My beloved father David was a towering intellect and a great mensch, a demanding teacher and a loving father.
He skipped four grades on the way to graduating college at 18 years old.
He loved detective stories and puzzles, and became an adept of decryption after reading Poe’s “The Gold Bug,” in which deciphering a secret message plays a central role in the plot. Already as a teenager, he followed US Army Signal Corps mail-order courses in cryptanalysis, and when drafted in 1943, he joined the cryptanalysis team deciphering Japanese messages.
He was omnivorous in his intellectual pursuits: finishing at the top of the NY State Regents exams in topics as varied as Math, Latin, and History. He used to read the dictionary on the toilet, and developed a prodigious vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation.
He loved to argue, loved when people argued with him, and for us children, he would always listen to our arguments, and if we could convince him, change his mind about some decision he had made about our lives.
But it was so hard to argue with someone who constantly corrected you:
the adjective may be frē′kwənt, but the verb is “to frəquənt′,”
and “if I were you…” is subjunctive contrary to fact, but “if I was on time to today’s funeral, it may have been unwōnted, but not accidental…”
He loved Ping pong and squash, both of which he played with talent, intelligence, and ferocious competitiveness. In addition to being the runner-up for the B-class West Coast championship while still at Berkeley, he prided himself on playing and occasionally the beating the top four players on Harvard’s championship team, not because he was better, but because he played smarter. For him, squash was a physical chess match. I basically had to wait till he got older and slower before I could beat him; and he never let me win.
In fact his passion for squash taught me something profound about his love of my mother, Sonia. I remember well one time he and I were watching the national squash championships at the Hemenway gym at Harvard. We had perfect seats in the midst of overflowing stands. The match was spectacular: two players, grand masters, who took ten, fifteen shots to set up a winner, and who had fought to a two-two tie. At the beginning of the rubber match, my father looked at his watch and announced, “I have to go.” “What?” I said, looking at him as if he had lost his mind. (Teenagers are so good at controlling their tone of voice.) “Your mom wants me home. We have a dinner date tonight.” And with that he left. Only now, decades later, do I really understand that choice, that when the passions of life stack up against each other, what makes your true love happy tops any vicarious pleasure.
Sonia this love of his life, is a tale which has inspired not just us, his children, but to hear from their friends and even our friends, it has inspired many with the real possibility of fairy tales coming true, from true love at (almost) first sight to sixty-nine years of happily ever after. One reason they lived so happily together was their patience with each others’ foibles. We used to joke that if they got vanity plates, my mother’s would say IMLOST, and my father’s would say, IMLATE.
He was devoid of vanity. He used to say he never read reviews, and I suspect it was not because he was averse to criticism (which he welcomed), but because he was averse to bathing in praise. When a squash partner broke his nose, his cousin, the doctor, told him he didn’t need to do anything about it and he went through life with a banged up nose. My mother was convinced that his cousin did it out of malice, my father just shrugged his shoulders. Not his concern. (My mother didn’t love him any less for his busted nose.)
His career as an academic was, in some sense, a tribute to his father’s successful career as a businessman. From his earliest years and his first article on the Catholic minority of the town of Roubaix-Tourcoing to his last book on Dynasties, he focused on entrepreneurship, the personal and familial qualities that drove people to take the creative risks necessary, to the social and political processes that made it possible for those people to succeed.
Despite his remorseless positivism – time, he insisted was “objective” and Westerners measured it more accurately than anyone else (a major sore spot between him and me) – he had an instinctive knack for psychological insights that informed much of his attention to both religious and cultural dimensions of economic behavior, something often lacking among his colleagues in his field too often stoked up on the steroids of quantitative analysis.
And he practiced what he taught: When he became the head of Social Studies at Harvard, he took exceptionally good care of his teaching fellows who, despite the strong “leftist” leanings of the organizers of that program, had previously been systematically exploited as part of the intellectual proletariat. He made sure they had good salaries and a joint appointment in a real department, where they were on a tenure track. I remember him saying, “people who are paid well and encouraged do better work.”
And his students were devoted to him. When he lay in the hospital for months, suffering from burns due to a car accident, students who came to visit him from NY would bring his favorites Hymie’s special sandwich from the Stage Delicatessen.
He was intellectually fearless, indifferent to fads and to what increasingly became the dogma of political correctness, especially the assault on Western exceptionalism, or Eurocentrism, which he embraced unapologetically. We used to joke that his course on economic development, which eventually produced his Wealth and Poverty of Nations was really entitled “the West and the Rest.”
One of the most important lessons he taught me, largely by example, was to speak one’s mind, whatever the consequences.
I remember once a debate at the Fairbanks center at Harvard between him and Ken Pomeranz, a China scholar who argued the PC position that China and the West were neck and neck in economic development till 1800, at which point the West, for aleatory reasons (that’s a DSL latinate word for pure chance), took the lead – the exact opposite of my father’s position that, already by 1500, the West was the dynamo and China the prime divider dinosaur. (Some of us would say the dynamic already started in the 11th century.)
Afterwards, all the white grad students went running to Pomeranz for more post-colonial, self-deprecating reinforcement, while all the Chinese graduate students clustered around my father to find out what China did wrong and how what they needed to learn from the West: a lesson in the difference between genuine self-criticism and what Pascale Bruckner calls “the tyranny of penitence.”
And then, of course, there’s the whole issue of Jewish identity. At a time when many Jewish professors in academia followed the motto which Sydney Morgenbesser once jokingly described as Lionel Trilling’s: “incognito ergo sum”, David was openly and unapologetically Jewish and Zionist, something many Jewish academics and intellectuals, including Leon Weiseltier and Alan Dershowitz, have commented to us, had a profound impact on their own careers.
Weiseltier wrote: “The wonderful thing about David was that he was utterly devoid of any anxiety about his identity. He was completely relaxed in his Jewishness; it always felt like a perfect fit. And this, as I say, is rare.”
And yet, ironically, when he wrote The Wealth and Poverty of Nations he left out Israel even though no case better illustrates the book’s politically incorrect thesis that culture counts and not all cultures are equal when it comes to productivity and the freedoms and rights they give their commoners. In 1900, the area the British called Palestine was at the bottom of the third world, a land of few natural resources and fewer than a million, largely poor, people (the rich landowners lived in Cairo, Alexandria, Damascus, Instanbul); in 2000, after a century of Jewish immigration and a half-century of Jewish sovereignty, it was home to almost eight million people, and despite the constant insecurity of war and the economic blockade of its neighbors, Israel was one of the leading first-world countries, especially in the kind of technological innovation that so fascinated my father.
And yet, when it came to defending Israel, to working for peace (no matter how quixotic the dream proved to be, alas), he was tireless. He was the President of American Professors for Peace in the Middle East, and in the heady days after 1967, he and his colleagues, Marty Peretz and Henry Rosovsky went on trips to the Middle East to meet with Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian leaders in the hopes of a breakthrough.
While in Egypt, by the way, he discovered his first book, Banker’s and Pashas, translated without permission, into Arabic. Why? Because it documented the way the Egyptians were victims of English and French banking imperialism. (The same book was only very belatedly translated into French, because it showed their bankers behaving much worse than the British ones. Ah, the vanities of translation politics.)
My father’s definition of nachas summed up much of his thought and spirit: He defined it as “taking pleasure in another’s success.” When I offer that up as the definition, many object that it only means pleasure in the success of a child or a pupil, implying that anything more ecumenical is an idealistic gloss inappropriate to the Yiddish term. But for my dad, it was the feeling you had when someone else, anyone else, had a well-deserved success.
And for him it was a basic element in the ability of a culture to thrive economically. I remember the pleasure he felt when he walked into a successful business venture, whether a teaming market area, a full restaurant, a prospering neighborhood… he understood that the success of others was an integral part of everyone’s ability to succeed.
Some of my fondest childhood memories were sitting beside him in shul during Torah reading, where he read the text like a historian and we discussed it during the pauses in the reading.
While working on his book on time, he commented to me that when Jethro said to Moses that by hearing all the cases rather than delegating, he not only exhausted himself but wasted the time of his people, it was the first time in history that a text showed concern for the commoner’s time.
He showed both his heretical bent of mind and his psychological acuity, when he suggested that what got Moses banned from the promised land was making the serpent of brass, which was a regression to Egyptian idol worship. This was a sin so great the text could not openly acknowledge it (so instead we are told, God told him to do it). [Strong parallels here with the Satanic Verses]. Instead, he argued, the text displaced the cause of his banishment from the Promised land to another event in the same reading: hitting the rock when he was told to speak to it.
(I don’t agree with this interpretation – there are still more interesting interpretations of why hitting the rock got him banned that have less to do with Moses than with the independence of the people – that is, Moses had to give up the pleasure of going into the land himself, and instead draw nachas from knowing his people would go in. But that’s a different story.)
And, while working on Wealth and Poverty, whose motto might be “choose life,” he commented that the promise to Abraham, “those who bless you will be blessed, those who curse you will be cursed,” could sum up the economic history of the world: those who cursed the Jews, like the Spanish in the 16th century or the Arabs in the 20th, had failed economies despite the huge wealth that passed through their societies, while those who blessed the Jews, like the Dutch in the 17th century or the US in the 20th century, had immensely successful economies.
William Blake, in his introduction to the Proverbs of Hell noted that “as the sayings used in a nation, mark its character, so the Proverbs of Hell, shew the nature in Infernal wisdom better than any description of buildings or garments,” so do my father’s sayings best illustrate his character.
Proverbs of DSL
Some people work to live, others live to work.
You don’t make yourself look bigger by making others look smaller.
Rejoice in the well-deserved success of others.
Sei a mensch.
Check your exam answers as if you were grading someone else’s work.
In the end, he was Freud’s perfect example of a healthy person: he worked, he loved, and (something Freud forgot), he played. If a person lives on after death in the way he or she inspired people to become the best they could be, father David and my mother Sonia will live long and well, from generation to generation. They are sorely missed by us all.
May their memories be a blessing to all those who knew them, and to all those who knew those who knew them.