M ichael Steinhardt is at it again, and it’s time to act: Perhaps he should be reported for racism and triumphalism to the American Civil Liberties Union.

In an interview with the JTA, the billionaire hedge fund manager and funder of Birthright Israel reprised his previously stated view that “the time of Jewish history that we have to devote far more energy to is the last 300 years…. Jews have accomplished so much, so inexplicably out of proportion to their numbers, in these 300 years, and it’s one of the great failures of Jewish education that that’s not focused on at all.”

After the Pew report on American Jewry was released a few years back, reporting that an astonishing 94 percent of Jews are “proud to be Jewish,” Steinhardt suggested that what they’re in fact proud of is “secular Jewish achievement and accomplishment.” That being so, he wrote,


It is time to invest more seriously in educational endeavors that reinforce it and build upon it. Simply put, for a Jew to be Jewishly educated today, he or she must know the history of the past 300 years. We must learn and understand our achievements, and explore the background and basis of our success. Was it DNA? Social cues? Pressure from persecution? Education? We need to educate more thoroughly in this area than we have in the past.

Nobel Prize winners, scientists, musicians, great writers and artists, commentators in every conceivable media — it all comes together in a new, all-encompassing mosaic of pride that isn’t jingoism but something akin to connection, familiarity and kinship born of shared cultural experience.

Now, Steinhardt ought to know that there are virtually no commonalities connecting the accomplishments of the vast majority of secular Jewish achievers in various fields. The few he can come up with are either explicitly or implicitly racist at their core, not to mention vapid or even nonsensical.

Take his list in the quote above: “DNA? Social cues? Pressure from persecution? Education?” He may have felt safe floating the possibility that Jewish overachievement is attributable to DNA so long as there’s a question mark after it, but I don’t think he’d dare posit that as the true explanation for it, at least not in today’s hyper-politically correct world. It’s simply beyond the pale to suggest a biological advantage for one ethnicity over another.

But then, isn’t something like that old chestnut about “reverence for education” being the secret of Jewish success equally as exclusionary? Let’s posit that historically, we indeed have tended to value education, reading widely, questioning, etc., more than other groups. But are only we uniquely capable of such reverence and emphasis, and if not, how possibly can that be the basis for the Jewish pride that Steinhardt believes we must stoke? If Italians and Greeks can and should be brought to love learning as much as we always have, how can it constitute the basis for the specific perpetuation of Jewishness and the Jewish community?

I sense that Steinhardt, too, senses the illogic and hubristic condescension inherent in his thesis, which is what leads him to protest again and again that “tallies of Jewish achievement are not meant to be simplistic or chauvinistic” and that his “new, all-encompassing mosaic of pride… isn’t jingoism.” Those phrases are giveaways that Steinhardt knows that his suggestions for what has given rise to Jews’ outsized creativity and achievement are indeed both simplistic and chauvinistic.

Steinhardt rues the fact that “many Jews may know that Marx, Freud, and Einstein were Jews of great achievement [but] there is very little effort made to educate how their ideas were Jewish in iconoclastic ways that might not fit with traditional definitions of Judaism….” Might it just be that there’s been little effort to do so because there’s so little about those men and their ideas that were Jewish in any way?

But no, he insists, we “must find and train educators with a knowledge base to help Jews understand what elements of Jewish history and wisdom have informed the actions of Jews in the secular world.” Even, it seems, if we’ll need to make stuff up.

Par for the Course

We all hear about the importance of doing the right thing and about what all those right things are that we ought to do. But then you come across a story about someone actually doing the right thing, and it might not be something inherently earthshaking. It may be one of those seemingly small things that fill our lives, but what magnifies the deed’s greatness, instead, is the personal cost, the internal struggle one likely had to undergo to accomplish it.

Phil Mickelson is one of the greatest professional golfers ever, member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. He’s one of a handful of players to have won three of the sport’s four major tournaments, but, in 26 tries has never won the fourth one, the U.S. Open, coming in second a record six times.

And the window for him to win the Open, and thereby achieve the feat of what’s called a Grand Slam, would seem to be closing. The oldest U.S. Open champion to date was just past his 45th birthday when he won. This week, when the 2017 U.S. Open begins, Mickelson will turn 47, and, to boot, he hasn’t won a tournament in four years.

In other words, Mickelson must surely want to win the U.S. Open more than anything in the world. Well, almost anything.

When the first round of the Open gets under way this Thursday in Wisconsin, Mickelson will be with his family in Carlsbad, California, attending the high school graduation of his daughter Amanda, where, as valedictorian, she will deliver the commencement speech. Mickelson has done extremely well as a pro golfer and owns a private jet, but even that can’t enable him to be simultaneously at the opening round of the Open and at the graduation ceremony, and so he chose the latter.

There’s a backstory to this one: At the 1999 U.S. Open in North Carolina, Mickelson was locked in a fierce battle with another star golfer, Payne Stewart, while his wife was back in Arizona expecting their first child. He had his golf caddy carry a beeper to alert him in case his wife went into labor, in which case he would leave the tournament immediately to be with her. He was asked by incredulous reporters: “How could you give up the rare chance to win a major competition?” He responded simply, “It’s not worth the tournament. Come next June, we’re going to have another U.S. Open. This is the birth of my first child.”

He lost to Payne Stewart on the final hole of the final round in one of the great Open finishes of all time. After the match, Stewart held Mickelson’s face in his hands as he consoled him, saying, “Good luck with the baby. There’s nothing greater than being a father.”

The next day, Amanda Mickelson, who is to graduate this week, was born. And four months later, Payne Stewart died in a plane crash.

Mickelson says that each year at the Open, he thinks about the one in 1999, the birth of his first child, and about Payne Stewart and he “can’t believe how quickly time has gone by.”

It’s things like Stewart’s death and his wife’s past struggles with cancer that Mickelson says have helped him keep his priorities straight. As he told the New York Times about his decision to attend the graduation, “Obviously, it’s a tournament that I want to win the most, and the only way to win is if you play and have a chance. But this is one of those moments where you look back on life and you just don’t want to miss it. I’ll be really glad that I was there and present.”

None of this is to lionize Phil Mickelson as a person. But it is to marvel at this one decision he made. Such a little thing, attending your kid’s graduation for an hour or two. And therefore, so easy to rationalize away as not worth the price of giving up truly big things, like an epic tournament win, which will, of course, make it possible to spend so much time in the future with your kid. Et cetera.

Of many such little things is life — and greatness — made.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 664. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com.