Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Small Things Worth Sweating

"Don’t sweat the small stuff" is a cliche that for the most part is correct. Oftentimes, we do fixate on silly details. However, sometimes details are larger than they appear.

In his autobiography, Amos Oz describes a scene from his childhood in Jerusalem in the 1940's. In Auster’s grocery shop, there would be passionate discussions over which cheese to buy: should it be the kibbutz cheese, or the cheese from the local Arab villages? Yes, there’s a duty to support the kibbutzim, for ‘charity begins at home". On the other hand, you may not discriminate against outsiders, for "one law shall be for you and the stranger in your midst". So a trip to the grocery could turn into a heated debate’s choice of cheese.

Incidents like the "cheese debates" are an essential part of Jewish culture. One of the hallmarks of the Talmud is attention to detail. A classic example of this is a discussion about the obligation to dispose of bread before Passover. The Talmud ponders the following questions: A mouse goes into a room with some bread, and later leaves with some bread. Can you assume it took out the original bread, or perhaps this is a new piece of bread and he left the original behind? What if a white mouse goes in, but a black mouse comes out with bread? What if a mouse goes in with bread, and a weasel comes out with bread? Finally, the Talmud declares "teiku", it has no definitive answer!

This attention to detail is more than academic. Details make a big difference. Small gestures express larger commitments. A suitor’s rose is more than a mere rose; in the right context, a simple rose represents profound love.

I once read about an executive who immediately threw out any CV’s with typos. This may seem harsh, but it is appropriate. Looking for typos in a CV is not nitpicking. If an applicant is truly interested, his CV would be flawless. On a CV, presentation equals commitment.

Indeed, the very fabric of society is formed by small details. When Rudy Giuliani became mayor of New York, he began to combat crime by concentrating on the presence of squeegee men. On busy corners, men would rush out at red lights to wash windshields and then intimidate the drivers for spare change. While they had been ignored by previous administrations as a mere annoyance, Giuliani realized squeegee men played a key role in the perpetuation of crime. By tolerating the minor infractions of the squeegee men, the police department fostered a culture of lawlessness. The squeegee men gave the city an ambience of disorder, a place where anything goes. By cracking down on these minor infractions, Giuliani transformed the culture of New York.

We should never fixate on petty details. But there is small stuff worth sweating, little acts of commitment that make a big difference.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

60 Years Since Liberation: The Missing Story

Last week the world turned its attention to the 60th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. However, despite an abundance of ceremonies, speeches and media attention, the most important part of the story was overlooked.

Yes, the memorials were meaningful. Auschwitz, where between 1.1 and 1.5 million people were murdered, is the single place in the world that best embodies the modern disease of genocide. Auschwitz bears witness to what occurs when one blends extreme ideology, hatred, and modern weaponry. Auschwitz cries out “never again”, asking us to stop future genocides. Indeed, at a special session of the United Nations General Assembly devoted to this anniversary, speakers constantly focused on the message of “never again”. One would hope that the U.N., which failed in its response to subsequent genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, will pay a bit more attention to the ongoing genocide in Darfur this week.

And yes, the commemorations were also touching. It is now sixty years since the war, and the remaining survivors of the Holocaust are all senior citizens. This memorial was for many survivors the final opportunity to pass on their memories. Thanks to exceptional media coverage, survivors were able to tell their stories: stories of survival, recollections of Nazi sadism, and memories of those who perished. They were able, once final time, to stand as eyewitnesses to history.

This opportunity to speak out is one that was denied to survivors for many years. As Peter Novick notes in his The Holocaust in American Life, the Holocaust was virtually ignored in the 50's and 60's. Survivors were expected to move on and not dwell on the past. Novick points out that this phenomenon was due in large part to the myth that the victims of the Holocaust were weak, docile sheep lead to slaughter. In a postwar atmosphere of confidence and self-reliance, the survivor was an “embarrassment” because he was considered an example of “cowardice”. Thankfully, historians have corrected the record by documenting the scope of Jewish resistance during the war. And last week, these survivors had an opportunity to speak with pride, something they could not do for decades after the Holocaust.

So what was missing last week? The proper gestures were made. The dead were mourned, genocide condemned, and the stories of survivors were told. But a day of liberation should have also paid attention to the remarkable lives the survivors have made.

Contrary to unfortunate stereotypes, Holocaust survivors were remarkably courageous and determined. After the war, they not only survived, they thrived. A list of the of successful survivors would read like a Who’s Who, and would include the winners of the Nobel Prizes in Peace (Elie Weisel), Literature (Imre Kertesz) and Chemistry (Walter Kohn), a Brigadier General who commanded U.S. Army forces in Europe (Sidney Shachnow), technology innovators (including Andy Grove of Intel), corporate titans, real estate magnates, and the like. Even those who didn’t achieve fame and fortune have left powerful impressions. My mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, was widowed at a young age and raised four children on her own. Even today, those who meet her are struck by a woman who is at the same time both warm and determined, compassionate yet strong.

The successful lives of survivors have been studied to understand the power of the human spirit. William Helmreich, a sociologist, wrote a book based on a study of 170 survivors called Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America. He explains that he conducted this study in order to answer the following questions:

“How do people who have experienced such cataclysmic events pick up the threads of their lives?…what lessons can the rest of us learn from the survivors about coping with tragedy and adversity?”

Helmreich found that survivors were able to thrive because of a combination of personality traits, including flexibility, assertiveness, courage, optimism, tenacity, and the ability to find meaning. He sees these attributes as the keys to successfully bouncing back from trauma and tragedy.

This is why it was a shame that the media didn’t pay more attention to the lives of survivors here in Canada. The survivors are living examples of the resiliency of the human spirit. They teach us that nothing, no matter how horrible, can ever crush the human spirit. And this, in my mind, is the true lesson of liberation.