Tiger Mom, Why Not Raise a Little Mensch?
The success of Jews has long been framed as a riddle to solve. Was it all that studying? The centuries of involvement in the money-lending business? Or maybe, the most controversial theory of them all, it’s genetic? The Chinese, for one, think our recipe for money-making lies in the Talmud.
The latest attempt to crack our code comes from Amy Chua, you probably know her as the Tiger Mom, and her husband and fellow Yale law professor, Jed Rubenfeld. In their new book, “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America,” they argue that Indians, Chinese, Iranians, Lebanese-Americans, Nigerians, Cuban Exiles, Mormons and, yep, Jews do better at school and make more money because they all impart on their children feelings of superiority, insecurity and impulse control.
The sour, and potentially toxic, whiff of racial exceptionalism aside, there is something unsettling about this recipe. And kind of un-Jewish too. So I came up with an alternative.
On the pages of the New York Times Sunday Review, Chua and Rubenfeld warned of the potential pitfalls of their triple package. Too much impulse control can “undercut the ability to experience beauty, tranquility and spontaneous joy,” too much insecurity and you always feel bad about yourself, and too much superiority, and you become a supremacist.
They also own up to the fact that even when the triple package performs, it can still be imprisoning, “precisely because of the kind of success it tends to promote.” It is achievement built of material rewards and prestige rather than fulfillment and a sense of purpose.
And then they quickly move on, going back to the importance of imparting upon our young ones the importance of perseverance and grit so that they can bring themselves, and America, prosperity and power. So much for the beauty and joy.
Chua and Rubenfeld’s call to arms is a departure from the much larger conversation going on over the past few years about work/life balance and how old notions of success have begun to ring hollow. Even the very successful, very ambitious media guru Arianna Huffington has jumped on board and started something called “The Third Metric” which aims to redefine success “beyond money and power, to include well-being, wisdom, wonder, compassion and giving.”
Inspired by Huffington I’d like to propose another measure, one that can serve as an alternative to the “Triple Package.” I’m calling it the Mensch Metric and it’s how I want to raise my kids and think you should raise yours. Because while it’s possible that Chua and Rubenfeld have discovered the formula that made certain groups reach great heights in the past, that doesn’t necessarily make it an ideal blueprint for your kids or mine.
In their Triple Package, Chua and Rubenfeld call for impulse control, insecurity and superiority. In my “Mensch Metric” I’m calling for compassion, self-scrutiny and community.
In his book “How to Be a Mentsh (and Not a Shmuck),” author Michael Wex explains how the main difference between the mensch and the shmuck is selfishness and arrogance. Mensches are compassionate and righteous, and shmucks, well not so much. He presents Jewish culture as one that doesn’t trade so much in notions of good and evil, but instead on our ability to empathize with others.
Like Chua and Rubenfeld, he points out the importance of controlling our desires, though not because they might get in the way of AP chemistry. Instead, it is because as people become more and more accustomed to self-indulgence they will become less and less aware of the ways in which they are harming or shaming others. Talmudic Rabbi Ben Zoma defined strength as the ability to conquer one’s impulsive natures. The reason? To make sure we aware of our actions and their potential repercussions.
There is also a level of self-scrutiny to being a mensch, which is distinct from the Chua and Rubenfeld endorsed insecurity. One can be self-aware, even self-critical, without assuming they are better or worse than others. Self-scrutiny can occur without seeing the world as a hierarchy of winners and losers in which you are clawing to get ahead. Rabbi Hillel’s famous one-footed summary of the Torah — “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor” — is just this, an exercise in self-awareness.
Lastly, the matter of superiority, or, for us Jews, “chosenness.” It’s a tricky concept, one many of us don’t take literally. And yet still, when we hear it at the Passover table the word rings in our ears. We’re pretty sure it’s not true, but there is something in it that compels us to come back, year after year.
“Chosenness” is hard to defend, but its natural byproduct, a strong community, is not. We work hard to share our stories and customs, rituals and traditions with our children with the hope that these things will bind them to that half-mythic, half very real entity we call the Jewish people. Success, for many Jewish parents, is seeing our people, our ways, carried on.
Why do we do this? Because let’s say our kid is a Chua and Rubenfeld dream come true. They are just insecure/superior/self-contained enough to find themselves clerking for the Supreme Court or breaking news for The New York Times at age 25. And then something bad happens. Anything. It can and it does.
There is so much we can’t control, and with ongoing economic insecurity for a rising number of Americans this is more the case than ever. “Everything has a season…a time to seek and a time to lose” or so says Ecclesiastes. Chua and Rubenfeld want to raise a winner and I want to raise someone who has somewhere to go when he or she loses.
Elissa Strauss is a contributing editor to the Forward.