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Monday, May 10, 2021

Too Soon Old And Too Late Schmart–A Jewish Odyssey And An American Cautionary Tale

Herb Weinberg had been brought up right – temple, Hebrew school, Stuyvesant, Harvard, and Harvard Medical School.  What more could good Jewish parents want? Nothing, only they never consulted Herb before setting him on his trajectory.  Although Herb could have done Harvard in three years and medical school in two, he drifted his way through post-modern, woke curricula as an undergraduate; cadavers and brain chemistry, and a sinecure at Mass General.  He was the student the top schools wanted and they, overlooking his deep-seated melancholia, admitted him and paid his way.

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His was not an unusual scenario.  Millions of children are sent along paths they never would have chosen – culinary school, the Marines, ballet – but few have the raw talent, native intelligence, and precocious savoir faire of Herb Weinberg.  He could have been anything, anybody, but there was always something niggling and scratchy that dimmed his focus.  

A modest young man, grateful for his abilities but angry at the lack of ‘resolving genes’, he resented the path chosen for him.  Of course he could have gone to Los Alamos, studied theoretical physics and number theory or anything else for that matter.  His agile, deft, and disciplined mind could have mastered linguistics, philosophy, or Biblical exegesis.

He dawdled – muddled about purpose and being, and  unconvinced about the existential rewards of transplanting livers or parsing ancient Turkic – and shortly after dropping out of medical school, he fiddled in the Florida keys, Bayou la Fourche , and Portland.  

‘There is no way but The Way” explained Trigve Ang, a Norwegian Burmese colleague at Harvard.  Herb’s life unless checked and righted would end up badly.

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But Herb had enough of religion growing up – shiva this, Torah that – and although it provided some degree of order and explanation, it was misleading rather than guiding. 

Born in Burma of Scandinavian missionaries who had taken to Buddhism, its philosophical simplicity and lack of cant, ceremony, and presumption, but who could never forget their hair shirt Lutheran past, Trigve Ang was left to flounder between Christian severity and Buddhist tolerance; and ended up in between, neither here nor there and certainly not in a position to counsel anyone else, let alone on ‘The Way’ which, in his private moments, he began to question for its lack of direction.

The irony of the friendship was comedic.  Herb was Jewish to the core.  Decades of study had convinced him of the Yiddish proverb, “Too soon old, too late schmart” – i.e. that there is an inherent value to study, learning, and intellectual cohesion.  Trigve was Buddhist – not quite to the core because of Martin Luther and his very un-Eastern demands – but Buddhist nonetheless.  The world is an illusion at best and a side show at worst, so calm your emotions, damp your desires, and face finality with equanimity – invest nothing in life and nothing will be lost.

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There always seems to be a woman in the equation, and not long after Herb had moved to Humboldt County, he met Dina Shroff, a Bombay Parsi whose ancestors had built the city, set standards for art, music, and business.  The Parsis are Zoroastrians, worship earth, air, fire, and water; ‘bury’ their dead in at the Towers of Silence to be picked clean by the hawks which circle Malabar Hill; and Dina – like Herb – had had enough of its false promises years before; but the social, cultural side of religion, as, if not more important than the spiritual was impossible to shake.  Dina retained enough of the beliefs of her forbears to hold her in ancestral respect.  She could no sooner thumb her nose at Zarathustra than Herb could at Moses.

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Yet, they smoked dope, laid about, lived in Ukiah communes, and hitchhiked through the Badlands.  Irony had its day – a smart,  Jewish, Harvard double graduate; and Zoroastrian apostle on the road together.

“Bennie Birnbaum just set up his own practice”, wrote Herb’s mother, packing in a few words all her concerns about marriage, grandchildren, and Judaism; but of course Herb never rose to the bait; and Dina was equally hectored by her Bombay family.  

Like the Jews who were marrying gentiles at a rate which would reduce the Jewish demographic pool to zero in a few decades, the Parsis, already half-blind and genetically twisted because of inbreeding were demographically trapped by Parsi-Parsi mating which was meant to preserve the culture, the faith, and the tradition, but would hasten its end.

“Who ever heard of a Jewish hippy”, said Herb’s mother who observed that while the gentiles were taking drugs and having free sex, Jews were going to medical school, law school or Wall Street.  The Parsi Godrej, Shroff, and Tata families built Bombay and were instrumental in developing India’s industry, finance, and business sectors.   There were no Parsi hippies either.

Was this very secular, corporate, investment culture essentially Jewish or Parsi – some indefinable cultural character which militated for success? Or was it simply survival – in and out of the shtetl and the camps and a vengeful, inevitable drive to put it all behind?

Herb looked around at his wet, cold, dripping yurt in the Northern California redwoods, at his Parsi girlfriend, at the campfires, dope, and at the anti-establishmentarianism of the commune; and had second thoughts.  Once a Jew, always a Jew, he said; and better to play out cultural, historic, and genetic destiny than fight it.  Perhaps he should re-enroll in medical school, get a fellowship at Sloane Kettering, have a Birnbaum Family plaque in the lobby, visit his grandmother in Brooklyn on Sundays, and read from the Torah on Shabbat.

Enough of this American idealism, Utopian fancy, and love ethos.  The Jews have influenced history for over 5000 years and the Zoroastrians almost that; and both have fought to conserve, protect, and defend their culture.  The People of the Book, of learning, of seriousness, of purpose and practicality – the Jews – and how could any one of them deny and retreat from that history?

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By returning to Harvard, to temple, to Jerusalem, and to the Torah, Herb re-set his compass, found spiritual North, and at last shed the last vestiges of ‘Do Your Own Thing’.  He gave in to his Jewishness, however influenced – his bookishness, his belief, his community, and his history.  Of what earthly relevance was American optimism, secularity, and anti-historical storybook fancy?

Dina went back to Bombay, rejoined the now diminished but still influential Parsi community, and quickly rose to the position of CFO in one of India’s largest and most important – Parsi-owned and managed – companies.   She lived in a penthouse on Malabar Hill, had homes in Pune and Darjeeling, and whose every move on the Bombay stock exchange was watched with interest. 

There are two Americas – one free and easy, seduced either by wealth or public support, morally lax and unobservant, taking what comes, and the other, far smaller by proportion, serious, dedicated, Hamiltonian, and Judeo-Christian which respects universal rules. They are outliers but the sine qua non of social moral renewal.

The current environment of identity politics, cancel culture, and historical ignorance cannot last.  The moral myopia of today’s America  - its distorted sense of freedom, liberty, and individuality – will eventually revert to first principles; and Moses, Jesus, Aristotle, and Zoroaster will be welcomed back. 

Just as Herb Birnbaum grew up and learned before it was too late, so will America,

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