11 observations on life and living

1. We just want someone to listen to us.

My mother broke her hip, she’s in rehab, she wants to get out but, imprisoned, she needs someone to listen to her story. I’m providing that service.

That’s what we all want. Someone we don’t have to be our best self with. Someone we can reveal our inadequacies and frustrations to. Someone who will patiently listen and won’t give us unwanted advice. We usually don’t want any advice, we just want to be heard. A great listener possesses the key to friendship. Someone who listens will have more friends than any world-beater. People are complicated and flawed. Don’t berate them for opening up, embrace them.

2. Don’t do all the talking.

That doesn’t mean in one or another conversation you can’t dominate, but if you can’t ask how the other person is doing, if you can’t interact in a way that evidences you’re listening, you may think you’re winning, but you’re not. Life is about giving. If you’re always taking, it’s going to get very lonely.

3. Business books are b.s.

Because even if the advice is good, it’s not particularized to you. I’m not saying you can’t gain insight, but the people you’re reading about don’t resemble you, and too often the writers are doing it to make money and burnish their careers as opposed to genuinely trying to help you. Sure, it’s great to identify with what a writer says, but don’t overinvest; you’ve got to find your own path.

4. You can’t tell people what to do.

They’ve got to find out for themselves. When you’re listening to them, it’s about being heard, as stated above; it’s not about you dropping pearls of wisdom that they can follow. Furthermore, if you do manage to help them out once, they’re still gonna be flummoxed soon. Life is about experience. It’s a long ride we’ve all got to take. You’ve got to find your own way. It’s great if you can find a mentor, but I’ve never encountered one. But the main point is people don’t really want advice, no matter how much they say they do. Tell them the truth and you’ll be in trouble — they’ll start explaining why you’re wrong. It’s human nature.

5. Don’t evidence weakness.

I know this sounds contradictory, but my main point is don’t always be the person who got the raw deal, who the world is against. Life is tough for everybody. Sure, complain. But be joyful sometimes, too. Otherwise, everybody’s gonna run from you.

6. Life is not always up. 

If you haven’t experienced downs, you haven’t taken any risk or you’re so rich you’ve never engaged. Life is about losses even more than victories. Lick your wounds, but then lift yourself back up, however slowly, and get back in the game. Learn from what happened, but do your best not to be burdened by it.

7. Everybody’s got an interior life.

When they reveal it to you, you bond. Most people don’t feel safe enough to tell you their truth. But when they do, it’s a magic moment for both of you, the teller feels exhilarated and alive, finally able to relax in his skin, and the listener starts to tingle, stunned that the teller trusts him that much.

8. It’s not what you own, but who you are.

But you don’t realize this until you’re close to 60. The young kids have little wisdom and all the strength and synapses. The old people have all the wisdom, but failing bodies. So you’ve got young people doing stupid things, not realizing how long life truly is, and you’ve got old people driving around in the sports cars they can finally afford. It would be better if the young people had wisdom and Ferraris, that they could truly enjoy, when they’re truly meaningful, and the oldsters could drive Priuses and Fusions yet have no aches and pains.

9. No one remembers history. 

They’re doomed to repeat it. It’s the way of the world, the same way people repeat the same relationship until they finally wake up and realize their choices are bad, what they think they want is actually no good for them.

10. Trustworthiness is more important than excitement.

11. We want people we can count on. 

Who will take us to the hospital. Who will go out of their way to help us just because they’re our friend. We all know these special people, who live to serve, despite being neither rich nor famous, they’re our society’s secret savers. If you don’t have one of these people in your life, someone not related to you, start looking, now. And once again, you get them by giving more than taking.

Bob Lefsetz is the author of the e-mail newsletter The Lefsetz Letter, where this column originally appeared.

The Anti-Semitic Blame Game

Is anti-Semitism on the rise since Sept. 11? Answers vary, depending on whom you ask.

"We haven’t seen a resurgence of anti-Semitism since the Sept. 11 attacks," observed Amy Levy, a spokeswoman for the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Southwest Region, which encompasses most of Southern California. Others, such as Rabbi Meyer May, executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance, have reported increased verbal assaults.

"Usually I get one catcall every three months, but now it’s up to about five a week," May said. Passersby scream epithets or curses as they pass May walking to shul for Shabbat services. Some comments are subtler, more ignorant than intentionally anti-Semitic, but still disturbing, especially in light of recent events.

Peri Levin, an adult education teacher in Santa Monica, recounts how her mother’s Guatemalan caretaker shocked her when she said during a discussion of the Sept. 11 attacks: "I’ll tell you what the problem is. It’s Israel. They have all the oil. That’s why the Arabs are angry." The caretaker, whom Levin characterized as "very intelligent," said she’d heard on various Spanish language broadcasts that the Jews all got out of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon before the Sept. 11 attacks and were probably responsible for the attacks. Levin said she had never heard anyone speak like this before. And it made her very uncomfortable.

Ella Zarky, a colleague of Levin’s, said one of her students was surprised to find out Zarky was Jewish when the instructor was absent on Rosh Hashana. "How can you be Jewish? You’re good; Jews are bad," the student said. Zarky, who grew up in a small Wisconsin town and experienced anti-Semitism as a child, worries about the implications of such comments. "I just think the Jews are going to be blamed, no matter how much good we do."

Outside of Southern California, anti-Semitism has taken a decidedly more violent and disturbing turn. In Tacoma, Wash., on Sept. 22, arsonists apparently attempted to blow up a synagogue by lighting a fire-starting log under a main gas line. The shul, Temple Beth El, had earlier experienced two post-Sept. 11 incidents: a bomb threat and vandalism when "Zionism + U.S. = 5,000 dead" was spray-painted in the synagogue’s parking lot.

At UC Berkeley, during a Simchat Torah celebration on Oct. 9, a 23-year-old celebrant from San Francisco was punched in the eye after confronting three men who were reportedly goose-stepping and executing "Heil Hitler" salutes. While the Berkeley police have not yet classified the incident as a hate crime (since they maintain that the victim put up his hands first), Adam Weisberg, executive director of the Berkeley Hillel, has no question in his mind. "If a hate crime is defined as someone doing violence to someone else because of race, creed or color, that’s what this was," Weisberg told The Jewish Journal.

Over the past year, as violence has increased in Israel, anti-Semitism has also been on the rise on the Berkeley campus, Weisberg said. But in the wake of Sept. 11 attacks, the discomfort of some Jewish students has increased measurably, and some have expressed fears for their safety if they speak out or become more visible. Student Jereme Albin, a senior from Woodland Hills, sent an e-mail to the Wiesenthal Center outlining some disturbing signs and incidents that occurred after Sept. 11. Among them: a poster board put up in Sproul Plaza, the campus’ main gathering spot, on which people scrawled such phrases as "It’s the Jews, stupid," and a campus vigil that turned into what Albin characterized as an "America-Israel-bashing event."

"Speaker after speaker would say that the U.S. oppresses people around the world, and that it is our support for Israel that offends the world. When a student got up on stage and said that America should find who is responsible for this and punish them, he was booed off the stage."

In a conversation with The Journal, Albin said that the vocal anti-American, anti-Zionist, anti-Israel sentiments at UC Berkeley have become unnerving. "You start to feel it’s anti-Semitic, even if it’s not stated. I grew up in Los Angeles, where half the people I knew were Jewish. I’ve never seen anything like this." Weisberg noted: "In the wake of the terrible events of Sept. 11, there’s been a great deal of focus and attention on not scapegoating Arabs or Muslims in this community. There has been little or no public recognition on the part of organizers of the anti-war movement that it’s equally important not to blame the Jews and Israel."

A campus rally of Jewish student groups on Oct. 18 designed to demonstrate solidarity and abhorrence of hate crimes drew about 100 participants to UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. Despite the presence of a pro-Palestinian group called Students for Justice in Palestine, the rally concluded without incident, Albin said.