Good News, Bad News On Jewish Push For Success
Tue, 02/25/2014
Special To The Jewish Week

If we can identify the factors that lead to success, then we can model educational systems to produce highly successful students.  Or can we?

In their op-ed, “What Drives Success?” (New York Times, Jan. 26), Yale professors Amy Chua (“Tiger Mom”) and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, identify three traits that they claim drive success and are inherent to the most successful groups in America today: a superiority complex, a deep-seated belief in the exceptionality of members of their group; insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough; and impulse control, the degree to which a person can control the desire for immediate gratification. 

While anyone can possess these traits, their research suggests that some groups are instilling them more frequently than others and with greater success: every one of America’s most successful groups believes that there is something exceptional about their group; being an outsider has been a source of insecurity evident in all of America’s most successful rising groups; and contemporary American parenting is focused on “feeling good and living in the moment,” while every one of America’s most successful rising groups has inculcated disciplined habits into their children. 

Emblematic of the “triple package” of traits leading to success have been American Jews: They are “chosen,” they are the quintessential outsiders and they are raised with strong habits of discipline. Chua and Rubenfeld state that “Jewish success is the most historically fraught and the most broad-based. Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the United States’ adult population, they account for a third of the current Supreme Court; over two-thirds of Tony Award-winning lyricists and composers; and about a third of American Nobel laureates.”

Truly a remarkable record. Can it be sustained?

With greater acceptance of Jews and Judaism in all realms of American culture today, it is clear that Jewish insecurity has faded.  Our children have not grown up with the insecurities that we did as the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and immigrants. Our children are not embarrassed to identify as Jews. In fact, according to the recent Pew Research Center study on Jewish identity in America, 94 percent of the 6.7 million Jews surveyed said they are proud of being Jewish. Less than a century ago in 1937, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan described the lowly stature of Jews this way: “The average Jew today is conscious of his Judaism as one is conscious of a diseased organ that gives notice of its existence by causing pain.” 

We have come a long way. Being Jewish is no longer viewed as a stigma. It has become so widely accepted that nearly 40 percent of Americans say they would favor a close relative marrying a Jew, a statistic that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. With bar and bat mitzvah envy and Chanukah envy on the rise, Jews are no longer outsiders.

Our insecurities have lessened and the digital age has brought with it a marked decrease in emphasis on community and communal superiority, along with an increased focus on the individual. This has greatly diminished the relevance of any notions of communal Jewish “chosen-ness.” The Pew study identified most Jews as proud of their Jewishness, but most Jews do not associate their Jewishness with any sense of superiority. To the contrary, there is a growing discomfort with the notion of Jewish specialness.

Recent trends in American parenting have also weakened the importance that we attach to discipline and impulse control. At the same time that we have taken a hands-off approach to inculcating impulse control, the digital age has provided our children with immediate online gratification of social, physical and recreational needs that further diminishing their impulse control. 

And so, American Jewry today is uncomfortable with notions of communal superiority, relatively secure in our status as American Jews and disinterested in instilling impulse control if it means having to say no to our children’s desires. Chua and Rubenfield caution that to the extent that a group passes on its wealth to the next generation without that generation having to work hard, deal with insecurities and maintain discipline, it’s future success as a group is likely to be headed for decline.

Does this signal trouble ahead for Jewish success?

Chua and Rubenfeld say anyone can develop the triple package of traits by turning the ability to work hard and overcome adversity into a source of personal superiority and pride in one’s own “strength of will.” Pride in one’s own character is one trait our children will need to develop the grit necessary to guarantee future Jewish success. Here are three more: the pride a person takes in the strength of his/her Jewish heritage; compassion for outsiders that comes from having been an outsider and knowing that at any time one’s own status can change; and the impulse control to make wise, deliberate choices in life. The good news is, we can create educational systems to help develop these traits.

Daphna Raskas, a consultant to nonprofit organizations, is a former president of the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Md.

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