JEWISH GENIUS

For me, the last Shabbat of 2019 began with a bang. In those early morning hours, prior to setting out for the weekly Torah class preceding services, my eyes did a double-take as I scanned the op-ed articles in that day’s New York Times. I was immediately taken by The Secrets of Jewish Genius. Written by Bret Stephens, a Jewish Journalists, the article shows a lopsided representation of Ashkenazic Jews as far as Nobel Prize Winners in Science (27percent) and recipients of ACM Turing awards (25 percent). The latter is an annual prize given by the Association for Computing Machinery to an individual selected for contributions “of lasting and major technical importance to the computer field”. Mr. Stephens could have justifiably pointed out similar lopsided Jewish representation in the fields of Accounting, Law, and Medicine.

Although my reading tastes rarely include novels, I immediately thought back to Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, where the fictional Chasidic Reb Saunders delivers a soliloquy against the Jewish mind. Having had a brother in pre-war Europe who was arguably one of the most brilliant minds ever to come into this world (this mattered not one iota to the Nazis who herded that brother along with six million other Jews of varying IQs into the gas chamber), Reb Saunders cries that better minds will in no way guarantee a better world. There was no shortage of brilliant, albeit diabolical minds among Nazi leadership. What the world needs, lamented Reb Saunders is not Jewish minds, but Jewish souls! I take no issue whatsoever with Bret Stephen’s op-ed. I cry from within, however, wondering when Bret Stephens or any other journalist – Jewish or non-Jewish – will ever write, or perhaps better stated, will ever have any reason to write an article about the Jewish soul.

Our Rabbinic sages fumbled when it came to what could have been one of the most meaningful prayers of the day, leaving the editor of the siddur to drop the ball altogether.  “My G-d! The soul you placed within me is pure. You created it. You fashioned it. You breathed it into me…”

Known to us as Elohei Neshamah, it is beyond me, why there is no mention anywhere in this prayer, about appreciation on our parts for this divinely entrusted soul, tailor-made for each and every human being brought into this world. It escapes me why we are not challenged to take that soul and put it to the best use possible. For the life of me, I fail to understand why the prayer Elohei Neshamah segues into the litany of morning blessings at the beginning of daily Shacharit services, for bleary-eyed worshippers to mumble through. If focus on HaShem and His goodness along with His tender mercies is integral to our daily existence, shouldn’t focus on our G-d given soul, so that it too be a source of goodness and tender mercies, be given top billing as well?
 
In my book “The Right Word”, I pointed out the difference between an obituary and a eulogy. I stressed that the former tells us that a person has died; the latter tells us that a person has lived. I should like to point out yet another difference between the two. An obituary informs us about the individual’s accomplishments and acuity. Whether telling us that the deceased was CEO of a major company or president of the P.T.A., an obituary emphasizes the mind of an individual. A eulogy, on the other hand, is about the individual’s influence and impact. Whether telling us how the deceased was a veritable Will Rogers who never met a person he/she didn’t like or how the deceased volunteered at the Police Station every Christmas day to express appreciation for Officers of the Law, a eulogy emphasizes the soul of an individual. So too inscriptions found on grave monuments. The next time you are at a cemetery, take a few moments to read the epitaphs on these monuments.  Do those inscriptions focus in on the mind or the soul of the individual?

As we welcome 2020, in addition to looking at accomplishments of the past year, let us also look forward to a year of care and concern for others. As important as it is to live smarter, it is crucial that we live better. If we can make that happen, then perhaps there will come a time when Bret Stephens or another journalist will write an op-ed about The Secrets of a Jewish Soul.



HAPPY HEART

Typically, a visit to Israel for me consists of visiting relatives as well as taking in the sites. There were three sites I took in during this most recent trip, two of which I was totally unprepared for.

After dining at a pricey restaurant in Tel Aviv last Thursday night (not my style), rather than hail a cab, Shirah and I opted to embark on a 15 minute walk to the Arlozorov bus station to catch a bus back to Jerusalem (very much my style.) En route, we encountered a daughter pushing her elderly mother in a wheelchair. In all likelihood, the mother had sustained a stroke, given her unintelligible speech. It was however evident, that the mother had taken an immediate shine to me, in that she reached out to me with her good arm. Hand in hand,we walked for about 5 minutes, as I made small talk with the daughter. The daughter informed me that her mother’s native tongue was French. With the bus station across the street, it was time for daughter and mother to go their own way as well. Thereupon, I took the hand I had been holding, pressed it to my lips, turned to the mother and said, “Tres enchantez. Bon soir!” The smile on the mother’s face along with the smile on the daughter’s face was only equaled by the smile on my heart, knowing that I had made a difficult situation just that much better, even if it was only for a mere 5 minutes.

The bus to Jerusalem was already boarding. I handed the driver a 50 Shekel bill and said, “Two for Jerusalem.” “You’ll have to take your seats. You’re blocking the door. You can pay me later,” said the bus driver. Shirah and I took our seats and settled in for the 45 minute trip to Jerusalem. Upon arrival, I suggested to Shirah that we wait until everybody was off the bus, lest I hold anyone up as I paid the driver for the trip. “I owe you for the two of us,” I explained to the driver. “Look, I’m tired,” said the bus driver. “On your next trip to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, you’ll pay double.” Never in my life had this ever happened to me before! There was no way the bus driver could have known what transpired between me and the woman in the wheel chair. Was it an immediate reward from HaShem? But haven’t I taught any number of times, that HaShem does not interfere in interpersonal behavior, whether it be good or bad? And so, rather than rather than spend the rest of the evening trying to make sense of what just happened, I decided to add yet another smile  to my heart.

Little did I realize that I would be going for a trifecta that evening. The lobby of the hotel at which we typically stay is known for the “dating scene” that takes place in the Orthodox Jewish world. Because their culture is so unique, dating amounts to a one evening event – two evenings if absolutely necessary – on “neutral territory.” Hence the hotel lobby. While waiting for the elevator, I had the opportunity  to take in one particular scene. The young man was sartorial in dress; the young lady was clad in the very best of taste. A number of empty soda bottles on the little table in front of them, testified that they were enjoying each other’s company. The smiles on their faces confirmed this. And once again, there was yet another smile on my heart.

This time however the smile was different. Aside from shepping naches, that young love was very much in bloom, I could not help but wonder if marriage were in fact to ensue from this meeting, would the opportunity present itself over the years for either of them to have a smile on the heart because of a kindness done by either of them to a compete stranger? Alternately, would there be a smile on the heart because of a kindness done to either of them by a complete stranger?

Fifty years ago, Andy Williams hit the airwaves with a song known as “Happy Heart.” For me a happy heart became a reality – three times no less – within a very short period of time in Israel. Should any one ask me “How was Israel” I might just be inclined to respond: :Heartfelt and heart filled”.