Steve Jobs, His Father and Sukkot

Only after Steve Jobs died did I learn that his birth father is still alive.  His name is Abdulfattah John Jandali. He is 80 years old, He lives in Reno, Nevada.  And Jobs, who died last week at age 56, never spoke to him.

That’s right: the man who devoted his life to making it easy for us to communicate with one another from anywhere on the planet never once connected with his father, who lived 250 miles away.

Jandali and Joanne Carole Schieble gave birth to Jobs out of wedlock, when both were 23 years old.  Because they weren’t married, they gave their son up for adoption to Paul and Clara Jobs.  Later in life, Jobs hired a private detective to track down his birth parents.  He developed a close relationship with the daughter the couple eventually had after they were married, the novelist Mona Simpson.  And he grew closer to his birth mother.  But for reasons he never disclosed in public, he never talked to Jandali.

In an August 2011 interview with The Sun newspaper, Jandali said he too never called his son.  He said as a Syrian he was too proud to be the one to make the first call — he said he didn’t want his son to think he was interested in his money.  Jandali, who was divorced from Schieble, was also estranged from his daughter Simpson.

So, yes, families are strange and mysterious and everyone has their reasons.  Jobs himself acknowledged that one of the things he regretted most in his life was having abandoned his own daughter, whom he had out of wedlock when he was 23.  He didn’t reconcile with her until later in his life.

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a man whose psyche was formed, at least in part, by his inability, and later his unwillingness, to connect with his father, would make connection the central driving force of his career.  Jobs set off on a hero’s quest to find what was missing inside him, and in so doing fulfilled his destiny to change the world.

He changed it by enabling the rest of us to talk to our fathers and mothers and sons and daughters face to face, no matter where they are on the planet.  He developed tools that made a virtual connection as easy, or in his case, easier, than a real one.  He gave us the tools to do what he, up to his dying day, couldn’t.

Many years ago I was walking up Fifth Avenue with my son, on his first visit to New York.  We passed the iconic square glass cube that marks the entrance to the underground Apple Store, and he asked what it was.

“A Sukkah,” I said. “There’s so many Jews in New York, they have a permanent glass sukkah.”

“No, really,” he said.

I hadn’t thought about that little joke until this week, reading about Jobs just before the holiday of Sukkah.

What do we do on Sukkot?  We build huts. They are the stripped down, Jobsian version of a house—one room, three walls that are barely walls, a roof that is barely a roof.  When Jobs said that the secret to design is what you leave out, he might as well have been describing a sukkah.

God must have known His People are not especially handy, at least His menfolk. Sukkot are easy to build. They are not plumbed or wired.  Inside, there are no distractions. They are a primitive kind of technology, but a technology nonetheless — designed to accomplish a task. Like a Jobs product, sukkot do one thing, and they do it exceptionally well: they bring us together.

Within this simple structure, we gather with friends and family to eat, pray, sing and talk.  That’s it. 

Yes, they also remind us of our foundational story as a People: that we wandered in the desert for 40 years.  And they serve as useful metaphors for any number of sermons: that life is fragile and fleeting (ask Steve Jobs) and that our only true shelter is God. 

But all that is on the level of identity and intellect.  The social function of the sukkah needs no explanation: it forces us to come together.  There are no additional walls inside a sukkah, no other rooms to escape to, no work stations, no outlets.  It is the annual reminder that you can’t build real community remotely.  “Virtual community” is an oxymoron. We want our iPhones and iPads—and we should, they are useful, remarkable machines. 

But we crave, we need, real contact.  I believe Steve Jobs craved it so much he devoted his whole life to developing substitutes. Sukkot is the real thing.