominate our behavior—not the reality of how desperate the situation might be.
On one hand, hope has beneficial value, because we never yield; we never surrender to despair. But on the other hand, an unrealistic hope lulls many of us into a false state of security. As a result, we do not react in a timely fashion to the dangers facing us. As an example, most Jews did not fight back when they were forced into the gas chambers. They did not escape on time. We clung to any sign of hope, no matter how improbable. Are we better now, more realistic in our behavior?
Another sentence in Treblinka reinforced my experiences working as a consultant for Israeli and many other Jewish companies. Steiner referred to “the typical Jewish quality of always looking for the hardest way, always wanting to do better, never being satisfied with the possible, and undertaking against all odds what is logically impossible.”
This might explain why our ratio of Nobel Prize-winners per capita is the highest in the world. But it has its emotional liabilities.
It is not easy consulting to Jewish companies. They always claim to know better, are never satisfied with what I or they or we or anyone else did. There is always someone who says, “Yes, but you could also have …”
Jews are the hardest to make a decision with because they always see more facets to a problem than are necessary to solve it. They enjoy the type of debate called pilpul (derived from the word pilpel—or pepper, for the sharp intellectual battle you wage to prove your point), which they engage in for its own sake, the sake of sharpening their argumentative capabilities, not necessarily for solving the problem.
In the United States, I find that my non-Jewish clients take a complicated problem and work on simplifying it in order to solve it.
My Jewish clients—anywhere in the world—do the opposite. They take a simple problem and through endless debate make it so complicated that often it looks like it is, more than it is necessary, too complicated to solve.
Results are not what excite them. On the contrary, it is the pilpul, the debate, and the process of seeing all angles plus one of any issue that they enjoy.
The result of it all is that we are never satisfied, never content for too long. To be satisfied, apparently, is anathema to being Jewish.
I strongly recommend this book. Read it and form your own judgment. I hope to hear your reactions.