Wednesday, July 20, 2011

eye of the tiger

One of the most enjoyable books I read recently is Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua, a professor at Yale, describes how she constantly pushed her two daughters to overachieve by being what others might describe as an overbearing, relentlessly authoritarian parent. Chua sees her own demanding expectations as a product of her Chinese upbringing, which she contrasts with American cultural expectations that allow children to slack off and to do as they please.

Chua takes things to an extreme (read the book), but I sympathize with her position, in part because my parents raised me the same way. A 95 on a test meant 5 points were missing.

To take an example from another great book I recently read, in Start Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Econimoc Miracle (p.124), the following description of a visit to an Israeli high school is recounted:

The Google founders strode into the hall an the crowd roared. The students could not believe their eyes, "Sergey Brin and Larry Page... in our high school!" one of the students proudly recalled. What had brought the world's most famous tech duo to this Israeli high school, of all places?

The answer came as soon as Sergey Brin spoke. “Ladies and gentleman, girls and boys,” he said in Russian, his choice of language prompting spontaneous applause. “I emigrated from Russia when I was six, “ Brin continued. “I went to the United States. Similar to you, I have standard Russian-J parents. My dad is a math professor. They have a certain attitude about studies. And I think I can relate that here, because I was told that your school recently got seven out of the top ten places in a math competition throughout all Israel.”

This time the students clapped for their own achievement. “But what I have to say,” Brin continued, cutting through the applause, “is what my father would say – ‘What about the other three?’"

You betcha this type of approach is outside the norm these days. I heard a H.S. principal once describe his talmidim as “pampered” – I cannot think of a better word. Parents are afraid of pushing, teachers are afraid of pushing, as a community we are afraid of pushing. After all, look at all the kids that went off the derech – they must have been pushed too hard, right? Look at how many people hate going to shul – it’s all because the candyman did not given them an extra lollipop and a pat on the head. (Yes, I’m painting a caricature, but you get the idea).

When you read stories of the "greatest" generation, the common theme is pushing to do more. You had to -- who wanted to spend the rest of life in a slum, a ghetto, or worse? Who wants hardship and poverty? So you claw your way out, build a better life. But what's there to motivate you if you start with that better life to begin with?

My son's Rebbe once told the shiur about an amazing peirush on the Yerushalmi written in Siberia, of all places. Look what can be accomplished in the bleakest of bleak conditions if one has drive! And in America, concluded my son's Rebbe, what have we produced? -- Artscroll.

I think we, the Jewish people, used to have that tiger attitude. Forget the Torah giants of the past -- look at what we have contributed to the secular world in every field. But sadly, that attitude is quickly being lost. There is a pervasive attitude that scamming the system, getting something for nothing, cutting corners, is the way to go, and hard work is just not worth it or foolish.


  1. Michael7:50 PM

    Great post and right on point. But I'm not a big fan of the ArtScroll comment. The ArtScroll Shas is a huge achievement which took years of effort by many talmidei chachamim that has made Shas accessible to so many people. It was not created to be used as a crutch (as some unfortunately do) but as a way of opening up the beauty of Gemara to people. And I say this as someone who tries to avoid using ArtScroll at all costs (except for the comments/marei mekomos on the Hebrew version, which are phenomenal).

  2. Garnel Ironheart8:19 PM

    First of all you should know that in recent interviews Amy Chua said she regretted being a tiger mom. One of her daughters is apparently battling depression and the other won't speak to her anymore. Great positive results, eh?

    Furthermore, the edition of her book sold in mainland China is marketed as an example of how Chinese moms go soft after moving to America! Apparently even her rigorous methods were considered lightweight in the "alte heim".

    However, consider the dark side of the attitude you and I were raised under. How many kids lose any trace of self-esteem because of the constant "Where's the other 5%?" Do you know how many times I was on the way to a nevous breakdown in high school because my gentile friends thought 80% was a great mark and I was dreading coming home with only an 89%?

    How many kids in China commit suicide when they fail to meet their parents' expectations? How many Jewish kids have completely fallen off the derech over the years for the same reason?

    Yes, it's important to teach our children to strive for excellence but excellence isn't always measured by marks on a test in school. And above all the striving must be equalled with unconditional love should the child fail to live up to the expected standard. Too many parents I've met make love conditional on success and this leads to tragic outcomes.

  3. great unknown8:55 PM

    When I was doing kiruv in Eretz Yisroel, one of the big counseling issues was the "Jewish Mother Syndrome." "You got a perfect score on the test? Did anyone do better?"
    When Ohr Someach started admitting people from frum backgrounds, I saw children of great talmidei chachomim and poskim with needle tracks on their arms, some just coming out of psychiatric institutes...
    Based on Rav Wolbe and the Alter of Slobodka, and yibadel lechayim tovim aruchim R' Dr. Twerski, the better approach is to build up the child's sense of how important and great he is so that underachieving is beneath his dignity. Then enjoy his achievements for his sake, not yours.

  4. Anonymous9:58 PM

    as the story goes, adam & eve were
    DRIVEn from gan eiden...
    (or did eve, even when ensconced, have drive-in-the-making, when she eyed the fatal tiger-fruit for personal advantage?)
    (chava<-->chua, mere folk etymology,
    or proof the nachash knew jujitsu, by way of the sea of japan?)

    to kick the can down the road--
    does he who reaches olam habah forevermore strive from level-to-level, or but bask in the glow of the Shechinah?

  5. Anonymous10:14 PM

    Chazal say that God wants the heart, not the highest mark in the class from us.

  6. Daas Yochid2:17 AM

    Reb Chaim, I have read you blog for years and thoroughly enjoy it. However, for reasons expressed in the previous comments, I think this has to be your most ill informed post ever.

  7. Michael, I thought twice about the Artscroll example because I do think overall a lot of good has come of making shas more accessible. That being said, there are a lot of people using Artscroll as a substitute of yegiya, and that was my point.

    As for the other comments, to each his own. G-d wants the heart means whatever you achieve with your 110% effort, it's good enough -- not that a 75% or 50% effort is excusable. You ask about kids being pushed off the derech; I ask about kids who could be big talmidei chachamim and great doctors, leaders, lawyers, etc. if only we had developed in them the drive to push themselves to do more and not be satisfied with mediocrity.

    As I wrote, Chua is extreme, but considering the sharp tilt toward the attitude of "pampering", her book is a wake up clarion call to at least have some balance.

  8. Da'as Yochid -- I'm not like Chua and will be happy if you enjoy the blog 95% of the time and make this the exception

    : )