How it really is: Mishpoach, misspoke and the Chosen People

At the intersection of history and the Holocaust.

A man photographs a painting entitled ‘Portrait de femme polonaise’ (Portrait of a Polish woman) painted in 1919 by Italian Jewish artist Amedeo Modigliani, at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid (photo credit: PAUL HANNA/REUTERS)
A man photographs a painting entitled ‘Portrait de femme polonaise’ (Portrait of a Polish woman) painted in 1919 by Italian Jewish artist Amedeo Modigliani, at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid
(photo credit: PAUL HANNA/REUTERS)
I was at a cocktail party in the Upper Madison home of a favorite professor when I was studying at Columbia University in New York over 50 years ago. A reasonably attractive dark-haired woman, glass in hand, cornered me on a sofa, while I nursed a modicum of Scotch. What nefarious plans did she have for me, still undergoing culture shock at leaving Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and reentering the world of notebooks, classrooms and lectures? And my wife in the same room a few feet away!
She said she was a sociologist. “You are from Israel, aren’t you?”
“You think the Jews are the Chosen People?”
This was the last question I could have expected. I do not recall my stumbling reply….
“Nothing chosen about it. It’s pure sociology,” she said.
Look, rich people had good nutrition, poor people didn’t.”
Here we go, I thought to myself. The Jews have all the money, so we ate well. What anti-Semitism was triggering this obviously non-Jewish sociologist? I asked myself. Quick, a sip of Scotch.
I said, “There were poor Jews, too. Most of them....
She cut me off.
“Yes yes, that’s part of it. Just listen.”
More Scotch. More listen.
“Rich Jews wanted brilliant Talmudic scholars for sons-in-law. They would agree to support them for years. The more ignorant the rich father-in-law was, the more he’d seek to tack brilliance onto his family name.”
“OK,” I sighed, “so?”
“Well cross good nourishment with brains down dozens of generations and what do you get?”
“Fat smart guys.”
She grimaced at me. “Be serious, you end up with excellent brains; multiplied geometrically across the generations, that’s a big pool of genetically selected brilliant people.”
I nodded. It made sense to me. I always prefer rational explanations to ones that blame the Creator.
She smiled at me, victoriously. “You see, simply, it’s mishpoach!”
“Mishpoach. You know Yiddish? You must! I’ll spell it fo you: m-i-s-h-p-o-c-h-e! Mishpoach.”
“Yes.” I knew now she had misspoke. What she wanted to say was mishpocheh in Yiddish. In Hebrew – mishpachah. Family.
For years I ruminated on that thought: Darwinian selection. That should work though for all peoples. All nations, all languages produce Nobel prize winners. Many nations had rich people who were brilliant sponsoring poorer people. It shows in the annals of people such as Rousseau and Rilke, names which come to mind without research. Once it was à la mode, like Moses Mendelssohn at the court of Frederick II of Prussia.
So there must be more than that geometric progression of the gevir taking the talmid hokhem for a son-in-law (using the Yiddish from Hebrew: the rich man taking the brilliant scholar to marry his daughter) across tens of generations.
This process of natural selection sounds good, but it is not enough, in my unscientific opinion. There is an additional factor: literacy for two thousand years. The Mishnah, though codified about 1,800 years ago, lists the customary responsibility a father has to his son. One of them is “to teach him Torah and to begin the reading process with the verse: Hear O Israel....” The Mishnah also enjoins the father to teach his son a trade. (Don’t tell the Haredi rabbis that. There is also an opinion in the Mishnah that the child should learn to swim. Think how many lives that would save!)
Well, if a son learned to read and to discuss Torah, he would also ask questions. The Talmud is Socratic: a ruling under discussion is presented; then an initial thesis explains the reasoning that leads to that ruling. The initial thesis is then challenged, a second is presented, sometimes more than one. Then follows negotiation, as it were, give and take, reasoning and more questioning, until the issue seems to be resolved. Let’s stop there. Bear in mind that right through history commentators continued the debate.
What the above paragraph illustrates is that Jewish boys were taught to think, to question, to dare to come up with new ideas and explanations. But the process engenders “lateral thinking,” looking at issues in a creative and unusual way. By the way, not only boys; there were women who were learned, and in some cases more literate than men.
Teaching and questioning goes right back to the Bible. There is no need to quote many prooftexts: only one example should do to show how well our people understood the role of curiosity in the upbringing of children. The Bible says in a number of places, regarding the Pessah (Passover) holiday, words like “and when your children in the future ask you….” The Mishnah comes along and tells us how to conduct the Pessah Seder, and the very youngest child is chosen to ask the Four Questions. (The Mishnah actually proposes five questions, but that’s another story.) The entire Seder is designed with unusual and somewhat strange departures from normal meals and eating habits, precisely to pique the curiosity expressed in those very questions.
So we have the long-standing customs to ask, to inquire, to be curious. Perhaps only the Chinese tradition of literacy and reverence for scholars parallels the Jewish experience. The Chinese example was later followed both by Japan and then by Korea. That may explain, in good part, why people of Asian origin in the US today have taken the place once occupied by the Jews. So, too, is the issue of their original marginality in North America.
Jews were on the edge of civil society for centuries. They were seen as a marginal – often undesirable – minority group, forbidden to own land and farm in many European countries across time. The Jew needed movable or portable trades and goods. What is in the head cannot be removed. Thus, the most educated in many countries, that is the great Talmudic scholars, also were doctors. And because Jews were in danger of anti-Semitic attacks and exile; losing the right of residence they often had to move. Along the way they had to master new languages. This trait was fortified by the interpretation of the role of Mordechai in the Persian court as depicted in the Book of Esther. The commentators stressed the value in knowing languages, as demonstrated by that ancient courtier.
Banking, as it developed in Europe, was furthered by Jews moving, being exiled from cities and entire countries. Families dispersed. They could have brothers or cousins in various ports and parts of the world. A deposit made by a non-Jewish merchant in Venice with a Signore Cohen could be redeemed with a letter of credit to a Cohen brother in Salonika, and so all along the Mediterranean littoral and throughout Europe.
Jews, forced into the smelliest of businesses became tanners, a trade forced to the outskirts of towns because of the smell of the urine used in the tanning process. Their know-how was portable. Literate Jews were the prime customers of the printing presses, newly invented, and often became printers carrying a portable press from place to place; and so, also, tailors, jewelers, and pawn shop owners all of whom had movable trades or wares. All of these trades plus literacy lifted them above the peasant population in many countries into a kind of small town or urban middle class – a resented middle class.
Literacy among the non-Jewish population of Europe began to grow from the 16th century, but religious schools often put their stress on memorization. Questioning was often scotched in Catholic and some Protestant schools. Only in the 19th and 20th centuries did literacy spread widely into the reaches of Eastern Europe. Ottoman Turkey and hence most Islamic areas did not permit printing presses until the 18th century, and even then there was a ban maintained for decades on printing the Koran and its commentaries, lest the holy name of Allah be misused. This may be a partial explanation of why there have only been three Muslim Nobel winners in the sciences – the other nine being in the peace prize category, including Yasser Arafat. All told there have been over 200 Jewish prize winners, about 22 percent of all Nobel winners.
While writing about print, one reason Jews went into journalism, publishing and films was precisely because this is where a look from the side (lateral thinking), and all the traits described above come together.
(A footnote about marginality, the many “Mount Sinai” or Jewish hospitals in North America were born in good part because Jews were not usually given appointments in mainstream hospitals. What Mount Sinai and hospitals have in common is a bit of a stretch, but maybe the Jews in the late 19th century did not want to say “Jewish.”)
Albert Einstein’s famous quotation was still telling in 1922: “If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare me a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German, and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.”
Yes, to end on a somber note, antisemitism has pushed many of our people to prominence in many countries, which is then used to show how “Jews control the … whatever.”
And on an even sadder note: Out of the million and a half Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust, how many geniuses – Einsteins and Kafkas, Mahlers and Wertheims, Chagalls and Modiglianis – how many we lost. The world lost.
Avraham Avi-hai, in addition to his writing and family activities, heads a project called ‘The Focus Is on Life: Genius on the Edge of Destruction.’ It seeks to combat antisemitism and strengthen Jewish identity by showing the vibrancy of pre-Holocaust Jewish life and its contributions to world science and culture.