Back to the Books
The awe of witnessing any difficult task done well
Wednesday, August 01, 2018
Bein Hazmanim no longer plays the role in my annual schedule that it once did. Married children do not return home from yeshivah and camp schedules are no longer part of our life. All that's left is the family vacation the last week of Av.
But these few weeks feel almost like those days of old. My morning chaburah is off until Elul, and the rav of my nighttime shiur, which is usually oblivious to the yeshivah schedule, is in America for three weeks.
My wife and I had planned a ten-day all-expenses-paid trip to England to pursue a particular project. But that had to be cancelled at the last minute. And I was thrilled.
Suddenly, I found myself with three weeks to begin plowing through the accumulated pile of "books to read." One week into bein hazmanim, I have already finished four books. Admittedly, two of them were for upcoming Mishpacha assignments, but I only take such assignments if I want to read the book anyway.
NOTHING BRINGS ME BACK to the halcyon days of youth more thoroughly than a book that I cannot put down. The most recent such read was Michael Lewis's The Undoing Project about the intellectual collaboration of Daniel Kahaneman and Amos Tversky. I finished the nearly 400-page book in less than a day.
The two Israeli psychologists are credited with founding the field of behavioral economics, and Kahaneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics (after Tversky's death) for their joint work. The two met as assistant professors at Hebrew University, and seemed an unlikely match to all who knew them. Tversky had the swagger of a native Israeli; Kahaneman's personality was shaped by his childhood years in hiding in Vichy France. Tversky's desk typically had on it only a pencil and piece of paper; Kahaneman's office looked like the aftermath of a tornado. One was a night person; the other a morning person.
But from the moment they discovered one another, according to their wives, they spent virtually every free minute together in a seminar room, with only the occasional sound of their laughter emanating to the outside. Studies of successful intellectual partnerships, cited by Lewis, show that the two partners cannot identity the original source for any particular insight. And that was certainly true for Kahaneman and Tversky. Kahaneman marveled at Tverski's ability to understand what he was saying better than he himself did, and to formulate his insights with greater clarity. The perfect chavrusah.
The Undoing Project is an appropriate title. For the two upset many of the assumptions upon which classical economics is built, none more so than the conceit of the "rational man." For example, if someone prefers A to B and B to C, it follows mathematically that he must prefer A to C. And yet, Kahaneman and Tversky found, that is often not the case.
They identified many heuristic devices that betray the mind into making predictably wrong judgments. For instance, given a carefully crafted description of someone we'll call "Dan," who fits all the stereotypes of a librarian, people will instinctively state that he is more likely to be a librarian than a farmer, completely ignoring that the ratio of male farmers to male librarians may be 1000:1. Given a description of "Mary" as having been a college activist, involved in social justice causes, and asked whether Mary is likely to be (a) a banj teller or (b) a bank teller involved in feminist causes, most people — even those with advanced training in statistics — will choose (b). Yet that answer cannot be right, for the likelihood of two traits being found in conjunction with each other is always less than the likelihood of either one alone.
As I was racing through The Undoing Project, it struck me that Lewis and I both write biographies, but he is light years beyond me. His books have sold around ten million copies, and while I'm not sure what the equivalent number of ArtScroll volumes is, I'm confident that I have not reached it.
The odd thing, however, was that the acknowledgment of Lewis's superiority gave me a certain pleasure, which I tried to analyze. Was the recognition of Lewis's vastly greater ability to keep the story flowing by picking out only the telling detail, without getting bogged down in needless minutiae, a sort of patur from greater effort on my part because, in any event, I will never be that good?
Or did my excitement come from the opposite direction — in the knowledge that however well received my biographies have been in the relatively circumscribed circle of readers of Torah biographies, there still remain multiple higher levels to strive for?
Perhaps the simplest answer is that because I do the same thing as Lewis I could appreciate the multiple ways that he has succeeded in conveying in an emotionally gripping fashion the story of how two minds can meld into one. And there is a natural human response of awe to witnessing any difficult task done well.
The Youngest Heroes
As Tishah B'Av approached, I went searching through the house for Rebbetzin Esther Farbstein's magisterial two-volume Hidden in Thunder, which has comprised the bulk of my Tishah B'Av reading for many years, with plenty of material left for years to come. Before I had located those volumes, however, my hand alighted upon Rabbi Hanoch Teller's Heroic Children nestled on a history shelf.
That volume constituted the first of the abovementioned four books read last week. Not exactly pleasure reading. Nor meant to be. But at least each of the nine protagonists escaped the fate of the vast majority of European Jews and survived the war.
I could never write, as did Michael Medved, "If you were to read just one book about the Holocaust, this riveting, intimate, unforgettable narrative should be the one," about any single volume in the vast Holocaust literature. But Heroic Children (recently released again in an updated, heavily documented format) is a very good book indeed.
One of its great virtues is the diversity of the accounts of the various child and teenage survivors of the Holocaust. Some survived in hiding on the outside, and some survived the death camps and the death marches at the end of the war.
Moreover, the subjects came from a wide variety of locales in pre-War Europe — Munkacz, Vilna, Warsaw, Riga — and each experienced World War II in different ways as a consequence.
Two broad lessons stood out from among the gripping accounts. First was that the indomitable will, bravery, and quick thinking that were the necessary conditions for survival, but hardly sufficient without the additional element of siyata d'Shmaya. Many who possessed all these qualities in spades did not survive.
Teller is very good at conveying the sheer terror that accompanied even the most fortunate survivors every moment for years on end. They never knew when the peasant who had offered shelter for a price might decide to keep the money and turn them in, or when the next aktion would take place in the ghetto, or some camp commandant would think of a new way to torture Jews to death at his whim.
The second thing that struck me was the ability of Hitler ym"sh to infect so many Germans with evil and turn them into the cruelest of sadists. In Germany and almost every European country, he drew on deep wellsprings of Jew-hatred to unleash willing executioners and those who gleefully recounted the last desperate struggles for life of their long-time Jewish neighbors.
The numbers of those who devoted their full mental energies to making the elimination of the Jews, every last Jew, as cruel as possible astounds. They studied the Jewish calendar, for instance, to lay out sumptuous banquets before starving Jews on Yom Kippur and delicious breads on Pesach.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach once commented that he often read the Holocaust family memoir of his close friend Reb Yona Emanuel — Dignity to Survive — on Tishah B'Av. I, too, have found no better way to connect to the horrors of Jewish history since our ancestors cried in their tents on Tishah B'Av night