Comment: The ‘Jewish’ side of Steve Jobs

He’s been called every name in the book, from messiah to charlatan – but I’ll bet nobody has ever called him Jewish.

Steve Jobs_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Steve Jobs_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
He’s been called every name in the book, from messiah to charlatan – but I’ll bet nobody has ever called him Jewish.
Not that Steve Jobs was a member of the tribe; his biological father is actually a Syrian Muslim, his adoptive parents Armenians, and his mother a German-Swiss Catholic.
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But for years, I’ve had the funny feeling that even if he wasn’t Jewish, Jobs’ life and career have had some very distinct parallels to the Jewish experience.
The legacy of his life and work is still being written, because we are nowhere near the end of the revolution he brought about in consumer electronics.
The iPod may be a mature product, but as this week’s iPhone 4S product launch shows there are still innovations to come in the iPhone.
The iPad is still in its infancy – and even in laptops, Apple is leading a quiet revolution, popularizing the solid-state drive that will eventually replace the hard drives most of us currently use in our computers.
But it was Jobs’ remaking of the business of consumer electronics – the way music, movies and software are sold and distributed – that is his real legacy. The vision he had of bundling together a product, operating system and content distribution method, along with developing a source for that content, is the winning model that has made Apple’s products the ones everybody wants.
Many have already written, and will long be writing, tributes to Jobs’ life work. But the story of his life, I believe, wouldn’t be complete without a brief examination of how his life and work parallel the story of the Jewish people, at least in some respects.
Take, for example, that device and distribution model, as Jobs applied it to music. With the iPod, he reinvented the music business – much as American Jewish immigrant Emile Berliner, the father of the modern vinyl record, did back at the turn of the (20th) century.
Jobs didn’t invent the MP3 player, and Berliner didn’t invent the phonograph. But like Jobs, Berliner invented what would eventually become the distribution method for modern music, from ’20s swings to ’60s rock and roll, when he created the vinyl (vulcanized rubber) record, and a better delivery system – the gramophone, which would eventually morph into the Victrola phonograph.
And Berliner invented the first distribution system for modern music – a “record store” that he operated while selling his gramophones, just as Jobs invented the virtual record store, the iTunes store.
As that Jewish immigrant did, Jobs did nearly 100 years later – creating a whole new sales and distribution method for music. Jobs went on to reinvent the software business, with the same device-content-distribution model for iPhone apps.
My first “Jewish moment” with Jobs’ legacy was when I started using Mac computers – way back in the ’80s. At the time, we Mac users always felt a bit deprived, because it seemed that nearly all the good, cheap or free software was being written for Windows machines. And of course, Mac users couldn’t use any of that free and cheap stuff, because it just wasn’t compatible with the Mac’s operating system. And what software was available was, of course, more expensive than its Windows counterpart.
Sort of like keeping kosher! But the expense of our “religion” did not deter us hardy Mac fans from sticking with our chosen OS. It just seemed to make more sense – and we were convinced that one day the world would proclaim that we had been right all along. There are just as many “true believers” today – and if you were to say that the whole things sounds a bit like a messianic fantasy, you wouldn’t be the only one.
Then there was the story of Jobs’ “exile” – when in 1985 he was booted out of the company he had built with two partners. While out of the company, Jobs developed the NeXT workstation and desktop computer, a new, if unappreciated system.
Ten years later, Apple bought out NeXT, bringing Jobs back “home.”
But the real story of that decadelong exile was Jobs’ activity with Pixar, the special effects animation company, and Disney, where Jobs helped create some of the bestloved children’s movies of all time, including the Toy Story trilogy.
Although a less heralded aspect of Jobs’ career, his deal with Disney, to a large extent, reinvented kids’ movies. It’s another echo of the Jewish immigrant story – where Jews forced into exile, yet again, make good in the new “goldeneh medineh,” the “golden land,” creating something that wasn’t there before.
Even the way Jobs died reminds us of a Jewish lesson. You could be the smartest, richest, most creative person in the world – but it’s God that decides when your time is up, and no amount of intelligence, wealth or creativity can buy you even one more minute. It’s a most appropriate lesson for Yom Kippur, and while the death of such a relatively young genius would be sad at any time, it carries an added layer of meaning during the High Holy Days period.
There are other striking resemblances to the Jewish experience in Jobs’ life and times, but I think you get the idea. And while those of us who go to synagogue on Yom Kippur will be concerned with our own needs, worries and prayers, it would be most appropriate to spare a thought for the memory of Steve Jobs, a man who, if not Jewish, at least taught some lessons we Jews can relate to.