Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Junk Food For the Soul

Nike. Hermes. Pepsi. Versace. Starbucks. Mercedes. Armani.

You know these names, and so do millions of people worldwide. They are examples of “brands”, trademarks used by manufacturers and designers to distinguish their goods. Today, brand names are a multi-billion dollar economic juggernaut that drives the global economy.

Brands may be great for business, but they’re bad for the soul. Brands used to be about quality and style, and a good brand meant a reliable high quality product. (And a brand that lost its reputation was mocked – I remember when a certain car company was ridiculed by the phrase Fix Or Repair Daily). But contemporary brands are more about image than about quality; the logo on the front of a polo shirt is a substitute for personal identity.

It’s usually wise to avoid judging a book by its cover (or as the Mishnah puts it, judge a wine by the bottle). But with brands, we are encouraged to believe that changing our cover will change our personality. Ad taglines imply that the brand’s image will become our own. If we drink Pepsi, we will “think young”, and if we buy an Apple computer we will “think different”. Nike sneakers announce that you are a proactive person who will “just do it”, and true love requires a diamond, because “a diamond is forever”. As Susan Fournier, a professor at Harvard Business School put it: "People look at brands as carriers of symbolic language and forget that a brand's first purpose is to close the sale."

Brands are junk food for the soul. The search for identity is a powerful spiritual force that encourages people to live meaningful lives. Even when man has all of his other needs met, he still needs to create a spiritual identity. As the prophet Amos says: “Behold, the days come, says the Lord, that I will send a famine in the land. Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but a hunger to hear the words of God.”. A store bought brand identity substitutes ersatz meaning in place of spiritual depth.

The glamour and glitz of brands make them far more attractive than old fashioned spirituality. People contort themselves in order to own the Porsche or buy the Rolex. Among young upper middle class couples, there is what I call a “baby vs. BMW dilemma”. Should they have another child and live more modestly, or should they curtail their family in order to lease “the ultimate driving machine”?. In a materialistic, brand intoxicated culture, too many people choose BMW’s instead of babies. (Maybe babies just need to improve their brand image!)

Like junk food, brands are a tasty little pleasure when enjoyed in moderation. But like junk food, brands can replace a healthy spiritual identity with fashionable but hollow designer vanity.

And too many people have sold their souls for a logo.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

What Do You Have When You Have Nothing?

Natural disasters have dominated the news. In June there were the disastrous floods in the Midwest, and in July, wildfires ravaged Northern California. Thousands have watched their homes and possessions destroyed.

It is particularly painful to consider the fate of those who lived outside of flood or fire “range”, and were not insured. In a matter of hours, they watched the bulk of their assets disappear, along with their homes and communities. In natural disasters like these, lives are ravaged along with the countryside.

The question that nature forces upon the survivors of these catastrophes is simple: what do you have when you have nothing? It's a question that seems absurd at first; if you have lost everything, then you truly have nothing.

Actually, those of us who live comfortably are afraid of contemplating this question. We are driven more by a fear of loss than by any possibility of gain. (This has been demonstrated by the economist Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in this area). If fear of loss is frightening, the thought of losing everything is terrifying and unthinkable.

In loss, the unfortunate victims have nothing, and feel like they are less than nothing. Indeed, the Midrash, refers to this sentiment in saying that “poverty is like death”. Faced with extreme losses, it feels like life is not worth living; indeed, Job, after suffering the loss of his family and his wealth, is urged by his wife to curse God and commit suicide.

But this is the wrong answer. Even when stripped of everything else, people still have their character. In times of extreme stress, a person still has the courage to cope with their circumstances, and the dignity to transcend their limitations. Although impoverished and homeless, man still holds the keys to his own character.

Character is our most precious possession. Little David, a shepherd boy armed only with a slingshot, can take on Goliath because he has something Goliath lacks: character. David’s weapons are courage and cunning; weapons like these are held in one’s heart, not in one’s hands.

Dreams are another priceless possession that can never be destroyed. No matter what a person’s situation, he can still pursue his dreams. And when the dispossessed pursue their dreams, they can change the world. The Prophet Zachariah describes the messiah as poor, and riding on a simple donkey. Zachariah’s words remind us that if you want to redeem the world, you need to hold on tight to your dreams, even in poverty and hardship.

Throughout history, many have faced the question of “what do you have when you have nothing?”. Some, like Job’s wife, have given the wrong answer, and given up. But those who continue to hold courageously onto their dreams have changed the world.

A few months ago, I visited the Museum of the Jewish Heritage in New York. On display was a special chuppah commissioned in the year 1946 by the Joint Distribution Committee. (a chuppah is a marriage canopy used in Jewish weddings). What made this chuppah unique was that it was for the use of Holocaust survivors who were marrying each other after surviving the war.

When I saw this chuppah, I was overwhelmed with emotion. How is it that people who had seen so much destruction, who had lost everything, could still get married? Isn’t it absurd to try again at life when you have nothing left? But I realized that these couples where not truly destitute and bereft; after all they had their dignity and their dreams, the most important possessions in the world. And it is these couples, with nothing else but each other, who went about rebuilding the Jewish world and succeeding beyond their wildest dreams.

These poor survivors, who had nothing in their hands, actually had everything they needed, tucked away in their hearts.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

What is “Naches”?

It is the great parental quest: to receive joy from one’s children. In Yiddish, the word “naches” (which means parental joy) is laden with emotional connotations, the result of generations of immigrants dreaming of their children’s success.

To many Jews of a certain era, naches was defined by four simple words: “my son the doctor”. This particular parental obsession was often lampooned for going overboard. One joke is about an apocryphal birth announcement that declared “Mr. and Mrs. Irving Goldberg are pleased to announce the birth of their son, Dr. Jeffrey Goldberg.” Jokes aside, the mindset of “my son the doctor” gives a distorted picture of what the parent-child relationship is about.

Pushing a child in order to provide the parent with pride can have destructive consequences. Elisha, a second century Rabbi, is chosen by his father Abuya to become a Rabbi so that Abuya could impress others with his son’s ability. Elisha does become a great Rabbi, but in an era of Roman persecutions, eventually crumbles and becomes a heretic. Unfortunately, Elisha’s studies left his soul empty because they were intended to impress his father. In the end, neither father nor son had any naches.

This uglier side of “getting naches” is what psychologists call “achievement by proxy syndrome”. A parent with simple achievements sees his child, the prodigy, as a ticket to greatness. The parent-child relationship is then reduced to a puppet show, with the child acting as the parent’s puppet, dancing to the tune of the parent’s dreams. In the end, both parent and child lose their souls and insanity ensues.

Achievement by proxy syndrome leads to a multitude of dysfunctions. There are violent altercations between fathers and coaches over the proper treatment for athletic prodigies; there are parents who quit their own careers in order to manage their children’s “talent”. And the child ends up paying dearly for a childhood in a pressure cooker; indeed, Macaulay Culkin and Jennifer Capriati are poster children for the excesses of “achievement by proxy syndrome”.

True naches is not about getting, it’s about giving. The real joy in parenting comes from being a true parent. A parent’s role is to give guidance and impart wisdom to one’s children. When the Bible tells the child “Hear, my son, your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching”, it is reminding us of the parent’s greatest role, as a teacher.

Randy Pausch is a college professor and father of three young children, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2006. After going on permanent leave, he returned to university to deliver one final presentation based on the wisdom he had learned from life experience. This lecture that became a youtube sensation (and later a bestselling book) called “The Last Lecture”. Pausch explains in the forward to the book that the lecture was his way of “bottling” the life lessons he wanted to impart to his children as they grew up.

Pausch’s book is an exercise in true naches; it’s a dying father’s way of giving his children a legacy of authentic wisdom.

Most importantly, naches is about love. Parents transform the lives of their children when they show dedication and devotion to them. And the parents that do this the most are the parents of the developmentally disabled. Unfortunately, they often stand alone in their efforts.

Until recently, a child with cognitive impairments didn’t have a Bar-Bat Mitzvah. Synagogues were too rigid and formal to accommodate the needs of the developmentally disabled. But that is changing. In Boston, a program called “Gateways” has enabled dozens of developmentally disabled children to have their own innovative Bar-Bat Mitzvahs. I myself have been involved in several Bar-Bat Mitzvahs like this, and there is no question that there are powerful emotions in the air. You can sense the love, you can sense the family’s dedication, and as the young man finishes his carefully rehearsed presentation, you can sense something else as well:

Authentic naches.