Archive for June, 2009

Was Thomas Jefferson Jewish? It’s All His Fault

June 29, 2009

Was Thomas Jefferson Jewish?

In an earlier post I made it clear that employment status, or even being an MOT, are not requirements to join Jews Without Jobs. In fact it was necessary to articulate this further in the video as there had been an outpouring of whining as to the stringent requirements of the organization.

So why do so many Jews worry about work, success, and getting ahead? Certainly Judaism is the one religion with a scriptural imperative to get literate, I mean I don’t know if the Big Guy actually said “My sons (or daughters) the doctors”. But it seems as if he wanted everyone at least to read. There was this Talmudic requirement….study study study….Maybe that’s why there aren’t many Jewish farmers. Farmers have to work too hard. That said, Petaluma, California, the former chicken capital of the world was originally populated by many European Jews plying their poultry prowess. But that’s a horse (or chicken) of a different color.

I don’t think our upward mobility goes as high up as the Big Kahuna. I think the real culprit (or hero, depending on your point of view) was Thomas Jefferson. Now I know it’s been reported that his Y chromosome has some interesting middle eastern uniqueness, but even without that just look at what he wrote. It’s got Jewish all over it.

When he claimed Americans’ pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right in our Declaration of Independence, Jefferson codified a belief system that lies at the basis of all that seems natural and right about being Jewish . But, from Jamestown to Levittown, and from Jonestown to the Great Meltdown of 2008, the pursuit of happiness has led to material riches and unfathomable disasters. Seldom has it led to happiness.

When our families headed over the water to this new land, they bought it hook line and dredel. No one bought into the American Dream more than the Jewish community. I mean my family did everything they could to “assimilate.” Their quest was a uniquely American one, but overlaid with an extra dollop of striving. Somehow they believed the suffering their parents had undergone would be mitigated by just getting that better job; just  by moving up the wrung a notch or two. When those folks couldn’t get into the country club, they bought it or opened their own.

But what happens when that economic underpinning gets pulled out from under us, when the entire sense we have of “success” is predicated on the job we do and the money we make. Self worth and flexibility take a serious hit. In good times we excel; we’re the envy of the world (or at least our neighbors) but when times are tough we keep looking for economic well being as the salvation.

Now I’m not suggesting it’s time to go live under a tree and forget your overdue mortgage, your student loans or you cell phone bill. But given the realities of being unable to change your situation immediately, there must be some way other than getting another job of getting a handle on all this misery you’re going through.

Economic calamity strips away our options, but it presents some new ones if we just know where to look. It’s interesting that behavioral researchers are finding that happiness actually increases when options are limited. In his NY Times best seller, Sumbling Into Happiness, Dan Gilbert a psychologist at Harvard notes that when we’re confronted with too many choices and possibilities, we drive ourselves crazy with “what if’s.”  But when options disappear, humans have the unique ability to create their own happiness.

Jefferson never said we were entitled to happiness itself and maybe that’s what Jewish humor is all about: coming to an acceptance of the incredible disparity between expectations and reality. The fact that this unique form of humor emerged though the woes and suffering of an entire people may just offer the solution for our reactions to today’s economic woes.

We need to keep trying, as the First Lady admonished the graduates at UC Merced, to “never give up.” But when happiness is just over the hill, we never quite get there. Sometimes it helps just to know this is the hand you’ve been dealt and to know the only thing you can really change is your attitude.

groucho marx was a Buddhist

June 26, 2009

As one of foremost comics of his time, Groucho’s irreverant humor was legendary. The schnoz, glasses and bushy eyebrows, gave hope to many of us young non-aryans. But I never thought of him as a font of wisdom. So when I came upon the following quote, I was amazed:

“I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.”

The remarkable thing is not that shitty things happen, it’s that they happen no matter what we do to prevent them. The folks who got nailed by Bernie Madoff were not fools. They didn’t misbehave. They followed the rules and trusted the former head of the NASDQ. Most people who lost their homes or jobs didn’t do anything wrong.  The illusion is if we just try hard enough, if we just pay more attention, then we won’t make mistakes. The real secret is what to do after the mistake happens. We can’t go back in time, nor are we very good at predicting the future. All we’ve got is today. And one of the best ways to feel good about today is to connect with others. Matt Weinstein is a comic, motivational speaker and all around jester. He was nailed by Madoff. You might enjoy his video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIbkqUm_xKk.

There’s been an outpouring of unemployed people volunteering for great causes now that the economy is in trouble. The irony is that non profits also have had to lay off their volunteer coordinators since their donations are down. But all the people who do stuff report that their former misery, the feelings of helplessness and remorse give way to a more expansive sense of purpose. I don’t want to sound like Florence Nightingale here, but he irony is that helping others can  be a wonderfully selfish act. It ends up making the volunteer the beneficiary.

I guess the Beatles knew what they were singing about when they realized:

I get by with a little help from my friends.

Victim Schmictim

June 25, 2009

There is nothing worse than some do-gooder-new-ager telling you there’s no such thing as a victim. I mean everyone knows we’ve been victims forever. One thing after another, it’s enough to make you wonder if you were put on earth to suffer. Imagine you could sell your suffering (Oh! I guess that’s what Woody Allen does)

Well it seems as if the economic meltdown has made everyone Jewish. Suddenly people who were going along their merry way being optimistic about life’s opportunities suddenly got whacked upside the head.

Now we could have told them to “be prepared.” Suddenly all those Jewish words have become incredibly relevant to the world condition. Andy Ross, who writes a business column for the San Francisco Chronicle was recently asked to explain his use of Yiddish to summarize our current economic plight. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/06/21/BUQ5189TUU.DTL. Read it yourself, and I think you’ll get the drift.

Our Jewish heritage supposedly prepares us for the next disaster we’re sure is coming our way. Even if there isn’t a snake in the grass, it’s always a good idea  to keep your eyes peeled. At least that’s what a lot of mothers said. I don’t think there’s any reason to apologize for the generalized nature of the angst that accompanies many on their path though life. Probably we originally had just the same percentage of happy people as any other group. But I think North American Jews in particular now share in a gene pool with a significant skew towards what Woody Allen called being an “alarmist,” in a recent interview on Fresh Air: www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105400872 )

I totally understand why. In all likelihood there’s a good reason many Jewish people worry about getting sick, the future, the state of their toenails or their daughter’s new boyfriend. Imagine all the laid-back Jewish folks in 1480’s Madrid when the Spanish Inquisition was announced, or 1880’s Lithuania, or 1930’s Germany. The mellow ones all got knocked off probably just as they were telling stories about their paranoid cousins who couldn’t relax and instead left the family for some God forsaken place across the ocean.

But worrying about circumstances does isolate us, it makes us sure that vigilance is the key to survival. And often it takes some kind of catastrophe to break the veneer of safety that’s so precariously constructed. One potential beauty of the calamities we’re all facing is their power to work magic on us.

I just read a piece in Leah Garchik’s column also in the SF Chronicle. In it she cites an article that appeared in the Pacific Sun by Ronnie Cohen that reflects the experience of several of Bernie Madoff’s victims http://www.pacificsun.com/story.php?story_id=3182. A number of them, while certainly not excited about losing their money, point to an “acceleration of their spiritual growth and how awake an alive they were feeling at the moment”…

Now I know what you’re going to say. Anyone not from the Bay Area is rolling your eyes right now just imagining folks in their hot tubs exploring personal growth opportunities. But I don’t come from Marin County. And I too had a horrible financial disaster. And once it happened each day realized I had the choice to be miserable or happy. Once in a while I was actually able to laugh at the irony of it all. But that was only possible when I realized I couldn’t change the outcome. The most remarkable part is how often I still choose to be miserable, even though it feels worse. Think about it. How does being on alert feel to you?  Think about losing your job or the threat of it. Think about your home being foreclosed. Think about not being able to get a job. Think about losing all your sense of economic well being. Many of you have written to me about your circumstances and they suck.  I imagine you’re pretty miserable too. Sometimes all that’s left is our sense of humor.

Dues, Jews, & mental gargoyles

June 23, 2009

Ok I’m getting lots of questions about dues. Everyone wants to know does it cost to join. I’ve got a real conflict here. If I charge you to join, then suddenly this is a real job and I’ll have to deal with all the guilt of having to do something to meet your expectations. Of course I guess I could charge $300 but offer you a one time only, money back guarantee, 99 cent special if you join right now.

But then on the other hand, if I don’t charge, you’ll wonder is it worth it. Or, as Woody Allen reminded us, “who would want to come to a party I was invited to?” I don’t want you to feel unvalued. God knows, you’re probably more than able to do that yourselves without any help from me. I guess it’s not just Jews who have an ability to criticize themselves. Most of us wander through life with the constant noise of our fathers or mothers or bosses, or some mythic combination of all three yelling at us from inside our heads.

Somehow, since all that crap seems to emanate from somewhere between our ears, we listen as if the advice will really help us. But imagine the voices were coming from someone sitting next to you in the car. Can you imagine (unless it was your Mother in Law), doing anything other than kicking them out of the car? It goes on ad naseum and we tend to listen. That image came from Michael Singer’s great little book, The Untethered Soul.

Sometimes it just takes a little shrug and, as a very funny Buddhist teacher, Wes Nisker, says: “admit I’m just the schulb I think I am”. Even though what I know about Yiddish I only learned when my mother was trying to say something she didn’t want me to understand, the language does seem to provide amazingly complex meanings in short words. Schlub, in only one syllable, captures all the boorish, unattractive, clumsiness that our internal critic knows is a prefect description of us. But what if for a moment you look at these judgments and smile, shrug your shoulders as only Woody Allen might, and grant yourself the gift of realizing you’re doing the best you can. It might just make all this mishigos you’re going through a bit easier to take.

You don’t have to be Jewish (or unemployed)to join Jews Without Jobs

June 22, 2009

I know the video said you have to not be working, but really all you need is a sense of humor and time on your hands. And if  you’re reading this you already meet the second requirement. So my guess is either you’re unemployed, or not too happy with the work you’re doing. Who needs another Blog? You tell me: Jews Without Jobs began many years ago as a non-organization. I was sitting sipping a cappucino, whining to a friend about something or other that felt incredibly important. I realized that here we were, two 40 something guys who’d been granted the material good fortune to be sitting around in the middle of the day drinking coffee. I’d been able to retire early, spend time with my family and still I managed to complain. Jews Without Jobs was born. Flash forward more years than I’d like to remember, and the world is upside down. People whose lives have been defined by the paths they’ve chosen suddenly find themselves victims to the Great Meltdown of 2008. Whether unemployed, or simply having lost their 401k’s, it’s a new ballgame. And who, I thought, knows better than we Jews about how to be a victim. And there have been more than a few over the years who’ve been able to make light of a situation they can’t control. The irony is we can control nothing but our attitude. And those who feel themselves powerless to change their external situation sometimes are able to not take it all too seriously.

Jews certainly have no corner on suffering or on not taking themselves so seriously. So there’s no need to be Jewish, or even to be unemployed to join. The only requirement to join Jews Without Jobs is that you whine alot, find yourself feeling a victim of circumstance, maybe that things are just a bit beyond your control, or that there’s something really cool just over the hill.

So tell me your stories: Think about how the economy or other events have affected you but see if you can find some way to shed a little lightness on your story. We’re all in this leaky boat together, and paddling as fast as we can. No need to prove anything to anyone; in fact the award will go to the one  most able to see a way to not take it all so seriously. We’ll review all the stories and select the “winner.” What you win will require me actually going out an doing something, so I can’t guarantee you an official Jews Without Jobs t-shirt, or anything equally valuable. But trust me, I have good intentions. The only rule is no whining!!!


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