Note to reader: In June 1997 Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, printed a hypothetical commencement speech in which she presented advice on how to live life. Chief amongst her recommendations was her admonishment to wear sunscreen.
Soon after, this speech went viral on a new medium called email and was falsely attributed to Kurt Vonnegut. It quickly became known as the Sunscreen speech and was even set to music by film director Baz Luhrmann. It soon became a hit.
This year’s graduating class was just being born when this happened, and I decided to write a Jewish version of Schmich’s speech. What follows is a shameless rip-off of Schmich and the great Jewish ideas I have accumulated over my short time on this earth. The nature of this column and newspapers in general don’t allow me to give proper citations or footnotes, thus any similarity is purposeful.
If you find an especially good idea or turn of phrase, I most probably didn’t author it. Enjoy! To the Graduating Class of 2015: Don’t be Jewish!!! If I could offer you only one tip for the future, Judaism would be it. The long-term benefits of Judaism have been proven by history, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own yeshiva education. I will dispense this advice now.
• Don’t be Jewish! I know, I said that already, but its true. When you ask someone who believes in Jesus what religion they are, they say they are Christian. If you follow the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad, you are a Muslim. Only Jews are JewISH. Stop being JewISH and be a full-blown, no-holds-barred JEW!! Make being a JEW who you are and not just what you do! So get your JEW on and lets see what Judaism has to offer:
• Enjoy the power and beauty of your soul. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your soul till it has left your body. But trust me, in 120 years, you’ll look back at this time and recall in a way you can’t quite grasp now, how enriching and powerful your life here was! You are not as far from God as you imagine. More than you believe in God, God believes in you!
• Definitely worry about the future! And know that worrying is about as effective as saving the next generation from assimilation. The best working definition of a good Jew I know, is one who has Jewish grandchildren. The real troubles in your life are apt to be problems that arise because of assimilation, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday when your child comes home asking how serious you were about you wanting them to marry a Jew.
• Put something Jewish into as many of your daily activities as possible, whether it is a blessing before you eat, or saying the Shema prayer before you sleep; these little things help remind you of who you are and where you come from! Don’t be reckless with other people’s reputations. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.
• Don’t waste your time on the acquisition of material goods. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.
• Know that the peak of tolerance is most readily achieved by those who are not burdened by any convictions.
• Pray; even if you have nowhere to do it but on the subway on your way to work. Pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on you! Remember that when we pray we talk to God; when we learn, God talks to us!
• Look at the Torah as a love letter from God to mankind. Read it over and over, hold it close to you chest and treasure every word!
• Fear not! If ever again you are frightened, you deserve to suffer that fear because you will have forgotten that God is with you and protecting you all the time.
• Learn! Education is the progressive discovery of our own ignorance.
• Love your fellow Jews as you would yourself! If you succeed in doing this, tell me how!
• Engage in random acts of kindness!
• Don’t feel guilty if you don’t yet know how you will play your part on the stage of Jewish history. The most interesting Jews I know, didn’t know at 18 how they were going to leave their mark on the Jewish people. Some of the most interesting 38-year-olds I know still don’t know.
• If you want to be the center of someone’s universe, marry someone with no center and no universe!
• Never forget that the men in the Bible are sinners like ourselves, but there is one sin they do not commit, our arch sin: They do not dare confine God to a set space or division of life, to “religion.”
• Make nothing “human” strange to you!
• Get a havrusa (study partner), and use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It will make Torah study your own.
• Say thank you! A person who recognizes the good done for them will have a difficult time recognizing the bad!
• Do not engage in gossip!
• Do not dress like you are cheap! Those things will only make you ugly!
• Get to know Jewish history! It is THE link to your past and an excellent road map for the future!
• Shabbat! More than the Jewish people have kept the Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people! Shabbat is not a day off, but a day on! A day to return to ourselves. To read, sleep, pray, spend time with friends and family and forget career and money. While both are necessary to sustain life, Shabbat makes life worth living.•
Read As A Driven Leaf
by Milton Steinberg, Exodus
by Leon Uris and The Source
by James A. Michener! Everything by Chaim Potok and Dennis Prager! And don’t forget the Bible! How many of us have actually sat down and read it cover to cover?
• Love Jerusalem; it is a city one arrives at but can never pass beyond!
• Make aliya! Israel makes everything that is human, Jewish; and everything that is Jewish, human!
• Live in Jerusalem once, but leave before it makes you too religious. Live in Tel Aviv once, but leave before it makes you too secular.
• Be bold! The strength of the prophets of Israel lay in the fact that they proclaimed the truth even when everything was against it!
• Definitely be machmir (stringent) – but save it for the right things: like your friend’s honor, other people’s money, respecting your parents and ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel).
• Never let your secular studies take away from your faith in God; the mark of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at once.
• Accept certain inalienable truths: You were conceived as a putrid drop and to a grave of dust and worms will you end. You will stand before the Holy One and give a reckoning of all your deeds, for they and not your material wealth are the only things you take with you to the grave. Therefore, work not to make a buck, but to make a difference! For in Judaism, it is the means that justify the ends! After all, to have found God is not an end but in itself only a beginning!
• Don’t forget that everything is OK at the end; if it is not OK, it is not the end! I will share with you something I learned from my rebbe, “You have to be [religiously observant], but you have to be normal!” And if the two ever should come into conflict, you pick being frum.
We are here today after 4,000 years of history because we always favored being frum over being normal. As a historian I can tell you, we Jews transcend history because we never acted like the rest of the world. It were those people who acted like history that became history! You. Are. Better. Than. That! Continue your Jewish learning and you will discover everything I have shared with you now – and that you were right to have trusted me on the Judaism!
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.