The Giant Tome of Kvell

It always makes my stomach a little barfy when lists are published “proving” how Jewish people are smarter and/or more accomplished than any other group of people that inhabit the Earth.

Not because the disproportionate amount of Jewy names on Nobel prizes (23% of the total ever awarded) and powerful businesspeople lists (24% of Fortune‘s Top 25) gives fodder for the whole “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” mishegoss that Jews secretly rule the world. Or that such lists, found readily on nasty white supremacist web sites, feed the fuel of global anti-Semitism (jealous much, beeotches?) And it’s not even because the self-lauding of such fabulous feats displays a level of hubris that’s just in poor taste.

Sure, the numbers are there: 14.3 million Jews in a world of 6.23 billion humans = .00207% of the world population, yet we seem to be EVERYWHERE (except Wal-Mart.)

But the real reason it skeeves me out when someone started pointing out all the accomplishments of “the Jewish people” is because frankly, it just makes me look bad.

I come from a family of accomplished people—my mother is working on her sixth book, my father volunteers in third-world operating rooms and my Brother the Doctor basically saved ten lives this morning before I finished my tea. As the perpetual underachiever of the lot, it is not helpful to be reminded how statistically, I should have made millions in real estate, invented a new molecule, donated a children’s hospital and rocked out a couple of blockbuster movies by now. It’s a LOT of pressure to swim in this gene pool, people. I don’t need any added stress. (And maybe I’m not the only one, since Jews are also found in therapists’ offices in large numbers, dealing with neuroses.)

However, when Steven L. Pease’s The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement: The Compendium of A Culture, A People and Their Stunning Performance arrived at my door, I could not help but shunt aside my slacker swagger to make room for some serious kvelling. Literally, since there wasn’t actually room for me and this book to be in the foyer at the same time.

The size of a challah on Prednisone, or say, a supersize mandelbrot, this is 622 pages of dizzying, exhaustively-researched awesome. It’s an encyclopedia of Jewish exultation, a magnum opus that spotlights Jewish involvement in almost every aspect of modern civilization. From military to civil service to sports to philanthropy to Broadway to Hollywood to high-tech, there’s an entry for some enterprising Einstein or Feinstein or Weinstein or Koufax or Rosenwald or Gershwin or Guggenheim. And don’t forget the bad guys, too—oligarchs (Russia’s Mikhail Khordorkovsky) and mobsters (Lansky) and spies (Rosenberg). There’s even a paragraph on Jewish pirates.

In his introduction, Pease, who is not Jewish, respectfully declares a lifelong affinity for Jews, beginning with sympathetic horror as post-WWII photos of concentration camps were released, followed by cheers for the underdog as the state of Israel fought for its independence and continuing through his years as a student at Harvard and career as a venture capitalist which were populated by Jewish roommates, partners, employees and friends. He took on the task of cataloging Jewish (over)achievement in order to fill his time while caring for his sick mother, but it was writer Rabbi Harold Kushner who charged Pease with figuring out WHY Jews have racked up so many accomplishments since breaking out of the shtels in the late 19th century. (Pease uses the term “Jewish Emancipation” to mark the move from oppression to assimilation in Eastern Europe.)

Rather than simply an almanac of names and facts, The Golden Age provides a outsider’s analysis, piecing together history and speculating how certain factors figure into certain individual’s success. In the end, Pease decides it’s not DNA or racial superiority or a special stamp from God that has levied so many Jews to high levels of success and service but participation in a culture that values education and an adaptable religious doctrine that both adheres to tradition and is open to change. This combination of adaptability and observance is also what has stirred the pot of hatred in our neighbors through the centuries.

The last chapter muses whether the swift rise of Jewish accomplishment will stagnate and fade as intermarriage, complacency and “á la carte” religion dilute what was once a necessarily cloistered culture. I wonder if in the coming years the emphasis of education in India and Chinese culture will create a more competitive global setting that inspired people to make lists of Patels and Huangs.

Rabbi Kushner calls The Golden Age “a book to strengthen one’s pride in being Jewish,” which of course it is. But in the wrong hands, it will surely be used as textbook for conspiracy theorists who will look at the numbers of corporate CEOs and won’t appreciate Pease’s thoughtful examinations. It probably isn’t going to debunk the sick myths about Jewish world domination. But it is nice to have this particular perspective of history all in place where our children can read, saucer-eyed, about the marvelous triumphs (and trials) of their ancestors and elders.

Though maybe I won’t leave it lying around lest mein kinder shoulder the undue pressure of thinking they’re expected to win a Nobel Prize. Then again, maybe one of them will find the cure for neuroses?

3 thoughts on “The Giant Tome of Kvell

  1. I must take issue with Yenta referring to herself “As the perpetual underachiever of the lot”

    Your folks and brother are clearly doing good work, but so are you. You reach thousands with this blog and have been active in every community that you have lived in since I have known you. I do not have the time or resources to count the number of people that you have touched and who are better for it, but I am certainly one. You keep us informed, aware, encourage us to be advocates, and give us a much needed laugh on days we did not think it was possible to laugh. I have not even mentioned the two amazing kids you are raising and the caregiving for your mother-in-law.

    This is not a friend sharing encouraging words and blowing smoke up your tushie, this is a loyal reader for many years and member of your fan club.

    Please leave the self deprecation for the real underachievers; you are clearly NOT part of that group…

  2. Oh, Cori, you are so kind. Thank you. I realize it sounds like I am totally fishing for compliments 😉 and I’ll take ’em anyway. I think a lot of work-at-home moms feel the way I do: that even though this is “the work the world can’t do without” (to quote my own poem), it’s not expressly rewarded with prizes or money or even acknowledgment.

    Yes, the satisfaction of children well-raised and a house well-kept is something I wouldn’t trade—even for an entry in this giant book—but it’s difficult not to feel inadequate when compared to the truly inspiring, tangible accomplishments of others.

    I appreciate so much that you consider this blog useful and informative! Your comment will buoy me up for many moons to come!

  3. This made me laugh, and remember the old joke about the first Jewish president. It’s his inauguration, and his mother is sitting behind him on the stand. As he speaks, she leans over to the person next to her and says, “my OTHER son is a doctor.”

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