Shanghai Jew
Fri, 12/03/2010
Employees of the Jewish Loan Cassa, Milan,Italy, c. 1948, Courtesy American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Employees of the Jewish Loan Cassa, Milan,Italy, c. 1948, Courtesy American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

On a visit to China in 2005, adopting a baby girl with a contingent of other families, my tour guide pulled me aside toward the end of our trip and popped a question that took me by surprise.

“Are you Jewish?”

“Yes,” I replied somewhat cautiously.

“Shanghai Jew,” he said with an admiring stare.

“You mean the Jews that sought refuge in Shanghai during World War II?” I asked.

“No, it’s a popular expression used in China meaning ‘clever in business.’”

Ever since, it’s been a personal obsession. Is there a distinctly and identifiably Jewish way of doing business? If so, should we package it up and share our centuries-old recipe with the larger world? (I’ve even reserved the title of a future book, “Bucks and Bagels: The Jewish Way to a Richer Life.”) Or, should we scrap this provocative and potentially dangerous idea and continue with the safer and more traditional course, lay low and accurately point out that if only we were so lucky, and that most Jews have a more modest existence and in fact there are plenty of poor and struggling Jews too.

As a graduate of Beverly Hills High School, a member of Zeta Beta Tau Fraternity (known as “Zillions, Billions and Trillions” or “Zionist Bankers Trust”) at UCLA who has spent a career working with Jewish millionaires (and several billionaires too) in the United States and Israel over the years, I’ve observed a range of identifiable business traits among family, friends and clients.

It started with hearing legends of my grandfather. With an eighth-grade education, he supported eight younger siblings by selling beans on the side of the road. He started several companies, two of which ended up being traded on the New York Stock Exchange. It was not just his vision to create the country’s first do-it-yourself home-decorating chain (Standard Brands Paint overtaken by another Jewish business wiz, Bernie Marcus at Home Depot), but his appetite for risk, ability to bounce back after failure, his integrity and generosity (e.g. giving a significant portion of company revenue to the then-fledgling State of Israel) that was heralded by his family. And there’s my dad’s desire to diverge from the professional path of his father, and become a successful modern architect and developer, do it his way, report to no one, and justify it by repeating the quote, “Make me a general, or leave me a private, but I refuse to pass on silly orders.” I too, consider myself fortunate: Despite a lack of financial focus and acumen, I’ve managed to carve out my own creative career in the communications field.

Countless American Jewish families have similar tales and hence no surprise that we are disproportionally represented among the ranks of the wealthy. Moreover, with Israel’s economic success and Israeli entrepreneurs and companies spreading into every corner of the world, has the time arrived for us Jews to throw off the unspoken tradition of downplaying any uniquely Jewish component to our business success?

Rather than business as usual amidst fears that anti-Semitic sentiments will linger and in some cases grow, I believe it’s time we “own it” and incorporate this complexity into who we are. But, not always in the way the gentile world (or even most Jews) think. Certainly, not in more obnoxious and ostentatious displays of wealth, but rather in giving it away — both the generations-old sechel, or wisdom, of the ups and downs in making and losing money, but fueling a new and unprecedented level of tikkun olam.

But first, can we extract ingredients that help explain our success in business? Here’s a sample recipe on one leg: It’s being wandering Jews (among the first global business people) and proudly assuming perpetual immigrant “we try harder” status and, like Noah, recreating the world starting with a clean slate in a new land; it’s famous or infamous chutzpah like can-do aggressiveness; it’s tachlis (Yiddish for, so, nuts and bolts, what do you want?)-like concise directness; it’s “Rachel Your Younger Daughter”-like specificity and a refrain in negotiations to prevent misunderstandings (emanating from a biblical quote uttered by Jacob to his father-in-law Laban in which he was overly clear in stating his wish to marry Rachel rather than the older daughter, Leah); it’s Jewish mother-like prodding and encouragement to first get an education and be the best you can be whether a doctor, lawyer or plumber; it’s Andy Grove, founder of Intel and author of “Only the Paranoid Survive”-like purging of any naïve innocence into battle-hardened skepticism that typified a generation of Holocaust survivors who triumphed in business; it’s embracing the remnants of that paranoia with Howard Schultz of Starbucks identifying insecurity as a trait needed in successful CEOs; it’s out of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” of being a Jewish lawyer born around 1930 in New York and willing to do what other lawyers saw as beneath them; it’s Lenny Bruce-like irreverence and refusal to follow others; it’s Kafka-like revulsion for big impersonal bureaucracies and instead a more heimische, or warm, way of making a living; it’s having audacious and obsessive dreams to do the “new new thing” and revolutionize the Internet, as my late friend Danny Lewin did in co-founding Akamai Technologies, going from sleeping on the floor of my Upper West Side apartment with no credit card to a record-breaking IPO and billionaire in one year.

While no one person can embody all the above ingredients, and one certainly doesn’t have to be Jewish to have any or all of them, when combined there’s either a religious, historical or cultural link to each and every one of these attributes that make for a distinctly Jewish way of doing business. So while I categorically don’t buy the argument that Jews are more intelligent than the next guy, I do believe that there’s a concentrated formula for business success that feels very Jewish.

Part of the formula though is anchored in the distance we create from money: the time off on Shabbat and holidays we take from pursuing it, carrying it, even talking about it. Let’s recall, the actual goal is parnasa, supporting ourselves rather than “riches.” Plus, it’s about the fairness we’re commanded in how we treat, and immediately pay, laborers. Not to mention the money we’re instructed to give away in tzedakah. These are the traits that are even more worthy for us to practice and export and unfortunately sorely missing from China’s economic success. Speaking of which, it’s remembering what it’s like to be discriminated against, as Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin did growing up in the former Soviet Union, and then using those bitter memories to challenge a dictatorial regime in Beijing.

As we assimilate more and more into American culture and corporations, however, and no longer have the closed doors, quotas and other obstacles that made us stronger, are we losing our edge and hence a Jewish way and ethic for doing business?

But there’s a new generation of Jewish business leaders who are stepping up and putting their money where their mouths are: from Jeff Swartz at Timberland supporting a range of worthwhile causes in the Jewish community, especially Jewish day schools, to (although less Jewishly identified) Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and his $100 million donation to the schools of Newark. These are the legends and stories, new and old, that the world is hungry for, including millions of Christians in America who no longer see money as a potentially corrupting force, but as a healthy byproduct of a successful life or a new generation of hyper-connected techies who are now seeing the merits of getting offline and practicing their own secular Shabbat.

It not easy to accomplish, especially in tough economic times, but getting a new generation of Jews to open their wallets for Jewish and non-Jewish worthy causes is not just a worthy goal but probably the most important responsibility that comes with business success.

As we look to the future, let’s make more of an effort to put our collective wealth to good use and be known less as The Chosen People and more known as The Generous People.

Marco Greenberg is president of Thunder11, a branding, public relations and social media boutique based in New York City. He has extensive experience in launching and marketing venture capital-backed start-ups, frequently lectures on the subject of entrepreneurship, and has worked as an adviser to CEOs of large and small businesses in both the United States and Israel.