Sunday, March 2, 2014

Smart Jewish Guys from Brooklyn

As mentioned in an earlier post, my family moved to the U.S. from England in 1957. My father thought he'd make it big here. His first career was in textiles, which had been a family tradition for several generations. His great-grandfather was a tailor who owned a shop in Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire, and his father was a director at Liberty of London. My grandfather designed Liberty prints and worked his way up, starting with the company before World War I. I have photos of him greeting the Queen Mother at the Regent Street store and giving her a tour.

My father's American career in textiles didn't go any better than his English career, and after a few years he gave up and made an unfortunate switch to selling insurance. This turned out to be an even worse field for him. When I was in high school, after dinner, when he was sufficiently inebriated, he would say "There is truth in wine," and lecture me on the ways of the world. In those days he had graduated from generic Grand Union beer to cheap Gallo rosés. At the time of his demise a few years later, he had moved on to cheap vodka and had stashes of it hidden throughout the house.

I'm not surprised that he didn't like his insurance job, but he was always miffed by people who worked harder than he did and were more successful. He had a big ego and thought that he was so charming that he should be a success without putting in much effort. One lecture I recall was about "Jewish bastards" who work at night. He couldn't believe that anyone would continue working into the evening, but warned me about it for my "edification," one of his favorite terms. He noticed that they were getting ahead.

That particular lecture stuck with me, and I have long held a mild interest in the Jewish work ethic, particularly in the vicinity of New York City. The short version is "smart Jewish guys from Brooklyn," but really includes all Jewish men or women who grew up in New York City, had ordinary family backgrounds, worked very hard and became successes. The list of them is amazing:
Physics: Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, Steven Weinberg
Literature: Harold Bloom
Fiction: Norman Mailer
Music: George Gershwin
Film: Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen
Politics: Bernie Sanders
Finance: Lloyd Blankfein, Janet Yellen
Crime: Bernie Madoff, Bugsy Siegel.
Of course, this is an abbreviated list. And I have noticed a similar pattern in other parts of the country. Plenty of statistics bear out the fact that Jewish immigrants and their descendants have vastly outperformed most other ethnic groups in the U.S. on a per capita basis.

In American mythology, this high level of productivity is seen as inherently good by everyone except bigots. Certainly the productivity is admirable and has improved life in America in almost every field imaginable. However, as a culture critic, I do have some quibbles. Although they fall into a small minority within the group, we really don't need workaholic criminals. We also don't need as many Woody Allen films as we get. Woody seems to think that if he makes lots of films, a few are likely to be very good. This is hardly a formula for an artist who is in control of his medium, and we could be spared most of his films without losing anything.

I have also speculated on where all this drive and talent comes from. There could possibly be some genetic elements, but a more obvious source is the survival mentality that Jews have lived with for centuries. If you are a persecuted minority and have been trained from birth to believe that you will die unless you work hard, this must substantially affect the rest of your life. It is an appropriate response during times of extreme stress, but can lead to dysfunction when there are no threats. There are times when high-performing Jews might do better to chill out.

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