The Jewish Path to Success

By Adam Bellow

Published August 01, 2003, issue of August 01, 2003.
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The news that Senator Joseph Lieberman had his two children on the campaign payroll as fundraisers with six-figure salaries raised some concerned eyebrows last month in the American Jewish community. Sure, Matt and Rebecca Lieberman are hard and effective workers, and since then have even taken a conspicuous pay cut — but couldn’t their father get them a job in a less conspicuous place?

The Connecticut senator, though, is only doing what dozens of other politicians have been doing of late: bringing his children into the family business.

To be honest, Jews aren’t really upset about the fact that Lieberman hired his children or even that he paid them high salaries. The discomfort with the personnel choices of the first Jewish candidate to make a serious run at the presidency is that his behavior is subjected to a higher level of scrutiny by the general public. In a word, what Jews fear is how it looks to the goyim: clannishness and underlying hypocrisy about meritocracy and nepotism.

What’s that, you say? Hypocrisy? Most Jews would probably tell you that they find the very idea of nepotism abhorrent and unfair.

After all, haven’t Jews been at the forefront of the liberal revolution, insisting on equality of rights and opportunity not just for themselves but for other minority groups? Haven’t Jews championed the principle of merit, supported affirmative action, attacked the idea of restrictive quotas and legacy admissions, and striven to overcome the impression that they are clannish and insular?

All true. But at the same time, like other immigrant groups, Jews have relied first and foremost on familial resources to adapt, survive and prosper in America.

In the mid-19th century, when the first wave of German Jews arrived, itinerant peddlers named Seligman, Guggenheim, Levi, and Straus built their pushcart businesses into enormous dry-goods empires, bringing their relatives over to run their chain department stores. Later on, excluded from the white-shoe legal and financial firms of Wall Street, the Lehman, Kuhn, Loeb, Sachs and Goldman families created their own.

When millions of Russian and East European Jews arrived in the 1880s and 1890s, established Jewish families — obeying the ancient injunctions to Jewish charity enshrined in the Mosaic code — constructed an elaborate welfare system, including hospitals, orphanages, settlement houses and trade schools. Most of these immigrants went into the booming garment industry, putting their whole families to work and giving rise to a thriving ethnic economy in which Jewish factory owners employed Jewish workers to create goods sold by Jewish merchants to Jewish customers.

The immigrants also created dozens of landsmanschaft organizations that helped bring over new immigrants, settled them in jobs and provided welfare services for widows and orphans. Such communal and family ties lent solidarity and strength to the heavy Jewish presence in the labor movement.

During the 1920s and 1930s a group of hard-nosed Jewish entrepreneurs turned a patch of desert near Los Angeles into the Hollywood movie industry. Entertainment juggernaut Paramount Pictures, founded in 1919 by Adolph Zukor, was financed by an enormous loan from the Jewish Wall Street firm of Kuhn, Loeb & Co. — thanks to the intervention of Otto Kahn, brother of Zukor’s partner Felix Kahn. The studios were famed for their nepotism.

Jewish families also went into the media business, founding Random House, Knopf, Simon & Schuster and other distinguished publishing houses. And the Sulzberger-Ochs clan has owned and run The New York Times since 1896.

During the Depression, Jewish families pulled together once again, outdoing other groups in solidarity and mutual support. After World War II, Jews gained access to the middle class and moved to the suburbs, leaving their ethnic roots behind them. Yet Jews did not disperse throughout the economy like other immigrants but continued to congregate in medicine, law, academia and the communications industry, where relatively high numbers have afforded leverage and security.

Speaking at a recent seminar on Jewish women in television at New York’s Jewish Museum, Terri Minsky, creator of the hit series “Lizzie McGuire,” unapologetically remarked: “I got into TV the way I thought all Jewish people did — I had an uncle in the business.”

How can we square this long record of familial and ethnic nepotism with the public insistence of Jews on equal opportunity and merit? While most would surely point to the long Jewish tradition of social idealism, a more practical reason may be found in the disproportionate benefit Jews derive from a meritocratic system.

But this genial hypocrisy is tempered by the fact that Jewish nepotism has always been meritocratic. For thousands of years, Jews have placed enormous value on learning and education, and Jewish parents have insisted on high standards of achievement for their children. This longstanding habit gave Jews an edge over other groups and enabled immigrants to escape the ghetto much faster, within one or two generations.

Lieberman’s nepotism seems to call into question the whole Jewish commitment to meritocracy. A similar scandal erupted in 1983, when Bess Myerson, appointed as New York City’s cultural affairs commissioner by her old friend Mayor Ed Koch, gave a job to Sukhreet Gabel, the emotionally-disturbed daughter of the family court judge assigned to Myerson’s divorce case. Jews were outraged, though not so much by the seriousness of the offense as by Myerson’s failure to uphold the communal honor: how could the Jewish Miss America behave like any other politician?

Has Lieberman embarrassed himself or his supporters by hiring his children? Not at all. To the contrary, he is a good father and family man who is doing proudly and openly what generations of Jews have done before him. The whole history of American Jewry is a tribute to the power of Jewish nepotism. Indeed, nepotism has been a positive and wholesome force in Jewish life for thousands of years. It is high time to acknowledge and even celebrate this fact instead of trying to keep it hidden like a shameful family secret.

Adam Bellow is the author of “In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History” (Doubleday).

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