Most of us tend to be impressed by talents that we completely lack: the ability to hit a fastball thrown at 100 mph, dunk a basketball, solve differential equations. Me? I'm fascinated by those with the ability to make money.
I don't mean the young hotshots in bright red suspenders pulling down million dollar bonuses on Wall Street. No, the ones who really impress me are the guys in frock coats who arrived in America without a penny to their name, little or no English, few connections, and the kind of education one picks up in the death camps or Siberia, and who somehow managed to make millions selling one type of shmatte or another.
How does someone with that background end up manufacturing costume jewelry for young Puerto Ricans or Lacoste knock-off sports shirts that he would not be caught dead wearing? What does he know about what will sell in Spanish Harlem or even how costume jewelry is manufactured. And even if he does, what distributor would believe him?
One Holocaust survivor who is rumored to own a fair percentage of the oil wells dotting the Los Angeles landscape could only find a job cleaning out leaves from under houses when he arrived in America. I still cannot work out how many leaves one has to sweep out to purchase one's first oil well.
This week I was chatting with a new friend. He and his brother took a single failing bridal gown store and turned it into a chain of more than a 100. From his description of his youthful poverty, it is doubtful that his wife could have even afforded one of the stores’ gowns when they were married. In short, he knew nothing about wedding gowns when he and his brother scraped together enough to purchase the first store, and I’m far from clear he knows much more about them today. But in his early sixties he is able to spend all his time on Jewish philanthropy, kvelling about his frum children and grandchildren, and enjoying the King David Hotel when he’s in Jerusalem.
Perhaps the maxim "buy cheap sell dear" is genetically encoded in many Jews. If so, that gene continues to be passed on. My secretary has two young female relatives with thriving eBay businesses.
Of course, necessity helps as well. Many of the post-war immigrants to America had already started families in the DP camps or hoped to do so soon after their arrival in America. They had no choice but to find a way to make a living, and quick. Only in the Torah community in Israel do neither genes nor economic necessity seem to have given rise to a large entrepreneurial class.
That hondling gene has atrophied completely in the Rosenblum family. If someone gave me a million dollars to start a business, I would not have a clue what to do. My first instinct would be to purchase a CD yielding 3% per annum.
Both my grandfathers made enough money to ensure that their children and grandchildren would be able to afford fancy educations so that they could end up as professionals or salaried employees. But as a Satmar Chassid once told me, "An education is helpful for earning a living, but it's irrelevant if you want to make MONEY." He made clear that he preferred the latter.
WHEN I WAS IN COLLEGE, none of my friends would have admitted that they planned to go into business or that they hoped to become rich. Even doctors and lawyers were vaguely disreputable. Anyone planning to go to law or medical school would invariably add that they were doing so only to save humanity – or at the least the spotted salamander – or to find a cure for cancer.
But as I've gotten older, my respect for businessmen has grown and that for professionals waned. Anyone who has ever tried to collect tzedakah from businessmen and lawyers will appreciate the difference. (Please no angry Emails from my doctor and lawyer friends. I know there are many exceptions to the rule, you chief among them.)
Businessmen are far less likely to attribute their success solely to their own abilities. Many of them have been up and down over the course of their careers, and have lost fortunes as well as made them. That makes them a lot more prone to recognize the role of siyata d'Shmaya in their success.
"Hashem has been very good to me," is a phrase that rolls trippingly off the tongues of businessmen, not of lawyers. The Vilna Gaon comments on the verse (Mishlei 17:13), "[If] one repays good with evil, evil will not depart from his house:" One who has been favored with an extra portion of chesed from Hashem (the Gaon specifically mentions great wealth) has an extra obligation to serve Hashem. Most frum businessmen intuitively understand that.
The aforementioned hondling gene appears later than that for the type of intelligence that gets one into a good medical or law school. One of the community's major philanthropists jokes that he made a fortune in real estate only because he didn't do well enough on the exam to become a New York City school teacher, like his more studious friends from yeshiva. Many successful businessmen are remembered from their yeshiva days chiefly as the one who ran the laundry-machine concession.
Because few of them grew up being praised as the next Rabbi Akiva Eiger, successful businessmen rarely view their success as something coming to them as a matter of right. Not so those who always got the best grades. The praise showered upon them in their early years leads them to forget that academic intelligence is also a gift from Hashem, not something they earned.
The late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick developed an entire theory about why intellectuals hate capitalism. He speculated that they grow used to teachers' praise in their youth, and resent a system that apportions reward according to different criteria than those for praising kids in school. "Why are my stupid clients so much richer than I?" was the most frequently discussed topic in my old law firm.
On second thought, the respect for so many of the entrepreneurs I know derives not from the fact that they can do something I can't – that would be true of most skills – but from the fact that they have used their business acumen to both make themselves better people and to help those less fortunate.